Some of my best memories from my childhood and teenage years involve my participation in team sports. I played baseball and basketball during elementary and middle school, and football all through high school.
The funny thing is, the scenes that stick out to me the most from these experiences aren’t specific plays or key moments in a game (though I do have a few special memories of this type). Rather, I mainly think about the camaraderie and sense of belonging that being on a team gave me as a kid. I remember yukking it up with my teammates in the dugout and on the sidelines. I remember the long drives home on a school bus where I talked with teammates about the game and life. I remember receiving encouragement when I fell short of my potential as well as providing encouragement to a teammate when he needed it. I remember compliments from coaches that still hearten me today. I remember what it was like to depend on others and to be depended on. I remember what it was like to lead and be led.
Participating in team sports taught me the importance of showing up, giving my all, and embracing interdependency — it taught me that working together with other guys towards a common goal is paradoxically the best way to become a fully formed individual. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it taught me a lot about what it means to be a man.
Unfortunately, fewer boys are experiencing the joys and lessons that come from team sports. Over just the last five years, the number of youth playing them has dropped almost 10% (and it’s not because of safety concerns over tackle football — baseball and basketball have seen even bigger declines).
This is a real shame.
Participating in team sports should be considered a true essential in a young man’s development.
Today we’ll make an argument for why.
Why Every Young Man Should Play a Team Sport
Participating in sports of any kind is obviously beneficial from a health and weight standpoint; in a country that continues to struggle with obesity and youth are more inactive than ever, sports provide a vital dose of physical activity.
But participating in team sports also has a particular benefit to young men: it’s one of the few, likely only, chances for a young man in the modern world to be part of an all-male “gang” in pursuit of a physical goal.
As laid out by authors like Lionel Tiger in Men in Groups and Jack Donovan in The Way of Men, the gang has been the fundamental unit of the male sex since primordial times. Bands of men would work together to hunt and to battle, and much of what underlies the core of masculinity grew out of this group dynamic.
The modern athletic team remains one of the last bastions of the male gang ethos, and if a boy doesn’t participate in one, he’ll likely never experience it, unless he later joins the military. School is coed, clubs are coed, the workplace is coed. All-male Bible studies or fraternities can capture some of the culture and spirit of men’s groups, but because they are not centered around a strenuous, physical activity — like the hunting and fighting squads of old — they do not and cannot impart the full scope of this social unit’s energies.
Thus, a young man who does not participate in a team sport will miss out on ever understanding a large component of the masculine experience. Full stop.
In particular, he will miss out on experiencing the following dynamics:
Us vs. Them. Males have a tendency to break themselves into in-groups and out-groups, and to feel proud of the group to which they belong. The male team bonds over being different — and better — than other teams. It feels it has a distinct culture — its own traditions, inside jokes, and values — which set it apart from other crews.
It’s argued there is too much of this “us vs. them” ethos in the present age, and there certainly can be in domains in which the superiority of each side is a subjective matter of philosophical debate, with no way to decide an ultimate “winner,” and the disparate groups must not only compete, but cooperate.
But in team sports, where there is a concrete mechanism, in the form of contests, in which superiority can be objectively determined, and the different sides meet solely for the purpose of competition, the excesses of in-group/out-group rivalries are not only kept in check, they serve as healthy sources of identity and belonging.
Intra-/Inter-Competition. A member of a team experiences two sources of motivation: the desire to be the best on his own squad, and the desire to beat external opponents. He wants to be a starter, to make varsity; at the same time, he wants to beat his cross-town rivals when it’s time for a meet or game. These dynamics work in tandem to bring out the best in a young man — both in his athletic potential and in his respect for others.
While two players of the same team might compete fiercely for a starting position, they ultimately have to keep their conflict in check; they have to yearn to be on top with all their heart, and yet be able to step back when beat out by a teammate, accepting what’s best for the team as a whole.
An athlete is also motivated by trying to outdo the players of another team. But here too he maintains a healthy respect for his competitor. The rules of the game and the code of sportsmanship demand such. A competing team provides something for boys to push back against together. If they win, they have a chance to learn how to be magnanimous in victory; if they lose, they learn how to be gracious in defeat.
Status Up/Status Down. This year my son Gus joined a flag football team. Before the first practice, he said confidently: “I bet I’m one of the best players on the team.” When the practice got underway, the boys played a game where Gus kept getting his flag ripped off. He became so frustrated and dejected that he started to cry. It was one of those moments where as a dad you’re seriously worried about your kid’s resilience, and questioning how you raised him.
But in subsequent practices, there have been no more tears. Gus accepted where he is on the team’s totem pole of ability. He learned he could have fun even if he wasn’t the best player. Simply being part of the team made up for not being the top dog.
The paradoxical thing about participating in team sports is that it both checks a young man’s status and elevates it. The concrete, real-time feedback it provides brings self-assessed measures of worth — which can become inflated when gauged in the abstract — down to earth. But at the same time, belonging to the team raises your sense of status — gives you a sense of identity and belonging and value. Together, these forces provide young men with a healthy, balanced sense of self.
Cooperation. There’s an idea out there that women tend to be better at cooperation than men. But scientific research has found that’s simply not true: in mixed-sex situations, men and women cooperate equally well, and in same-sex situations, men actually cooperate better with other men, than women do with other women, and men are more willing to cooperate with men of lower status than women are with females of lower rank.
These findings are really not so surprising when you realize men have been cooperating with each other in all-male hunting and fighting gangs for millennia.
The arena of team sports allows boys to activate and develop this primordial proclivity.
Being on a team requires a boy to learn that to win, he’s got to put the team ahead of himself. That means passing it to an open player on the court instead of trying to force a shot, or running a pass assignment perfectly even if the QB doesn’t throw the ball to you.
Success in life depends on learning how to cooperate with others; team sports give boys a chance to hone that skill in every practice and every game.
Mentorship. It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child, and a set of vital figures in that village are non-familial mentors. Grown-ups outside the home can reach boys in ways parents just can’t; young men listen to them in ways they don’t listen to their own folks.
Coaches often play the role of these invaluable mentors.
My high school football coaches had a huge influence on me as a young man. My offensive line coach would invite us into his home to watch film. Sure, we were prepping for the next game, but I got to see, firsthand, a positive example of a family man. Another coach would bring each player into his office at the end of each season and discuss life goals. Getting that sort of attention from a grown man that’s not your dad is manna for a young man’s soul.
My son’s coach has the boys take a knee at the end of practice before imparting lessons on things like discipline and hard work. He even went over how to properly shake hands. I do this kind of stuff already with Gus, but it was sure nice to have another man reinforce the importance of it.
Camaraderie. Male camaraderie is a special energy, a unique dynamic. It comes from men being able to take teasing without being insulted, and give and take criticism and feedback without being offended. It comes from learning to pull their weight and being committed to not letting the team down. From having a sense of honor.
Research has shown that males bond when working together to defeat a common foe or tackle a difficult challenge. A shared code, a shared purpose, builds bonds.
Being in the “trenches” with other guys on a sports team thus fosters close friendships both on and off the field. Like I said before, some of my best memories of sports were just hanging out with my buddies on the team. The game was the glue that brought us together.
Shared physical hardship. Camaraderie is particularly developed when men not only share in a common purpose, but in physical effort. Studies have shown that strong ties are built when you exercise with others in a group, and the more intense the exercise, the greater the connection. Further, doing synchronous movements with others improves each individual’s performance. There’s just something about doing hard, physical things as a team that brings people together, and brings out their best.
This effect isn’t just good for a boy’s performance and sense of belonging — it sets him up to have a healthy relationship to “voluntary suffering” for the rest of his life. A young man growing up in the modern suburbs may have no other chance to experience physical “hardship,” and to learn that he’s not only able to push through the pain and strain, but that there’s a certain satisfaction, even pleasure, in doing so. The brain connects physical effort not just with physiological pleasure, but the pleasures of moving as one with a team. Later in life, this association between exercise and enjoyment remains.
In contrast, men who do not participate in sports growing up, and try to get into fitness later in life, often experience the pain of exertion as foreign and unpleasurable. They seem to have a harder time getting into the groove of regular workouts compared to those who viscerally associate pushing themselves physically with some of the best times of their lives.
Getting Your Son Into Team Sports
For some parents, getting their sons involved in team sports is natural — they consider it an automatic, practically default part of childhood.
Other parents have concerns about doing so, especially as their boys become adolescents, which are mainly centered on 3 issues:
First, they don’t want their sons to become one-sided jocks. They want their boys to be exposed and interested in more cultural or intellectual stuff. But it needn’t be an either/or thing; many great men in history developed both their mind and their body. Gus does flag football and takes piano lessons, and Kate and I will expect both our children to do one artistic/musical activity and one athletic activity throughout their school years. We value the formation of “the whole man.”
But this brings up another common concern: a resistance to “forcing” one’s children to do a sport. Interestingly, this concern only seems to apply to athletics. Parents make their kids go to school and do their homework, even if they don’t enjoy it, and they make their children do piano lessons, even if they complain. But, making kids do a sport somehow seems to be a more onerous and inappropriate expectation. I don’t think it is though. You “force” kids to do all kinds of things that you think are for their ultimate future betterment — from going to church to going to the doctor. Once they’re 18, after having been exposed to a variety of interests, they’ll have the next 60+ years to decide entirely for themselves how they’ll spend their time.
This second concern is heightened, however, by a third one, where parents feel especially bad about expecting a child to do a sport if the child doesn’t seem athletically disposed. They’re bookish, or sensitive, or uncoordinated.
There are a couple things to keep in mind with this perceived issue, though.
Parents can interpret a child’s seeming disposition as permanent — as his unalterable destiny. He seems sensitive, so they treat him with kid gloves, and keep him out of sports, and this simply turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A boy is not exposed to sports, so unsurprisingly, he has no interest in sports. The effect is often compounded by the fact that a less physically oriented and/or intellectual child often comes from less physically oriented and/or intellectual parents; Dad never played a sport, so he doesn’t play catch with his son, and his son thus doesn’t show much inclination to playing with balls. Dad is also more comfortable raising a son who has the same interests and disposition as he does, so he steers his son to the same path.
The reality is that just because a boy is cerebral and/or less physically inclined early on, doesn’t mean he was “meant to be” that way. Gus was very timid and sensitive when he was little, but exposure to sports gave him a lot of confidence and brought out a whole different side of him that otherwise would have remained unrealized and undeveloped. Looking at his personality as a two-year-old, you never would have known how much he loves flag football as a seven-year-old. If Theodore Roosevelt’s father had decided Teddy was just a bookish, sickly boy, and hadn’t challenged him to “build his body,” he never would have grown into the physical-activity-loving, energetic dynamo that he became. Don’t decide early on “that’s just the way he is.”
Also, a wide variety of team sports exist; from lacrosse to cross-country, there’s something that can fit nearly every boy’s personality. When kids are young, they don’t know what they like yet, so expose them to different activities and see what they’re drawn to.
No one would say that if a grown man is nerdy, or bookish, or sensitive, then exercise is optional in his life and isn’t absolutely crucial for his physical and mental health. All men, of every kind, need physical activity. Likewise, no one should think athletics are optional for young men, either. When it comes to the team-oriented variety, they’re not only essential for their health, but for their masculine spirit as well.