"GO GET 'EM, SPORT!": The Importance (and Danger) of Sports in the Lives of Boys

One of my all-time favorite movie scenes is from the original Bad News Bears, when toward the end of the film, the pitching ace of the dreaded and athletically superior Yankee squad is faced with a two-out, bases loaded situation in the late innings of the championship game against the Bears. Besides being the ace of the pitching staff, the boy on the mound is also the son of the coach, a win-at-all-cost "mentor". After an intense conflict between father and son on the mound (one in which dad actually slaps his son across the face for throwing the previous pitch at the batter's head), the next pitch ends up being hit right back to the pitcher, who, in ordinary circumstances, would effortlessly toss the ball to first and end the inning. In this case, though, the boy takes the ball, glares right at his father, and holds it as the Bear runners race along the base paths, scoring one run after another. The boy holds on for dear life as his Yankee teammates desperately and unsuccessfully try to pry the ball loose from their teammate. The bases are cleared, and the score becomes tied. As the dust settles after this hectic few minutes, the pitcher walks off of the mound and up to his disbelieving father. He then drops the ball calmly at his father's feet without saying a word but communicating a lot: "You have lost your way with all of this, and I'm not going to be a part of it anymore". The boy then walks toward the parking lot with his mother's supportive arm around his shoulders.

In only two years, I have also seen firsthand the good and not-so-good side of sports in the lives of boys. My son is almost seven and began "competitive" sports a couple of years ago. In those two short years, I have seen parents sternly challenge a T-Ball coach on not teaching more of the baseball fundamentals to the boys, watched another coach chastise a player for making the same mistake twice, and listened to parents criticize their sons for not "paying attention" enough during the game. Of course, there are many examples of coaches and parents behaving appropriately, encouraging their boys to focus on having fun, learning as they go, and getting a little dirty. It's the not-so-good examples that worry me.

Sports are a double-edged sword for boys. On the one hand, they can teach them about the importance of fair competition, humility, and respect. Sports can build confidence, connect boys to each other through action, and help them express emotions that they too often are not allowed to express in regular, daily life. In fact, a huge benefit of playing sports is that it affords boys the opportunity to show affection in a socially sanctioned way. It goes without saying that playing sports are probably the best way for boys (and girls) to get the physical exercise they require (and for many, sadly lack).

On the other hand, sports can be dangerous (and not just physically). We all know about the intense pressure that some boys feel when it comes to athletics. Sports can produce significant shaming experiences for boys, from making mistakes for all observers to judge, to just not being "good enough" on a given day. Sports can also create "compulsive competitiveness" in boys, where winning is the "be all and end all". Interestingly, when we examine the potential emotional dangers of sports in boys' lives, the key ingredients seem to be misguided parents, coaches, and a media that send confusing messages to boys about how to go about winning, losing, and conducting oneself in both contexts.

People forget that sport is play, and simply put, when sport stops being play, it tends to have less emotional benefit. When sports are given the proper perspective, they may help boys master skills, develop a better sense of self-worth, and stay emotionally and physically connected to their peers. But what exactly does the research tell us about the specific benefits of participation in sports for boys, and what can we do to help our own and other parents' boys reap such benefits?

First, we know that sports help boys express themselves in a variety of ways. This is especially important for boys, who are not given as much opportunity as girls to display vulnerable emotions (like fear, sadness) in society without being shamed, particularly as they age. Sports, then, give boys an emotional outlet. Feelings of failure, shame, sadness, and the understanding of one's limitations get played out with sports. I can vividly recall moments of expressed sadness and loss when losing important playoff soccer matches in high school, when teammates would openly cry in front of one another after a heartbreaking loss. The best thing about this experience was that it was okay to do so. No shame. You would be hard pressed to identify many other situations in which this would be comfortable or even allowed for guys.

Another powerful example of sports as emotional outlet can be seen in Hall of Fame basketball legend Larry Bird, who lost his father to suicide. He reports that he worked out his grief at the gym, shooting hoops for hours upon hours. Without some form of athletic outlet, Mr. Bird expressed that he may not have grieved as effectively as he did. Thus, by providing opportunities for boys to experience and express a range of emotions, sports can promote boys' emotional development and, in Mr. Bird's case, even cope with major life stressors.

Second, sports can be a powerful connective process for boys. They give boys shared emotional and physical experiences, and we know how important the concept of action is in promoting closeness for boys. Remember, boys tend to connect more comfortably and effectively shoulder-to-shoulder, while focusing their efforts on a common goal or activity. Sports also give boys the chance to show physical affection toward one another, something that continues to be frowned upon in today's culture. A celebratory embrace, pat on the back, or arm around the shoulder allows boys to communicate, "I'm really proud of you" without having to actually say it.

Third, research indicates that sports give boys (and girls) a sense of mastery, which can in turn elevate how they feel about themselves. This can be really important for boys who are, for example, struggling academically but are able to demonstrate competence in some athletic activity. Sports and the resulting sense of mastery may therefore serve as an important buffer against the development of behavioral and emotional difficulties in boys. In fact, even for those boys who are not the star players and who may spend most of their time on the bench, they may generate a sense of pride through the accomplishments of his team.

Fourth, sports teach resiliency. Coping with failure, shame, and letting others down are key aspects of sports (and of life), and they help boys examine their relative talents and skill sets. They force boys to compare their skill levels to others and how to deal with the experience of not measuring up. The most powerful life lessons for boys are embedded within sport and competition, as long as parents and coaches are able to keep proper perspective and teach boys, as they would in any other area of life, what those lessons are and why they are important.

However, the scene from the Bad News Bears shows us one of many ways in which sports can go wrong. Countless boys have emotionally suffered because of athletics. The amount of teasing and bullying that takes place during gym class or competitive sporting events, especially toward those boys who are not athletically gifted or who do not have much of an interest in sports, is significant. Harmful messages from parents, coaches, and the media can result in unpleasant and even damaging experiences for boys. Coaches and parents are teachers, and when the lessons are misguided, sports can become harmful.

When coaches or parents humiliate, push boys beyond their natural skill level, praise winning versus effort, or put down the abilities of the their or the other team, they can create shame, a hardening of oneself, and an over focus on winning. If a boy is taught to put winning over fair play, that ridiculing performance is okay, and that blaming others for losing is acceptable, then sports have lost their value. In fact, one of the key reasons boys stop participating in sports is due to a coach and/or parent sending unhealthy messages about the process and, specifically, the boy's abilities (or lack thereof). When boys' shame comes from the harshness or non-constructive criticism of a coach or parent, those boys tend to understandably avoid situations that will elicit such responses. The sad end result is a boy who drifts away from athletics without having had the chance to benefit from them.

On the other hand, the coach or parent who cheers on boys of all skill levels, makes sure that all boys participate regardless of their ability, emphasizes teamwork and not individualism, openly relishes the fun of the game itself regardless of outcome, and models of sense of fair play will improve the chances that their player or son will benefit from playing. Whether you are a coach or a parent of a boy playing sports (or both), read Cal Ripken's Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way: Ensuring the Best Experience for Your Kids in Any Sport. It is a common sense guide for helping children of all ages maximize their enjoyment of sports, with chapters on helping children cope with adversity, learning the basics of sportsmanship, and how to be the best "sports parent" you can be.

Specifically, how can parents help their boys experience the powerful positive effects of sports without getting caught up in the stereotypical male dominated culture of sports? Here are some ideas:

If that Yankee pitcher's dad had followed these basic rules, things may not have turned out so badly in the end. The sad thing is that these kinds of scenes play out all across the country every day, with mostly well-meaning parents and coaches losing sight of the big picture: boys just want to play.