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Hypercompetitive Youth Sports: Explained by Gender Differences?

Men need sports

My experience with men like Bob, which has been largely confirmed by what experts in the field of evolutionary biology and psychology say about men and sports, suggests the following:

First, men don't just like sports (and, in that respect, they aren't much different than a lot of women), they need sports. They get  involved in youth sports, as fathers, coaches, and administrators, because their involvement fills two critical needs: a social need (to be with other men and find out where they stand in the social hierarchy) and a need for competition.

The need for competition, in my view, is a primary explanation for the focus of youth sports on winning and losing: men really believe that there isn't any point in playing sports if not to declare winners and losers.

Men hate to be dominated. In general, men are more willing than women to elbow others aside to get ahead. As a male friend Jake, used to say, men want to "bury all of the other kids so theirs are left standing; even if they end up on the court alone." Among boys, toughness, a refusal to back down and athletic ability take one to the top of male hierarchies. Indeed, studies show that it is toughness and athleticism, not brains, that best predict social rank among fifteen-year-old boys.

Second, youth sports provide men an opportunity to be in control. Men are attracted to the rules and the highly organized way most youth sports programs are now run (of course, men are the reason youth sports are as highly organized and rules-based as they are in the first place!). Youth sports gives men yet another arena in which they can run the show and be in control.

Third, because men tend to believe that the natural social order is hierarchical and view the world in comparative terms, the youth sports arena allows men to know where they and their sons/daughters/teams stand in relationship to others.

Fourth, sports are men's battlefield, their turf if you will. As one journalist recently observed, youth sports is now run by a "generation of parents who did not go to war [living in] an era in which sports and their forums become the temples and the battlefields, athletes our gods and warriors."

The Big T

What explains the hypercompetitiveness of some men involved in youth sports, whether it is as a coach, specatator or parent?

Perhaps, say experts, it is the hormone testosterone and a desire to compete rooted in the ancient past.

According to 1999 study by a psychologist from the University of Utah, testosterone levels in men watching sports go up and down with the score, increasing 20% in fans of winning teams and decreasing 20% in fans of losing teams - a phenomenon known as "basking in reflected glory." This goes a long way to explaining why many men love to watch sports so much: it gives them a kind of high.

Testosterone magnifies the positive effect of winning and the negative effect of losing. Evolutionary biologists believe these hormonal differences are explained by natural selection. Since a boost in testosterone creates a feeling of euphoria and exhilaration, men who compete and win, even men who are merely coaches or spectators, have an incentive to compete that women, whose testosterone levels (yes, women have testosterone, too!) don't go up or down when their teams win or lose, ordinarily don't share.

It was the best of times ...

On the plus side, youth sports bring out the best in men.

Men are generally adept at teaching sportsmanship because sportsmanship is a valuable aspect of the male character. This is because, as Eli Newberger points out in his book, The Men They Will Become, sportsmanship embodies "civility or courteousness, respect for both the rules and for the welfare of everyone playing the game, self-control when something frustrating has occurred, a capacity to win without overvaluing the victory, and to lose without taking it overly to heart, and a sense of proportion that focuses much of the time on the sheer pleasure of the game." The development of these values begins in the first years of a boy's life.

A father's physical play with his children helps them develop self-control; that when the play is over, they have to learn to "settle down." While studies show that fathers do more roughhousing with pre-school boys, the results of such play are beneficial: children rated as popular by their teachers are most likely to have parents who have engaged in regular physical play with them. Children with involved fathers fare better in school, have fewer behavioral problems, and do better in wide range of social indicators.

... It was the worst of times

Unfortunately, men's evolutionary history, hormones and view of the world also cause problems in the youth sports context.

To begin with, men can have tunnel vision, viewing everything through a competitive lens. As my old high school English teacher and long-time Boston Globe sportswriter, Tony Chamberlain, recently wrote, "Fathers of young children often get so intense about their children acquiring sports skills of dubious future value that they often lose the big picture. ... Whether it's throwing a baseball, stopping a pond hockey puck, taking a jump shot, or making a slalom turn through the gates, fathers can't resist going at it much too early." (Andre Agassi's father is a classic example: when his son was an infant, he made a makeshift mobile of tennis balls and hung it over his crib!).

Even Tony fell victim to the male propensity to be so intense about teaching their children about sports that they go overboard, admitting that, in teaching his son fishing and sailing, he was a "little obnoxious," to the point where he would drill his son about things that he would most likely have picked up "naturally when they go fishing a few times." As Tony wryly observed, "[L]eave it to a dad to turn everything fun into a drill."

Instead of merely being supportive and empathizing with a child who is down because she played poorly, let in the winning goal, or went 0 for 4 at the plate, men tend to want to problem solve, giving advice or critiquing the child's athletic performance, which is often exactly the wrong approach.

Because many men tend to view sports more as an end in itself (winning) rather than as a means to a larger end (skill building, teaching larger life lessons about teamwork, cooperation), fathers are more prone to forgetting that sports shouldn't really be about developing kids who win in sports - they are about developing kids who win in life (of course, men - and a not insubstantial percentage of women - will say the two are the same, but I think they are different).

Men also view their child's "failure" in sports through a different lens.   "I think a lot of fathers are threatened that if their sons aren't doing well, it's somehow a poor reflection on them. They'll say, ‘Don't be a wimp.' ‘Hit the ball.' Or - and I've heard fathers say this many times at baseball games - ‘You throw like a girl.' And that is the most shaming thing that a boy can be told," says Harvard's Dr. Roberto Olivardia, coauthor of The Adonis Complex.

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