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COACHES: Give Up Gender Expectations of Athletes

The high school team I coach facilitates a free after school soccer club at the area elementary schools. Third, fourth, and fifth graders stay to play. There is nothing riding on these games, but emotional outbursts can still happen.

During yesterday’s games there was sadness, happiness, frustration, anger, embarrassment, anxiety and elation. The emotions arrived in tears, laughter, elbow-throwing, foot stomping, jovial chattering, nervousness and silent observation. It was an energized room, but the emotions didn’t come from who you might expect.

Probably five minutes into the first game, one of the girls hauled off and kicked a bullet of a ball right into the gut of a boy on the opposing team. He fielded the physical blow well, but when he saw her laughing, it became apparent he was not going to be able to field the emotional blow quite as well.

“That hurt,” he said, turning toward me holding his stomach while big, real tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Did it knock the wind out of you?” I asked.

“No,” he sniffled, “that was mean, she’s laughing at me.”

“Are you too hurt to play?” I asked.

The waterworks continued.

“Ok, why don’t you stay here and take a little breather until you feel ready to play again.” His body wasn’t hurt, but his feelings certainly were.

Ten and eleven-year-old boys are often more sensitive and emotional than girls the same age.

Things will change in a few years when hormones come on board, but I wanted to give him the space he needed to process.

As I finished the last part of my invitation to rest, one of the other boys in the game swung hard to kick a ball. He connected with part of it, but the bigger part of his energy went to sending his shoe flying. With just the right trajectory, the shoe slipped out of sight and into the gap between a mat and the wall.

“I lost my shoe!” the boy yelled. He looked over where I was consoling his friend and then he too began to cry.

“Well, I’m sure we can get it back. Here, come see if you can slide in behind the mat.” Both boys followed me on our new quest to retrieve the lost shoe. The crying stopped as the boys became consumed with problem-solving for shoe-retrieval. After the sadness faded, they played the rest of the day without incident.

Later in the session, the most aggressive player in the gym, a fifth grade girl, offended a boy she was challenging when she threw herself physically into a tackle. It was not a foul, but it was aggressive.

The two players looked at me to see if I was going to react and I said, “Wow, she’s playing tough.” They both turned back to the play with invigorated intensity.

I share these two examples because adults make mistakes too often when it comes to fielding the emotions of athletes, especially along gendered lines. In a single sentence I could have told the crying boys to toughen up and quit the crying or I could have told the aggressive girl to back off because she was too intense. It would have been the wrong response in both instances.

Adults need to pay attention to gendered responses to emotional athletes, and most especially boys. It is far less accepted, especially in the sporting arena, to allow emotional space for boys. I do believe emotional mastery is the most powerful tool kids can be given and they have to have room to practice.

In a 2014 article in Greater Good Magazine called Debunking Myths about Boys and Emotions  the author, Vicki Zakrzewski, argues that all kids have emotional capacity but boys are too often discouraged from those tendencies. Zakrzewski writes “Changing our society’s beliefs about boys’ social and emotional capacities won’t happen over night, but both educators and parents can do a lot to help them cultivate the capacities they already possess.”

Emotions exist in all athletes. Period.

Team Adult has a wonderful opportunity in and through sports to enter into a journey to guide kids toward the most appropriate responses to emotions that overwhelm them. We have to come to terms with the fact that the stereotypes most people believe about gender and emotion are wrong.

Regardless of gender, space and acknowledgment of emotions is the first step to helping kids achieve mastery over them. Gender expectations must be abandoned and emotional athletes must be coached well, one feeling at a time .

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2019                                     www.meaganfrank.com

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