- Participating in team sports can meet the unfulfilled social needs of men, especially those who are socially disconnected.
- The stereotypes of “locker room talk” do not reflect the diverse, supportive conversations inside actual locker rooms.
- Adults who participate in sports leagues report reduced stress levels and improved mental and physical health.
The disinfecting bleach is no match for the funk that fills Locker Room #2 at the community ice rink. But that doesn’t stop our adult league hockey team from bursting through the door like it carries the aroma of freshly baked bread.
The stakes for tonight’s game couldn’t be lower. After all, it’s 10:30 pm on a weeknight, and we’re well past our athletic primes. Our shared mission to dominate the other team disguises a more unspoken agenda of camaraderie, play, and competing for a purpose – undernourished yearnings in men today, many of whom have become increasingly socially disconnected.
Our conversations in the locker room ricochet from shop talk to kid talk. We share stories, quick-draw punchlines as if it’s a saloon, and spar less to win and more to win over. We time-travel to our rough-and-tumble boyhoods, and banter bounces off the walls. Yet something about team sports also unlocks a deeper connectedness.
After the game, we sit shoulder-to-shoulder, peel off our protective armor, and fire off about how the referees let us down. Then we leave the locker room, walk to the parking lot, chat about meaningful letdowns, and offer news about our love lives. We solicit advice and sign out with “good game” – a gesture of belonging – before driving home under the darkness of night, brighter inside, closer in touch with who we are.
As someone who’s spent decades occupying locker rooms, I’ve noticed a glaring contradiction between “locker room talk” as a euphemism for language that objectifies women in male-dominated spaces and the actual communication before and after team competition that seldom ventures into creepy territory.
The presumed toxicity of locker rooms wouldn’t be such a problem if they weren’t a solution for men – particularly for those who’ve grown isolated and lonely. By constantly caricaturing locker rooms as sleazy boy’s clubs, we dissuade men from tapping into the kid within and experiencing the in-person emotional connection and support they need to cultivate a fulfilling life.
Men need the companionship that comes before and after competition more than ever.
Rescuing “Locker Room Talk”
The phrase “locker room talk” entered the national conversation in 2015 with the Access Hollywood Donald Trump recording and has lingered like a national case of athlete’s foot. For instance, when a jury recently deliberated the fate of those charged with seditious conspiracy related to the U.S. Capitol attack, some lawyers used “locker room talk” in their legal defense.
This nothing-to-see-here defensive use of this phrase is a reminder that its definition depends on who’s using it. Men kill the soul-quenching spirit of sports camaraderie by throwing locker rooms under the bus just to evade consequences.
While objectifying women remains a systemic scourge and a men’s issue to reckon with, it’s not any more widespread in locker rooms than it is in board rooms, bar rooms, barbershops, or high-school cafeterias. Team captains and coaches of youth teams are obligated to model how to behave with integrity and root out this behavior early on, and how to do that has been spearheaded by organizations like Mentors in Violence Prevention. Here, I’m thinking about how the phrase shapes our understanding of reality. I’m thinking about what we miss when so laser-focused on winning the culture wars.
The meaning of words, of course, depends on the context and specific relationships. And occasionally, BS or oneupmanship (common and healthy parts of male communication) can escalate to a dark place. In these moments, harmless, playful banter begins to mirror a bully’s real-life track record of exploiting their position of power to violate others.
Nonetheless, the essence of the locker room encounters is of healing rather than hurting.
Former pro athletes and ex-military guys know best that conversations before and after adversarial contests aren’t centered on misogyny but on mutuality – dependence built around shared experiences, interests, and emotions. Veteran sports journalist Bill Pennington once offered his experience of reporting in locker rooms: “Nothing I’ve ever heard in 30 years. No assault. In general, it has been my experience that the talk about women in a men’s locker room is much rarer than most people want to believe and much rarer than it was many years ago.”
Competition and Wellness
The body of research detailing the fascinating ways males are wired to compete to bond and contest other male coalitions (Benenson & Markovits, 2014) affirms what male athletes – amateur and professional – have long felt in their bones. Although 73 percent of people played sports during childhood, only a quarter continue to participate in sports as adults. To some men, participating in martial arts, basketball, or softball is a long-lost luxury, incompatible with the demands of serious adulthood. However, those who engage in adult leagues report reduced stress levels and improved mental and physical health.
I remind male psychotherapy patients that building male bonds doesn’t necessitate lengthy face-to-face sharing. In some way, playing sports is an ideal form of emotional vulnerability: You show courage in the face of uncertainty, take risks with your body, and learn to accept its limits. What promotes focus and trust in others more than the fear of physical injury? You practice more effectively expressing or managing feelings like anger, too. You set aside urges and build new habits. This enables men to be more attentive, generous husbands, fathers, sons, and teammates in the office.
For young single men, playing sports (regardless of skill level) signals to potential romantic partners that they follow through on self-care. Men who join a team also find outlets other than their romantic partners to release pent-up stress. But shoulder-to-shoulder bonding doesn’t necessitate sports; for instance, “men’s sheds” have grown in popularity and can help address guys' “innate need” to create projects and tinker.
Reimagining “locker room talk” flips a phrase filled with contempt into one of connection and helps shift the national conversation from who men shouldn’t be to who they can be.
Benenson, J. F., & Markovits, H. (Collaborator). (2014). Warriors and worriers: The survival of the sexes. Oxford University Press.