In the last several years, I have become increasingly concerned with how what I am most passionate about — sport — promotes violence in our society. While I am not the first to make the connection between violence and competitive sports, the stakes seem higher today, as violence seems to be everywhere we turn. Consider the following:
- In recent years we have seen a rise in suicides due to bullying.
- We had just as many mass shootings in the last 15 years as we had in the 50 years beforehand.
- We have seen a rise in TV shows and video games that focus on sociopaths, murder, physical violence, sexual assault and torture.
- Reality TV makes millions on the pain, mistakes and misfortune of others.
- If you youtube “fighting” – millions – yes millions of videos come up… most of them young people hurting other young people. For fun.
Recently I read an article posted on Facebook of a young boy that punched an elderly man in the face as part of that “knockout” game. The man survived although I am sure it is an experience that will stay with him forever, and the boy was charged with a hate crime as he made it known that he was targeting the man because of his race. When I looked at the comments section on Facebook, what I saw over and over and over again—in the hundreds—were comments such as:
- “he should be in jail for life”
- “kill him”
- “kill them all and let God sort them out”
- “put him away for a very long time.”
Unfortunately, there are endless examples like this. Violence –and violent punishment of violence—are simply pervasive in our culture.
What I have become ever more alarmed with is the role sports plays in promoting this culture. In my 20+ years of coaching I have spent thousands of hours watching sports; on the sidelines, in the stands, and through the stories of young people. I have seen coaches, with the kindest of souls, tell young people to: hit them harder,
don’t be afraid to knock them down, get mad, take off the skirt, put a hurt on the other team, etc… I have seen coaches push, shove, and hit young people to get them mad, pumped, or more aggressive on the field. And while those statements or actions may have had no mal intent, the message that violence is acceptable was loud and clear.
Further, we have allowed sport to become part of the social construct of gender in that we socialize boys through it, and have struggled to allow women access to it.
We perpetuate this idea that we are training young men to be men, and that the only way to do that is to move them as far away from what it looks like to be a woman. We teach our young people that violence is a natural instinct, and that we as coaches need to help them achieve dominance on the field. We still train them using the military mentality that we can only become a team by breaking each player down and then building them back up as a member of the ‘unit’. They must learn their proper place within the hierarchy, that includes the coach firmly affixed at the top.
Now, of course, many argue that young people are smart enough to make the distinction between violence on the field and violence off the field. I agree. As a society we spend a lot of time teaching young people that sport is an artificial world that allows us to behave in ways that would be unacceptable any other place. But, I fear that is changing and we can no longer allow society to be the moral compass that helps our young people differentiate between what is sport and what is wrong.
A New Paradigm
As a sport and youth-based development consultant, I spend my days training coaches on how to work with young athletes to help them not just learn skills and challenge themselves as athletes, but also how to understand and appreciate their own humanity. That means we spend time on the process and the day-to-day experience of sports, and let go of the outcomes – the wins and losses –knowing that, ultimately, we cannot control the end results. For this reason, I spend a lot of time conveying two key messages to coaches about sport:
1. Let’s stop using punishment in sport as a tool for motivation or the elimination of behaviors. Let’s take the time to understand the actions and behaviors of young people and give them the tools they need to navigate the failures and successes they experience in life. Give them the room to make mistakes so they have the freedom to take appropriate risks. Provide them with accountability, but couple it with a high degree of support.
Second, let’s take violence out of sport and begin to respect each other. This means that we start to eliminate and shift the language we use like, kill, crush, defeat, attack, etc.. We teach young people how to initiate contact with minimal possibility for injury to another person. We teach them that their connection to each other is universal, so the care we show to a teammate we equally show to the other team. Teach them that competitions are collaborations, not combat; two groups coming together to PLAY a game not WIN a game and the understanding is that, just as in life, we exist through each other. I cannot play a game by myself, and I cannot exist by myself.
Because of this radical approach I have at times been criticized for feminizing sport. I adore that phrase as it somehow denotes that: (1) women don’t engage in punishment, violence and humiliation (2) there is something inherently masculine about these traits, and; (3) it’s a bad thing to feminize sport.
If understanding the inherent violent nature of sport and choosing to be intentional about reframing it and using it as a tool to support positive youth development is feminine, then I’m guilty as charged – I am feminizing sport and you should be too.
Diana Cutaia was the Director of Athletics and co-founder of the Sport based-Youth Development program at Wheelock College from 2005-2012. She has over 20 years’ experience in using sport as a tool for positive youth development and is a leading expert on topics such as physical activity, girls in sport, peaceful coaching, and positive cultures in sport. She is the owner of Coaching Peace Consulting, LLC. You can reach her at Diana@coachingpeace.com.
Flickr photos courtesy of NotTooCool, Pete O, USAG-Humphreys and used under Creative Commons License