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Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.
Sport and Competition

No, Team, No!

Empowering boys who prefer life off the field.

Some boys tear out of class at recess, ready to pick teams and enjoy some hearty competition. For other boys, the prospect of playing on a team is stressful.

Janet Sasson Edgette, used with permission
Source: Janet Sasson Edgette, used with permission

Some of these "other" boys are introverts—boys less inclined toward competition and team activity; boys who would rather play a quiet game with a friend; boys who too often feel pressure to enjoy something different than what comes naturally. To discuss how to empower these boys, I talked with Dr, Janet Sasson Edgette, a psychologist specializing in the treatment of children and adolescents, and author of The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood.

LH: What inspired you to write the book?

JSE: Watching my twins Austin and Jake grow up, I saw Austin gravitate towards sports and neighborhood street games, while Jake gravitated toward animals, and more quiet outside activities (swings, etc.). But what really got my attention was seeing the social capital that Austin acquired by virtue of his extraordinary physical abilities. No doubt, it was also in part because he was so confident, but that too came out of being athletic and comfortable in his body and good at anything he played. When they were in first grade, I remember standing at the bus stop with them, and Austin was throwing a football around with the other boys. Where was Jake? Stuck standing over by the girls and the moms—there was nowhere else to go. I was recognizing that they were going to be following different trajectories as they grew up, much of it coming out of the value that boys (and others) place on physical prowess.

Janet Sasson Edgette, used with permission
Source: Janet Sasson Edgette, used with permission

Confidence begets confidence, and Austin ended up being captain of the Varsity baseball team while Jake struggled to make and keep the few friends he found at his high school. I wrote the book to underscore for Jake how much I valued him as a person, and how aware I was of the challenges he, and others like him, faced. I wanted to be his cavalry.

LH: In Introvert Power, I address society’s bias toward extraversion. Do you think this bias feeds our society’s obsession with competitive team sports? What are some common threads you have observed?

JSE: Sure, I mean, competitive team sports are all about extraversion: chest-thumping, trash talking, lots of stimulation, and engagement both physical and verbal. The introverts are busy swimming, playing tennis, hiking, running, biking, etc. Kind of joking here, but there’s some truth to this. Introverts typically have strong needs for privacy, so it’s easy to see how being with a lot of people for long periods of time (sports-related activities), can be very taxing for this type of child.

The big common thread is, Americans just love everything that’s bigger, stronger, faster, and louder.

LH: Introverts face a paradox in American society: in order to advocate for themselves, they feel a need to become extraverted, aggressive, which is not their nature. How would you advise a quieter boy to advocate for himself without abandoning his own personality?

JSE: I think it’s important for kids to know that there are many ways to get the attention of others, some noisy, and others less so. Think about the quiet, understated power of Mahatma Gandhi, Leonard Bernstein, Nelson Mandela. They were heroic in their own ways, and presented without the machismo typically associated with “real” boys or “manly” men. They also stood behind values commonly thought of as feminine in nature—empathy, diplomacy, artistry, introspection. Still, they were heroes, with great moral or intellectual force, each one having made singularly notable contributions to our world. This should be taught in school alongside learning about the war admirals and generals.

Kids need also to be taught that there are many different vehicles for their voice. Not everybody is going to be compelling when they stand in front of a crowd. That’s okay, because there is the written word (everything from OpEds to poetry), music lyrics, and forms of advocacy that don’t make the news but do make their point over time with understated persistence.

As a parent or teacher, I would make a point to include all of the above in conversations about power, being heard, having a sense of agency, and influencing change.

LH: How can parents support a child who is uninterested in team sports but still seeking social acceptance?

JSE: Parents sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are many different ways for kids to engage socially other than through sports. Besides things like music (school orchestra, marching band, School of Rock bands) and theater (school-based or community), there are many other ways for kids to gain acceptance by his peers. Those tend to be the first ones that people think of as alternatives to sports, but there are plenty more. Ideally, the endeavor to find out what one likes and/or has a natural aptitude for is one of discovery—a process that draws on creativity, patience, and a comfort with that which is unfamiliar. Ideas include training service animals, go cart racing, and falconry, among others!

Markus Spiske/Pexels
Source: Markus Spiske/Pexels

Besides, if your kid is not into sports, it’s unlikely that he’s going to find friends there.

There are parents who worry as well about their son having a “team experience” and push team sports for that reason. I want to tell them that teamwork and perseverance are a part of any science-fair project, wind ensemble, or group of kids trying to raise money for a good cause. And as far as physical exercise and fitness are

Dietmar Janssen/Pexels
Source: Dietmar Janssen/Pexels

concerned, walking to school, filling water buckets for the animals in the barn, and chopping lumber at a wolf refuge to erect shelters all build strong muscles and lungs.

LH: The title of your book, The Last Boys Picked, resonated with me. As a young introverted girl, I had little interest in team sports, but still have painful memories of being one of the last picked. Is there a downside to girls feeling increased pressure to

Source: Pixabay/Pexels

participate in team sports? Are you seeing the gender gap closing in regard to these pressures, or do you think there is still more permission for girls to have varied interests?

JSE: Great question. I do think the gender gap is closing, certainly with Title IX funding but also with the overall focus in many families and communities on achievement—academic, social, and athletic. I think girls have more margin to not be involved in sports without anyone reading anything into it or being marginalized by the peer group. But maybe not for too much longer.

LH: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JSE: Yes, thanks, a few points:

There is a great need to push back against the “boys will be boys” thinking, which can be devastating for kids who are without resources to protect themselves.
Parents need to take the initiative to TALK to their boys if they feel that they are being discriminated against, teased, excluded, or if they have a feeling that the child himself feels bad because he’s not an athlete even if he doesn’t have a problem with peers. Talking about it sensitively (meaning, without putting pressure on the boy to change or making him feel self-conscious about not liking sports), and letting him know that his parents take his experiences seriously won’t make him feel worse. It’s the boys who have to suffer or worry in silence, by themselves, who struggle the most. Talking and engaging together about any concerns and demonstrating support is the best “immune system” a parent can give a kid.

It would be a mistake to think of this book as only about those last boys picked; it’s as much about the boys doing the picking, and about parents raising boys, and about the teachers who are in a beautiful position to cultivate conversations about social power and discrimination. It’s touches all of us, because once any community—social, ethnic, religious, national, or global—begins to tolerate the marginalization of one part of its constituency while another is idealized, everyone in that community loses.

LH: Thank you so much for your insights into this important topic!

JSE: Thanks, Laurie - I really appreciate you taking the time to write about this topic and to include ideas from The Last Boys Picked.

About the Author
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., is an author and clinical psychologist studying the relationship between personality and culture. She is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the Ross University School of Medicine.

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