Home » Successful Sports Parenting Channel » Hypercompetitive Youth Sports: Explained by Gender Differences?

Hypercompetitive Youth Sports: Explained by Gender Differences?

Reinforcing masculinity

Men tend to link sport expertise with masculinity and leadership with male superiority. By placing higher value on male qualities, sports create and reinforce a link between sports and masculinity. This is reflected in the under-representation of women in coaching and leadership positions in sport. In turn, such an attitude permits the notion that coaching male athletes is the exclusive domain of men, perpetuates the belief that the feminine in sport is secondary or should be non-existent, and automatically devalues the sport experience, achievement and self for participants who are female.

Indeed, as Newburger argues, "The values that are being reinforced in organized sports are not so much the traditional values of ‘sportsmanship' but the core values of a society that has made sports into a business: individual competitiveness; a façade of self-confidence; the demonstration of earnest effort; a provisional willingness to bear pain and injury for the greater good of the company, yet an apprehension that loyalty is pretty much a one-way street, not to be reciprocated if the company loses confidence in the value of the individual; indifference to those who lose out in competition; willingness to be aggressive and to injure others in the interests of one's team."

Studies show that men's team sports encourage boys to conform to masculine stereotypes and traits such as susceptibility to violence ("be tough", "kick ass"), a winning-at-all costs mentality, emotional inexpressivity ("suck it up"), and stoicism ("no pain, no gain"). Coaches, parents, and peers further legitimate violent athletic identities by affording increased status to individuals who use on-the-field aggression to achieve victory.

A male's drive to test an opponent's response to physical aggression all too often results in unacceptable behavior. One egregious example occurred recently when a group of hockey coaches in Michigan had a group of 20 teenagers stand in a circle at center ice, and then have two players stand in the middle of the circle, shed their helmets and gloves and engage in a fistfight. When the fight was over (in other words, when one of the players "won"), the coaches would motion two more players to step forward, drop their gloves and square off.

Applying the brakes

Because exposure to competition is integral to a child's development; and to deny competitive spirit and innate desire to win is to deny being human, there is no point in suppressing the innate competitiveness of men. But it definitely needs to be reigned a bit (well, perhaps much more than a bit). While a man's gender is a big part of who he is, and it is clear that human nature is gendered to the core, the secret is to work with a man's nature, work with a man's innate gender-based propensities, rather than trying to reshape them according to the dictates of late-twentieth-century political correctness.

As Dr. Leonard Sax argues in his recent book, Why Gender Matters, "The solution to taming a [man]'s aggressive drive is NOT to squelch the drive every time it appears. ... Instead you want to transform the [man]'s aggressive drive. Sublimate it into something constructive."

In trying to reign in the male ego and competitive drive, women have to be careful, though, to avoid attacking men's masculinity. The fact is that guys need to outperform other guys, or at least keep up with them. Women need to understand that men tend to filter their worth through their performance.

Experts, such as Celia Brackenridge, observe that adherence to the process of man-making through sport, or what she calls the "cultural masculinity rite" is "still one of the most pervasive features of contemporary western culture. Sport has also been described as one of the few areas where ‘men can still be men' and where women are considered intruders. There are accounts of the hyper-masculine heterosexual culture of sport, with sexually intense initiation rituals [hazing] and demeaning attitudes towards women. In other words, gender culture contributes to the generation and maintenance of the sexual stereotypes that underpin harassment."

What women need to keep men from doing, then, is reinforcing negative gender stereotypes in the way youth sports are organized and run. A man's over-competitive, kill-or-be-killed, anti-tenderness and caring characteristics that are part and parcel of the traditional masculine gender role should have little or no place in our children's lives. Men's competitive nature needs to be balanced with a woman's natural cooperativeness, empathy, and holistic approach to parenting.

 * For convenience, I often write, "men are like this and women are like that." lest offense be taken, I am only implying that, on average or statistically, "most men/women tend to be like this or that."  


Posted February  23, 2012 

Now Available in KINDLE