In the closet of the debate room at Amarillo (Texas) High School is a box of old trophies. This box came when the owner’s parents decided to downsize. The former student had no space either, so she brought the trophies to me in case they might be used again. And she was not the first to leave a box of trophies.
While trophies are meaningful in the moment, they often lose their appeal after high school. Nevertheless, teams are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars buying trophies for the tournaments they host.
That money comes from a sponsor or, more likely, out of the profit that comes from hosting the event. Tournament entry fees have risen along with the cost of trophies. With school funding increasingly sparse, teams need creative ways to award the winners of the tournaments they host without reducing their profit drastically or increasing their registration fees. The challenge, then, is to break out of the routine of awarding traditional trophies and find creative yet meaningful ways to recognize achievement.
First, look to the programs in your school for help. One school coordinated with the wood working class. They designed a plaque that they then made as part of a class project. The students were able to gain experience talking to a client, the speech coach, and then going through a real-life design process to create a final product that met the client’s needs. The same process can be implemented with other school programs that use technology like 3D printers or plasma cutters.
A school’s arts programs could be considered as well. Pottery classes can design small trinket bowls or pencil cups as part of a class assignment and create those as awards for a tournament. The process becomes a teaching tool as well as a way to save money for the program.
If you do not have these programs in your school, look to outside help. Amarillo High School has saved more than $900 a year since 2013, when my husband started making metal cutouts related to our tournament theme. They make good book ends when they are no longer meaningful as an award. He donates his time and the supplies to the team, and we list him as a sponsor.
Next, think outside of the box and find something unique. A colleague in our area repurposes blown glass vases for their sweepstakes and special awards. The coach scours thrift stores to find unique pieces. He pays a few dollars for each piece of glass and then has them mounted onto wood bases. This same coach has tried many different alternatives to trophies over the last few years including movie posters for a Hollywood-themed tournament, medieval helmets and resin statues.
One local tournament gave out stuffed animals as awards. Another local tournament hands out cowbells because they are the considered the “Beef Capital of the World.” At the awards assembly, the students get resounding rings of the bells as they are recognized on stage. This year, we will create awards out of old, scratched records that we purchased at local thrift stores. The options are limitless.
Another idea is to coordinate your awards with the time of year or season of your tournament. Nutcrackers, bought in bulk, make a great option for tournaments in December. There is even room for the addition of a brass plate with the tournament specifics. Even for a large tournament, these brass plates cost about $100. Other tournaments have tried items like painted Day of the Dead skulls or pumpkins.
If you have a local college or university, explore partnering with them to give college-themed items as awards, like T-shirts, water bottles, stop watches/timers, bumper stickers. Additionally, college programs may use this as a way to recruit, which allows for a partnership that extends past the tournament. Our local university not only provides judges, but has also given scholarships to the champions in each event.
For those who want something simple, consider handing out gift cards for coffee or make a donation to a non-profit group and giving the students a certificate. Another option is to refund the entry fee to the school for each champion in an event.
Finally, if you have a bunch of old trophies lying around, host a Reduce, Reuse, Recycle themed tournament. Clean up the trophies, remove the old brass plates and add new ones with your specific tournament information. Instead, you could leave the original plates and add the new one so that the students know what the trophy was awarded for previously.
If you think outside of the norm, you can create alternatives to the traditional trophy. Those who excel at your tournament will receive awards that are more unique, meaningful and fun, and you can cut expenses at the same time.
Mellessa Denny of Amarillo (Texas) High School has coached high school speech and debate for 21 years, with students participating on the local, state and national levels. She is the past president of the Texas Speech Communication Association, and in 2018 was selected as TSCA Secondary Teacher of the Year. She also received the 2018-19 NFHS Section 6 Outstanding Educator Award.