Teaching Boys to Become Compassionate Men — On and Off the Athletic Field

The hit in the corner was colossal. Boards and glass shook as the two ice hockey players peeled themselves away from the collision site. One player in a green-and-white jersey glided uneasily toward the bench. His moans of pain suggested he had sustained an injury. He held his right arm close to his body as he plopped down on the bench. I summoned the trainer over to examine the player’s shoulder. Worry of a broken collarbone flooded my mind as I heard the player’s continued groans. 

After a quick diagnosis, the trainer bellowed in a stern and somewhat sarcastic tone: “Next time you think you are injured, let me know, and I will bring over a straw instead of my med kit, so perhaps, you can suck it up. Grow up and be a man.”

What’s Wrong with “Suck It Up”

Although my ice hockey coaching career is long in the rearview mirror, the trainer’s words still resonate and trouble me. In many regards, our culture has not abandoned the “suck it up” mentality. We expect boys, as they mature into adulthood, to be fearless, aggressive, and confident. Athletic play — whether on the playground or in organized sports — is often the proving ground for boys to demonstrate how to “be a man.” In the case of my young ice hockey player, the message was clear: Be stoic, be brave, face pain without tears, dish out more than you take, and know there’s little tolerance for players who cannot handle a sport’s physical nature.  
Throughout my career as a teacher, coach, and assistant director of Hawken’s Upper School for Student Life, I have been both fascinated and troubled by the societal expectations about how boys grow into men. It’s particularly disturbing to me that the “macho” man is not some distant relic from the 1970s disco era but a term that’s frequently part of conversations around masculinity in contemporary society. 

The Perils of Glorifying the Warrior Ethos

In the November 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the editors dedicated the publication to the United States Military. The issue drew a clear connection between the attributes of a lacrosse player and those of a soldier. The myriad examples demonstrated how playing lacrosse provides men with the foundational skills they need to be successful warriors.
In addition to extoling lacrosse’s virtues, the magazine featured the stories of soldiers, filled with life lessons that honor dedication to a cause and strength in the face of adversity. As a lacrosse coach, I also appreciated the perspectives of the coaches who said compassion, commitment, and courage are at the core of their philosophy. Leading with compassion is truly a rarity in the male-dominated sports world in which coaches drill into boys the hyper masculine values of physical and mental toughness. 
While I admire the way this issue celebrated soldiers’ bravery and dedication and sought to educate readers about the experiences of men in combat, I’m concerned that we’re telegraphing to boys that lacrosse is a proving ground for war. Indeed, the language we use about sports is similar to that of war. Our teams go into battle; our teams face the enemy; a player is precise like a sniper; a player is worshipped for having a cannon as a shot; and the game is won in the trenches.
It’s not just language. We consistently teach our boys that weakness and a low tolerance for pain are unacceptable. We see this in the lacrosse gear players wear today. Pad sizes have shrunk considerably and provide less protection to the arms and ribs; bruises are badges of honor and demonstrate that one can handle the pain that the game dishes out. To be sure, the values we teach boys through sport directly affect how they handle themselves as men. 
The danger of this narrative is a continued misconception of what is truly masculine. Many people earnestly celebrate the dominant attributes of male culture: suave, independent, tough, athletic. Yet this persistent misunderstanding creates a climate that jeopardizes the safety of some boys. We see this play out when boys who are weaker are labeled “gay” or effeminate. Unchecked by coaches or administrators, these situations can seriously harm boys that do not fit the most masculine of molds.

The Many Sides of Manhood

Today, we’re immersed in a political climate in which certain sexist rhetoric is passed off as “locker room” banter. But Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, is wrong; there is no excuse for this kind of talk. LeBron James said it best recently in an interview with USA Today: “In our locker room, they talk about sports highlights from the previous night, family and game strategy. . . What that guy was saying, that’s not — I don't know what that is. That's trash talk.”
Then, in a recent Time magazine article, Tom Hanks asserted, Look, I’m offended as a man. I’m not offended as a husband or a father. I’m offended as a guy. That’s just not right, I’m sorry. It’s not right at work, it’s not right in the locker room. It’s wrong, period. The end. That’s all.”
I’m encouraged by the affirmations from celebrity role models about what a man should be. Manhood has many sides in my experience. Not long ago I completed an ironman triathlon. Finishing this race took determination, grit, mental and physical strength, and a willingness to work through pain. At the same time, I am a compassionate father, husband, and educator. I embrace all these aspects of myself.

How to Guide Our Boys

How can we help our boys equally respect and dignify everyone around them?
In the halls of our independent schools and in the locker rooms of our athletic facilities, we must begin by instructing boys that compassion is not weakness, but strength. That means as educators and parents, we need to model compassion and be clear that we want our boys to honor and embody it as well. Frequent, consistent communication about values and behavioral expectations is vital.
We also must pay attention when boys’ behaviors deviate from the norm. Natural inquiry and dialogue reveal both our desired values and the cultural pressures that may lead to unwanted behavior. Give boys the opportunity to discuss issues and mistakes without impunity, and allow them to retain their dignity by taking responsibility for their actions. All of us play a role in raising our boys to become compassionate men.
James Newman

James Newman is assistant director of Hawken’s Upper School for Student Life.


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