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Parenting Male Athletes: Advice for Mothers

Avoid reinforcing the jock culture

If you have a son (or daughter, for that matter) who is excelling athletically, don't allow his school to treat him differently, such as by lowering academic standards to enable him to participate, or by bending or ignoring team or league rules. Have the courage to uphold your own values, even if the school is willing to look the other way. If the school won't suspend him, you can.

Teach respect for girls

Boys need to be able to play with girls and respect them as athletes in order to develop non-sexist attitudes they can carry into adulthood. Instead of being afraid if you let your son compete against girls that he might lose, you should be teaching a different lesson: girls and boys can and should be as equal in sports as they are in other areas of life. You should help your son overcome the feeling that the aggression of female athletes is threatening: it is only threatening because it threatens gender stereotypes.

Ask your son's father to ease off 

Much of the pressure to conform to a hyper-masculine gender stereotype undoubtedly comes from some fathers, who, as a general rule, are more likely than mothers to go too far and emotionally abuse their children, particularly their sons. Unlike a good grade that a child gets in school, which is private, your son's success or failure in sports is public and on display for all to see. As William Pollack observed in From Boys to Men, "It is an undeniable fact - which mothers have to accept and deal with - that a lot of the pressure on kids comes from ‘over involved dads,' who prowl the sidelines at games, screaming at their children to run faster or berating the coach for not playing their child enough."

Observes Harvard's Dr. Roberto Olivardia, coauthor of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession: "I think a lot of fathers are threatened that if their sons aren't doing well, it's somehow a poor reflection on them. They may say, ‘Don't be a wimp.' ‘Hit the ball.' Or - and I've heard fathers say this many times at baseball games - ‘You throw like a girl.' And that is the most shaming thing that a boy can be told."

As my old high school English teacher and long-time Boston Globe sportswriter, Tony Chamberlain, recently wrote, "Fathers of young children often get so intense about their children acquiring sports skills of dubious future value that they often lose the big picture. ... Whether it's throwing a baseball, stopping a pond hockey puck, taking a jump shot, or making a slalom turn through the gates, fathers can't resist going at it much too early." (Andre Agassi's father is a classic example: when his son was an infant, he made a makeshift mobile of tennis balls and hung it over his crib!). Even Tony fell victim to the male propensity for being so intense about teaching their children about sports that they go overboard, admitting that, in teaching his son fishing and sailing, he was a "little obnoxious," to the point where he would drill his son about things that he would most likely have picked up "naturally when they go fishing a few times." As Tony wryly observed, "Leave it to a dad to turn everything fun into a drill."

Help our husband keep his ego or hormones from getting the better of him.  You don't want him to be like the father, who after attending his twelve year old son's first hockey game (a one-goal loss), saw another father charge into the locker room, yank his son up off the bench and yell, "You fucking son of a bitch; if you'd hit that guy against the wall you wouldn't have lost the game." 

Don't be part of the problem

Boys these days pretty much expect to hear a man screaming and hollering at them. They don't expect it from moms, who they expect to nurture and protect them. The sad fact is that some mothers, unfortunately, place too much pressure on their children (Indeed, in a study of American athletes preparing for the 1988 Olympic Games, more than a third of the athletes admitted suffering from excessive pressure from their mother versus only one in four from their father).

Don't make the mistake of putting too much pressure on your son. As Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White told The Washington Post before the 2006 Turin Games, "The reason I stopped playing soccer was because of soccer moms. I showed up late for a game, and this mom snapped [at] me. She screamed, ‘You go out there and score!' Someone else's mom screams at you, you're eleven. It's pretty intimidating."

Make a point, like Shaun's mom, Cathy, of not putting pressure on your son. As Cathy told me several years ago, "I don't want to push him. If anything, I hold him back because I don't want him to get hurt." The worst thing that can happen is for your son, like Shaun White, to become a fan of dads just because they are "more relaxed."

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