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Parenting Male Athletes: Advice for Mothers

The solution to the problems your son is likely to face in sports is pobably not to keep him from playing, but to avoid reinforcing unhealthy gender stereotypes while providing him healthy ways through sports to channel aggressive impulses. If you are raising a boy, here are some good steps thrat I recommend you may want to take:

Encourage sports as outlet for aggression

Steven Rhoades argues in his book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, that "during the teenage years ... perhaps the most effective way to channel the aggressive tendencies of males is via participation in sports." If you have an aggressive, competitive son, encourage him to play a contact sport like football, ice hockey, wrestling or lacrosse "Channeling your young son's aggressive impulses into football and soccer may be a better choice - just in terms of his physical health - than almost any indoor recreational activity you can name," advises Dr. Sax. "The best way to raise your son to be a man who is caring and nurturing is let him first be a boy."

Eliminate the double standard in coaching

The "assumption that all male athletes benefit from a certain (male) coaching style is as ridiculous as the notion that all females respond better to a kinder, gentler, nicer coaching style," says Dr. Ellen Staurowsky, Associate Professor of Sports Studies at Ithaca College, former Director of Athletics at William Smith College and head coach of men's soccer at Daniel Webster College. "Different athletes respond in different ways depending on who they are, what their goals are, and what motivates them. And good coaches know how to tap into those differences and adjust accordingly."

Coaches of girls' teams generally provide lots of positive encouragement, avoid insulting players when they make mistakes, compliment them when they do well and try their best, are more inclined to de-emphasize winning and believe sports are all about having fun and making friends and about being nurturing.

Yet most coaches of boys' teams don't do the same thing. As a fourteen year old girl told a California newspaper, it is a myth that all boys "are 'macho' enough to handle criticism, whereas girls might ‘break down and cry.'  ... [B]oys only act macho because ... [w]e raise them to be ‘real men', to ‘suck it up' and not show emotion. It is such a shame that we do not let them live up to their potential for growing into sensitive, caring men" by reinforcing gender stereotypes in the way they are coached. 

Teach healthy masculinity

At the same time let your son know that he does not need to play sports, particularly aggressive, contact sports, in order to prove his masculinity and heterosexuality. He needs to know that he shouldn't let a sense of honor and duty to the team lead him to do harmful things to himself (like playing through pain, failing to report concussion signs or symptoms, or using performance-enhancing drugs, or participating in violent hazing rituals) in the name of the team.

As Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson note in their book, Raising Cain, "Very few boys or men are tall, handsome, athletic, successful with women, endlessly virile, and physically fearless. ...Boys suffer from a too-narrow definition of masculinity, and it is time to reexamine that message... We have to teach boys that there are many ways to become a man; that there are many ways to be brave, to be a good father, to be loving and strong and successful. We need to celebrate the natural creativity and risk taking of boys, their energy, and their boldness. We need to praise the artist and the entertainer, the missionary and the athlete, the soldier and the male nurse, the store owner and the round-the-world sailor, the teacher and the CEO. There are many ways for a boy to make a contribution in this life."

Because the competitive drive of a male athlete is more likely to be expressed in confrontational ways than a girl's, teach your son healthy ways to deal with physical and emotional pain, to respect his body, limit risk-taking and learn appropriate ways to resolve conflicts in a non-violent way. Teach your son that on-the-field aggression does not excuse off-the-field aggression.

As Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson recommend in their book, Raising Cain, "boys need to be encouraged to initiate friendships, maintain them, and experience the conflicts that arise in male friendships from different levels of athletic skill, from teasing, and from competition for the attention of girls. Too often boys lack both the resources and the will to resolve those conflicts and preserve friendships."

Break the code of silence

If your son violates no-drinking rules, don't condone such behavior by looking the other way based on a belief that because being on the team is important to his self-esteem, suspension from the team is too high a price to pay. (I recall hearing that a father of one of my son's teammates had told his son, who vomited at a school dance after drinking, to say that he had a stomach virus to avoid being suspended from the team). Whatever you do, don't promote alcohol abuse by your son by letting him and his friends drink at your home by rationalizing that it will keep him from drinking and driving.

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