Coaching Boys

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr
Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

Would you be comfortable with a coach who hugs your boys?

Yeah…I’m not sure I would be either, thanks to the legacy of people such as Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State coach and convicted child molester.

And yet, I think Joe Ehrmann brings up a good point in his NPR interview. Ehrmann, a former NFL player and outspoken critic of  the phrase “be a man,” told NPR that sports do not automatically build character. Involvement in sports, he says, does not lead to (good) character development “unless the coach models it, nurtures it and teaches it.” And many coaches, Ehrmann says, rely on shaming and shouting instead of role modeling and nurturing when coaching and teaching boys.

His words ring true to me. As a mom of four boys who have played everything from T-ball to tackle football, I’ve heard a coach attempt to get a baseball player to turn his attention back to the game by saying, “Are you one of those who loves to play in the sand, or are you a ballplayer?!” I’ve heard coaches (and parents) yell at 11-year-old boys who are clearly struggling and frustrated, as if publicly proclaiming the boys’ mistakes will somehow turn them into major league players. (Never mind, of course, that even major league players sometimes make mistakes, sometimes hit slumps and never play to a level of constant perfection.) 

As a parent of boys, I understand that many boys respond well to competition. I understand that boys often cajole each other to greater achievements. I understand that a lot of boys prefer a more matter-of-fact, competition-based approach to sports and achievement, and I’m OK with that.

What I’m not OK with is shaming and mocking and yelling in the guise of teaching and coaching. Why? Because coaches and teachers who shame and mock and yell at boys in an effort to get them to do whatever teach boys that shaming and mocking and yelling are perfectly acceptable strategies to use to get what you want.

Ehrmann advocates hugging kids instead.

Listen, I’ve seen and read as many news stories as you have. The idea of a pastor/coach/boys’ advocate hugging boys in the dugout automatically sets my hackles on alert too. Which is a problem, because his rationale is real and makes perfect sense:

You’re in the middle of the game, and some kid’s having a tough time…Think about the power of a hug versus swearing, shouting, shaming at some kid… As coaches, we can kneel down next to that kid, you affirm the tears, the pain, the emotions, and you bring all the team around to say, “How can we help Bobby? He’s one of us…” you teach them how to build authentic community as men caring for and loving each other.

Wow. Talk about a radical departure from the way most coaches deal with American boys today. Talk about a coach who values his players more than the final score. Talk about a coach who takes the long view.

When I read his explanation, I think, Yes, we need more hugging in dugouts and on sidelines. And then I think about what Michael Gurian, author of multiple books about boys, once told me.  Gurian said he believes that part of boys’ problems stems from the fact that we as a society have become so attuned to the threat of “bad guys” (especially sexual predators) that we limit boys exposure to men. 

As a society, we are so afraid of sexual misconduct that we view nearly every male who wants to be involved in boys’ lives as a potential predator. Wanting to keep our boys safe is a good and worthy objective. But keeping our boys from real relationships with men because a very small percentage of men abuse boys does a disservice to both boys and men. Viewing every single adult man is a potential predator is the worst kind of stereotyping. We, as a society, have so bought into the notion of men-as-creatures-whose-lives-revolve-around-sex, that we can think of no other reason a man may want to work with children. If a man wants to work with boys, in our collective eyes, his motives are automatically suspicious.

A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. As parents, as teachers, as community members, it is our job to keep our children safe, and our job to verify credentials and observe and monitor interactions. It’s our job to act and intervene if anything seems suspicious.

But at the same time, we need to realize that there’s something very real, necessary and healthy about adult men interacting with boys. We, as parents, as teachers and as community members, need to remember and recognize that males’ need for touch, nurturing and reassurance doesn’t end at age three or four. Males of all ages, just like females of all ages, require touch and nurturing to be healthy and whole.

And really — wouldn’t you rather have a coach hug your kid than slap his butt or shame him in front of his peers?

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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