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Hypercompetitive Youth Sports: Explained by Gender Differences?

Lacrosse playersOne of the major challenges I faced when my kids began playing sports was how to work with all the men*.  Youth sports back then were pretty much a No Mom's Land.  Nearly all the coaches were men; those who ran the youth sports programs were also, by and large, men.   Fast-forward twenty three years later and the reality is that not much has changed.  Most of the coaches are still men. Ditto for clubs, leagues and youth sports organizations at the national level (US Lacrosse being a notable exception).

In my 2006 book, Home Team Advantage, I argued that women and mothers needed to take a more active role as both coaches and administrators, and offered advice on how they could do that.  Left on the cutting room floor in the book editing process was a section where I explained why men who dominate youth sports act the way do, knowledge which I thought - and continue to think - might help sports moms better deal with the men, whether as fathers, coaches, or administrators, and might also help fathers understand what motivates them so they could better control the hard-wired impulses that too often lead them to act in embarassing and hurtful ways.

Evolutionary biology and hormones

Over the years, and based on a lot of research, I have come to the conclusion that the way men act in the youth sports context can be at least partially explained by evolutionary biology and hormones. 

A story from my experience with a coach back in my sons' days in youth baseball is, I think, illustrative:

When my sons were twelve they were on the same baseball team. Practice started at 3:30 p.m., games at 4:30. My boys would race home from school, grab a snack, put on their uniforms and beg me to bring them to the field early so they could get in some extra fielding practice. We usually got to the field about half an hour before practice began and I would hit them grounders. Because Spencer was a catcher, Taylor enjoyed playing first base and Hunter liked shortstop or third. It worked out great. Eventually, their teammates would join them. It was a nice way to have a few minutes to loosen up, just hit the ball around and have fun.

This day, however, was different. I was having a fun time with my sons and within ten minutes the group had grown to six boys, all laughing and having fun. Two of the boys who joined us were my sons' school buddies who played for the team we would be playing in the championship game in an hour's time.

We were having a wonderful time until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the coach of the other team - a man I will call "Bob." Actually, I heard him first, as he told one of his two sons to hurry up; it was time to practice. As he approached, he demanded in a loud and insistent voice that we "get off the field" because he was "here to practice."

I took a few breaths. I had heard that Bob had been banned from coaching summer baseball the previous year after he was alleged to have verbally abused and pushed one of the players around, a player who was now on my sons' team. I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes until the official start of practice. After reminding Bob that practice hadn't started, I told him that we were early and wanted some extra time for fielding grounders. Bob said, "I don't care. We have a game and I am the coach. Are you a coach?" Bob proceeded to do everything short of physically moving me and my players off the field. He yelled at the two boys from his team who had joined our practice to "get the hell off the field." I called back to them that they could stay. Then I told Bob that the rest of his players were free to join us; we were happy to have them until practice started.

Bob continued to harass me, but I refused to budge, knowing that I was teaching my sons a valuable lesson in how to have fun and be inclusive. They also knew that the field wasn't reserved for practice until 3:30.

Understanding men

Was the way Bob acted acceptable? Absolutely not. Was it understandable? Yes. Why? Because just about everything Bob did he was to a large extent hard-wired to do:

  • Fighting for territory: From the beginning of time, men have been fighting other men for territory (now they feel they have to fight women for territory, too!). Because Bob viewed me and my players as encroaching on his territory (the baseball diamond), he engaged in aggressive behavior to reclaim his territory.
  • Fighting for a higher rank in the social hierarchy: When Bob asked me whether I was a coach he was trying to send me a message that he was entitled to the field because he had a higher place in the youth sports hierarchy (coach versus mere parent). 
  • Fighting for control. Bob clearly was a "my way or the highway" kind of guy. He was used to being the top dog. He viewed me as a threat to that control. Even though his players were only too happy to join our players in a bit of informal practice, Bob's barking of "orders" to his players to get off the field reflected his need to regain the upper hand. 
  • Fighting to enforce the rules. Bob clearly believed that I wasn't playing by the unwritten rule that coaches get to use baseball diamonds, mothers of players don't, and that the rules were more important than for everyone to have fun and engage in unstructured play.
  • Fighting for dominance. Bob's refusal to let his players take the field along with my sons seemed to reflect a belief that we were the enemy with whom his "warriors" were about to "do battle," and one doesn't fraternize with the enemy. He was determined to win the battle of wills with me as well.
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