Not all boys love sports.
That simple fact may seem obvious, but the truth is that boy culture heavily favors athletic boys. Think about it: boys’ social lives often revolve around sports teams. Mens’ friendships frequently revolve around sports teams. Boys who are athletically-inclined have a natural advantage in a culture that heavily prizes athletics, coordination and movement, while boys who prefer intellectual pursuits to sports are seen as nerds.
Yes, we have to work to do when it comes to expanding the definition of masculinity. One does not need to be athletic to be a man; a boy or man who has no interest in or aptitude for sports is just as much a man as any other. But while we are working to expand the definition — to enlarge the “man box” — we need to pay attention to boys who are struggling right now under social stereotypes.
If you are a non-athletic boy, school can be hell. Gym class, all too often, still centers around team sports, and students are too often allowed to pick teams — a humiliating experience for anyone who is picked last. Recess play for boys often revolves around sports as well; at my boys’ school, most of the boys play football, basketball or four-square at recess. A boy who wants to play with other kids, who wants to make friends, who wants a group to accept him but does not want to or cannot play sports is at a serious disadvantage — and reminded of that fact at every recess.
The pressure and the ostracization can be so intense that it colors boys’ perceptions of and reaction to school. (I mean, would you want to go, every day, to a place where you are constantly reminded of your own inadequacies?) According to Janet Sasson Edgette, author The Last Boys Picked, some signs that may indicate trouble include:
- Complaining of bellyaches, headaches, or general “I don’t feel well” on gym days.
- Hanging along the sidelines of physical activities such as recess or looking uncomfortable in unstructured social situations among boys (waiting for assembly, outside during a fire drill, walking from classroom to the school library).
- Remaining close to adults during play times or other free, unstructured times.
- Going to the bathroom frequently before gym class or recess.
Teachers, gym teachers, coaches and parents — please be on the look out for these signs. If you notice them, pull the boy aside for a talk. Parents, read this post; talk to your son. As Janet writes, “kids feel a sense of relief when parents speak to something they’re both thinking about yet afraid to mention.”
Teachers, coaches and parents, please read this post. It will help you better understand the pressures non-athletic boys face at school, and contains some great ideas for making gym class and recess more inclusive. (How about foosball? Raft making? Boomerang throwing?)
Do you have a non-athletic son who’s struggled at school? How did you help and support him? Teachers, how do you help non-athletic boys thrive at school?