Boys face intense pressures to be exceptional at sports. Youth sports can be an opportunity for them to bond with their fathers and learn teamwork, but also an opportunity for the poorly coordinated and athletically disinclined to experience an early taste of social alienation. Youth sports is often the first time boys are expected to prove their masculinity, and defend it.
“Sports can be a double-edged sword,” Michela Musto, a sociologist and postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University who studies youth sports, told Fatherly. “On one hand, because these are very masculine spaces, this allows boys and men to display certain types of emotions or interact in ways they can’t usually do without their masculinity being called into question.” Crying and physical displays of affection between other men are examples of this. “But also, it can be harmful, especially for boys who either don’t want to or don’t have the right types of bodies or skills to excel in these spaces. It can lead to a lot of teasing and harassment.”
Musto shares how youth sports can distance boys from their peers and even their parents, but also how sports could be approached in a healthier way.
At what age do sports become important for boys?
Probably at every age, sports are very key aspect if proving one’s own masculinity. For boys, the traits that are valued very early and then continuing throughout adolescence and adulthood, are that they should be competitive and emotionally unattached, and be very strong and powerful. We think of men as destined for careers and lives in the public sphere where they’re going out, making money, being the CEOs of companies. For boys, sports are a very early way to demonstrate their ability to do well in these traits that are valued highly in society.
Does this apply to all youth sports?
Not all sports are equal in the United States. We place a lot of value on a few sports historically: football, basketball, baseball and, in some parts of the country, hockey. These are sports that really emphasize a certain type of body. You have to be strong and tall and big. Some sports you have to be violent and there are a lot displays of body contact. If a boy were to be very good at figure skating, gymnastics, or sports that are thought to be more feminine, that would not give boys the same sort of status the way excelling at football or basketball would.
What are some of the societal consequences for boys who do not excel at sports?
Oftentimes in schools, boys who are popular are the ones who are really good at sports like football and basketball. The quintessential jock is captain of the football team, and is usually one of the most popular people in school. Because we think of sports and masculinity as so intertwined, boys who excel at sports have a lot of friends and boys who don’t excel, this can lead to social isolation or harassment. It can lead to feelings of exclusion.
Are there ways for boys who might be alienated from sports to perform or assert their masculinity in other healthy ways?
It can depend a lot on the type of school kids go to. In some types of schools excelling in academics is really highly valued. But I think this is so difficult because that’s very intertwined with class and race. Some boys are able to compensate for not doing well in sports, but it is often boys who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. They have other opportunities, like doing well in school, and for them that’s a good thing. Parents and adults can also try to foster boys’ creative and artistic side. Some boys might be more into reading. There are benefits to presenting kids with a range of activities instead of solely focusing on sports.
But it seems like those opportunities to perform and assert masculinity in other ways is something that’s usually tied to resources and privilege?
Right. This is something that’s so intertwined with the history of sports as well. For instance swimming is a sport that comes to mind that might require less body contact or displays of aggression. Swimming is a sport that could potentially allow boys who might not be traditionally masculine to excel. But if you think of the history of swimming, it’s mostly a sport that came out of country clubs and one that mostly white upper-middle class people have access to. A lot of the sports that might foster healthier forms of masculinity for boys are often ones that are for the white, upper-middle class — like gymnastics or figure skating.
Is there any difference between boys who are not good at sports versus boys who are uninterested in sports in how their alienated from this space?
It can go either way, but my hunch is that it depends a lot of their physical physical characteristics. If you were a boy who’s very tall and muscular who was just not really interested in playing sports, then people might see you differently than if you were really skinny and short. So I think that might vary based on height, or, or strength. But not liking sports is also a way for boys to maintain some dignity, to say “I’m not very interested in sports.” That might be easier than saying they’re bad at them.
What do we know about what happens between fathers and sons when boys aren’t that into sports?
Oftentimes, if a boy isn’t good at sports fathers may try to push them into sports even harder as a way to shore up their masculinity. Not being good at or interested in sports can generally be hard on boys and their relationships with their fathers. A lot of the time when boys aren’t good at sports, even today, it can be taken as an early indicator that boys might end up being gay down the line. Tristan Bridges, a sociologist who studies masculinity, he wrote an article about how parents still search “Is my son gay?” way more on Google than “is my daughter gay?”
Not that there’s any connection between homosexuality and masculinity…
Exactly. In CJ Pascoe’s work she’s found that when you talk to boys, they’ll say we don’t have a problem with people who are gay. Really what boys have a problem with is other boys who are insufficiently masculine. I think it’s similar with fathers as well. But in the United States there’s a very close link between gender and sexuality, so boys who are insufficiently masculine are stereotyped as gay, or potentially going to be gay. Even if it’s not direct or overt homophobia, it can raise red flags in parents about whether their kid is going to be quote unquote normal.
How can parents and teachers do better when it comes to boys and sports?
Stop assuming that certain traits or behaviors or interests are a result of someone’s gender. If we were to stop stereotyping children that girls act this way, boys act this way, and there are only two genders this would be great for all kids because it would allow them to develop more well-rounded interests in a wider range of activities regardless of their gender. This may potentially allow boys to develop more empathy, or show different types of emotions that might be stigmatized. There are certain things that a lot of kids don’t even think of as being interests that they can even develop, because it’s thought of as something a girl does or a boy does.
Do you think this would this cause a mass exodus from youth sports?
I think for a lot of kids it would increase sports participation. Because they could participate in what they’re actually interested in. There are probably a lot of girls who are interested in playing football and a lot of boys who might be interested in cheerleading. But our gender expectations are just ingrained in us as such a young age that these aren’t even things we think of as being options. I think it would open a lot more doors for all children, and probably allow them to have better experiences with sports. It sounds so easy, but it’s also such a difficult thing to do because gender is built into just about every aspect of our society, from the toys we give kids to the way that schools are structured. It’s really difficult, but it is certainly something we can improve on.