Dr. Dad


Rites of Spring: Hardball, Softball and Gender

For the last six years, I have been involved in coaching Boys' Little League and Girls' Softball. Everything starts in January, when I fill out the application and make sure it gets mailed in on time. Then I look at the team schedule for the season and figure out how I will adjust my schedule for the ten to twelve weeks of the season. Being a psychotherapist, I work two evenings a week. When the baseball season starts, I have to modify my evening schedule in order be able to go to practice and then to return to work for a couple of late evening sessions. Perhaps if I were richer or more financially successful, I would not have to work those evenings. Unfortunately, as a result of the difference between the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay area, and my wife's and my wages, I can't afford to lose the income for working those evenings. Like the stories I hear from so many fathers, we all learn to stretch ourselves to try and meet both the emotional and financial needs of our families.

Coaching baseball and softball is my most enjoyable "stretch." I am not a particularly avid fan of professional baseball but the excitement of watching my children and their friends reminds me of all that is good and noble and engrossing about our national pastime. Both the boys and the girls bring to the game an energy and intensity that is very captivating and inspiring and that their professional counterparts seem to lack. The lessons of life: working as a team, trying your best, learning how to lose, improving from your mistakes, enjoying personal success and sharing the pride of winning with friends, are all values that children's sports can bring us in contact with. The openness and naivete that each child brings to the game challenges me as a coach to respond with equal sensitivity to the honest emotions of the children.

Observing the difference between girls' softball and boys' hardball allows me to see how gender differences are tied to the social conditioning that we are subject to. Also, it is sad to see how boys are pushed to compete and win in order to prove their competence. I was not surprised to see that over 90% of boys don't continue in organized sports after finishing Little League. I can remember when I played Little League thirty-five years ago. My coach "interrogated" me after I struck out because he said that I did not show enough anger. I said that I had tried my best, to which he responded that if I didn't get more upset after I struck out, then he would take me out of the starting lineup. The next time I struck out, I threw the bat against the bat rack and the coach consoled me for my good try! I had obviously impressed him with my fake display of anger. It seemed as though this incident had convinced him that I had an intensity for the game.

As I began my Little League coaching career in AAA ball, the beginners' level, I went to view an upper division game to see how it was coached. I was astonished to hear how the coach talked to the boys. Now, being a psychotherapist has it draw backs, and perhaps having a natural interest in children's development makes me a bit more sensitive to how people communicate, but the criticism that was being leveled at the boys seemed extreme. When we began our season, I noticed distinct differences between coaching styles. Some of the men were without a doubt interested in supporting the boys at whatever level they could play, but others thought that winning was what it was all about. I was sure that I would be in the former group.

After our team lost its first four games, I found myself getting frustrated and wanted for my team to be "winners." It became easier to be disappointed in the boys when they missed a grounder and harder and harder not to be discouraged after a poorly played inning. I found myself getting annoyed if the boys didn't play their hardest in each inning. I started to wonder what had happened to my own sensitivity and compassion, where I had lost the conviction that it was "just a game" and how it had become a contest. It was easy to get caught up in what I have always been trained to do, to be a "winner." The only problem is that the final score never really tells you who won the game. It took me years to learn this about life. I knew that I would like to be able to teach this to the children. Slowly, the art of coaching evolves, usually with the teamwork of the coaching staff. In Little League, it took working together and positive reinforcements of each coach on our team to preserve the fun in the game.

I was surprised to see how critical the boys were of each other. A strike or a missed grounder was often met with laughter or a put down. It took some time for the boys to learn to comfort each other. This was sad for me to see. When the boys were assured that they could comfort a friend who cried when he struck out, the feeling of being a team began to develop. Our society asks boys to be very independent and very competitive early in their lives. I think this makes it harder for them to be supportive of each other. To express their benevolent feelings for each other means showing tenderness and emotion. Boys are told that to be independent, they must give up this tender side of their characters. Being good means achieving "mastery" for boys- and this relates to being in control of their emotions. I think that I was a good coach for the Little League because I took a positive stand and I said that it was OK to cry and to be upset and to have your friends reassure you. Mind you, not all the coaches supported my position that winning wasn't what it was all about, but it certainly helped with my group's team spirit.

In my experience, Girls' Softball is a completely different story! Being involved with my daughter's softball teams during the last few years has been a real "eye opener" showing me how positive sports can be. The league is organized around the idea that the game is fun. The coaches work cooperatively and men and women coach together. The spirit of the girls as a team is present from the first day. The girls I have coached are in the second, third and fourth grades. I think that there are two experiences that I have had in coaching these girls that sum up the differences between coaching the girls and coaching the boys.

First, I discovered that the girls do not want to get their friends out on the other teams. Last year, we had to spend the better part of one practice, an hour and a half, talking about how it feels to "make an out" on a friend. I also found that if a girl gets hurt on the field, then all the other girls run to her and try to help her out. We had to ask that just the two or three girls closest to her help out, to keep some order during the game. The sentiment of concern for team-mates runs high. The social spirit of the game is intense and the "competiveness" that I have seen seems to be more in good fun and "sport" than in winning and losing. The sense of "mastery" through winning does not appear to be a strong theme in Girl's Softball.

I know that I have oversimplified much of what goes on in Little League and Girls Softball. The point could be made that boys might gain from being less competitive and more team-oriented and the girls could use a little more stimulation in the competitive realm. Of course, any of you who have coached know that coaching a team involves not only working with the children but working with the parents as well. The parents usually present the greater challenges. Coaching has challenged me to look at my own values about competition and winning. Sharing the experience with my kids has helped us all learn and struggle with what it means to be a team, which, come to think of it, is not so different from what it means to be a family!

For Further self-reflection and discussion:

1. How does competition effect boys relationships with each other?
2. How do we create "equal opportunity" for our daughters to be physical, assertive and competitive?
3. What are your feelings about the importance of being part of a team? Do feel exercise and "staying in shape" is important?

© 2009, Dr. Bruce Linton

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The kind of man who thinks that heping with the dishes is beneath him will also think that helping with the baby is beneath him, and then he certainly is not going to be a very successful father. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Dr. Bruce Linton is the founder and director of the Fathers' Forum in Berkeley, CA. In his weekly columns he share his expereinces and insights gained from his work with fathers in his groups, classes and clinical work. He explores how parenting and fatherhood effects us as men. Bruce is a Marriage and Family Therapists and recieved his doctorate for his research into men's development as fathers. He is the father of two children. Dr. Linton is the author of Finding Time for Fatherhood: Men's concerns as parents. Visit Fathers' Forum

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