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Hypercompetitive Youth Sports: Explained by Gender Differences?

Who's on top?

Given their innate desire to form dominance hierarchies and need to know who is on top and who is on the bottom, men have imposed a pyramidal structure on organized youth sports which has led in the last twenty years to the proliferation of travel/select/elite teams/athletes at the top and the lowly recreational players/leagues at the bottom (never mind that there is no way to predict which children have true athletic talent until they reach puberty). The need of men to sort out winners and losers, and to abide by the rules by which adults play sports, has led them to impose a professional sports model on children at ever-earlier ages, replete with standings and playoffs. A man's emphasis on rules also furthers the male characteristics of power, dominance, and control.

Instead of working to ensure that teams are evenly balanced (as they would be if the kids picked sides playing touch football in their back yards) men often look for ways to ensure precisely the opposite, using player "drafts" and "auctions" to compete with each other and act out "general manager" fantasies: to prove to the other fathers that that they are better judges of "talent", that they can assemble a team that will not only be a winner but will steamroll to the championship at the end of the season.

The male ego

The male ego can get too tied up in kids' performance. As a result, men are more prone to saying and doing things that are abusive and losing sight of their role, whether it as parent or coach. All too often, a man's hormones get the better of him, like the father, who, after attending his twelve year old son's first hockey game (a one-goal loss), charged into the locker room, yanked his son up off the bench and yelled, "You f----g son of a bitch; if you'd hit that guy against the wall you wouldn't have lost the game."

All too often men seek psychic rewards through their children's athletic achievements. A man is more prone to feeling if his child, or the team he coaches, is good and successful then he is good and successful. As Tony Chamberlain observes, "Fathers are all about taking some vicarious joy in the trophies their kids earn, as if it proves that they, the tribal elders, have fulfilled their duties to pass along skills and values to the young braves."

Most men also seem to labor under the misconception that they were talented athletes. In one study 4,000 men were asked if they believed they could have been professional athletes if not for a bad coach, an injury or some other misfortune. Despite the fact that only one person in 10,000 is a top pro athlete, an astonishing 70% of the men surveyed somehow deluded themselves into believing they possessed the talent to make it to the pros.

While men's fundamentally competitive nature is never going to change, it is time to eliminate the adult male ego from youth sports, as Bob Bigelow, co-author of Just Let The Kids Play, suggests. 

A need for control

A man's natural desire to be in control also has negative consequences in the youth sports arena. Not only does a father's inclination to direct his child's play in early childhood end up carrying over into youth sports, but when men take to the stands as spectators, where they have to give up control - to the coach, to the officials, to the players - their lack of control sometimes causes them to act inappropriately towards those to whom they have ceded control.

Paradoxically, fathers who are rigid and controlling toward their adolescent sons end up raising sons who think of themselves as less masculine and possess more, not less, passive personalities. This is because, as Eli Newberger points out, "positive gender identity and social development are encouraged when a father allows his son to be reasonably self-assertive."

Because men are driven to establish dominance hierarchies, they tend to view sports talent as a way to climb the male pecking order and a gateway to male privilege and power. Reinforcing the patriarchy in this way is not a good thing.  Because men value rules and order so highly, believing that games are supposed to be played by the rules, and that modification of the rules makes a game something other than what it is recognized to be, men have resisted modification of the rules that apply in youth sports (such as the size of fields, height of baskets, size of teams), even if modification of the rules would allow for increased practice and playing opportunities for all players, regardless of skill level and experience, and provide a more enjoyable game for all, not just the skilled minority.

Turning a deaf ear

It is a fact that men, by and large, aren't as good at listening as women and in perceiving outsiders - those not in the club - as threats. All too often, the board of directors of a youth sports organization run by men (and remember: the vast majority are run by men) will side with coaches and brush aside criticism, especially if it comes from a woman. Just one case in point: a Ohio mother of 4th grader who was verbally abused by an assistant youth football coach e-mailed me after she requested that the coach be fired or at least suspended. She was told by board president that they could not remove a coach just because of one incident; she was told she could bring matter to the board but was warned that board would side with the coach; she knew others had seen the abuse but were afraid to speak up at the board meeting because of likely retaliation against their sons.

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