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Boys Must Be Tough; The Misconception of Masculinity Pertaining to Males and Sport

Our culture programs boys from a very young age to believe that they have to be tough. They are made to believe that if your tough that means you don’t get hurt and that you don’t cry. This message is embedded into boys by coaches, teachers, parents, even peers. And the conception is totally false and causes lasting impressions into adulthood. It is crucial for coaches, parents, and adults to take a closer look at the message that they are sending to these young children and the pressure that puts on them. The phrase boys don’t cry has become a national anthem of sorts promoting boys to hide their feelings to be tougher then whatever is hurting or bothering them. Teaching them that if they are tough they will bury whatever feelings they have and show no emotion. This is not only damaging mentally, but emotionally and physically as well. I've witnessed as these boys get older they will refuse to cry even in the most tragic circumstances, not because they are not hurting, not because they don’t need an outlet, but because they are afraid of how the world will view them, as weak, as feminine, or not a man. This misconception ties directly into sports, coaches teaching boys that in order to be the best they must be physical and tough.

Our culture has taught boys that it is not acceptable to voice sadness or pain but encourages them to voice anger, because anger is accepted as a masculine feeling while sadness is a feminine emotion. The society we grow up in forces boys, boys who grow into men to reject and refuse anything that may be labeled as feminine. Society has forced boys to define their masculinity in athletic ability and physical strength and men to prove their masculinity through financial success. Boys are taught to be strong, protectors, and to NEVER BACK DOWN from any challenge. This is so damaging because none of these things actually define a man. The suicide rate in males is 3.5x higher than women and between 1982 and 2018, only 2 mass shootings were initiated by female shooters, while 94 were led by male shooters. Is it possible that these high statistics are due in part to our culture teaching boys that anger and violence is the only acceptable way to deal with their problems. Is it possible that boys fighting is seen as less problematic than boys crying?

What percentage of violent acts and behaviors are due to the societal norm of men repressing their feelings, of men lacking the communication tools to cope with their feelings, and the encouraged behavior to be a man, and that being a man means never backing down, always FIGHTING for what you believe in, being stronger than pain and sadness, and to not need or depend on anyone. To live up to the unmeasurable pressures of being unaffected by the negative experiences that occur in each individuals lives and to live up to the physical strengths that a male embodies.

The conception to never back down and show your strength teaches boys to handle their grief with violence and the conception that boys don't feel pain and can't be hurt causes boys to hold on to the pain emotions and struggles resulting that are bound to occur causing these young souls to deteriorate from the inside out.

Lena Aburdene Derhally, who specialises in treating anxiety and relationship troubles states that “Telling boys they are 'crying like a girl' could cause mental health problems in later life. The “serious negative consequences” of publicly shaming the toddler for doing something perfectly normal – expressing emotion – are often stored up and come out in later life.” Her male patients often suffered from anxiety, depression and relationship trouble stemming from “the inability to understand and process their feelings”. Dr. Derhally also states that "Issues of rage, anxiety, depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms like heavy drinking often manifest when men don’t understand their feelings or don’t give themselves permission to have them."

Masculinity standards are forced into the lives of all males as proven in the statements above. Once a male child enters the sport world these standards are just confirmed and visualized. The Pain behind the mask by Dr. Christopher Kilmartin and former professional athlete and John Lynch give us male insight and perspective on the physiological components that come with society forcing extreme masculinity among boys, teens, and young adults. The notions are embedded in childhood and by young adulthood are accepted as fact and acceptable.

“Over years of psychological development men have learned to detach themselves from the awareness of vulnerable feelings. Thus, men frequently do not develop the vocabulary or awareness necessary for the verbal expression of feelings. As a result, an emotional void exists in the lives of many men. In place of emotional awareness, masculinity stresses competition, toughness, hyper independence (can handle it by myself) and accomplishment.”

Their book was written to shed light on masculine depression, masculine narcissism, and masculine dilemma that is caused by the cultural norm of developing young boys to “be a man”, and “be tough” and “boys dont cry”.

So what happens when these boys put their full identity into the competition of sport, when they begin to find their identity in the mental and physical toughness required for athletics and the self discipline required to define their self independence. What happens to these athletes when their full identity is compromised with sport and then that is taken away? Where do they go from there?

Michael Messner, an American sociologist and former high school athlete found the internal dilemma he faced at the end of his athletic career to be fascinating. He took his personal feelings and was able to apply it to young men all over the country and began to take a closer look at the identity crisis men face after athletics.

“My first year of college, 1971, I sat the bench on a good community college team and faced up to a grim reality: No call was forthcoming for the Warriors. Indeed, I wasn't even going to make it as a college athlete. I took a bit of a tumble over that. I had always been “Mike Messner-the-basketball-player” at least in my own mind. Now, at the age of twenty, who was i? By the early 1980’s, the athletic success and failure and disengagement from sport that had been, for me, intensely personal experiences became fascinating sociological questions. Why was it that i, and so many thousands of other boys and young men, became so intensely committed to athletic carers? How and why did our developing identities become so closely entwined with our successes and failures as athletes?How had our athletic careers shaped, expanded, or constrained our relationships with other boys and men, and with girls and women? Sabo and Runfola agreed that sport socializes boys to many of the values, attitudes, and skills that are so important in the adult world of men But they were critical of these values and skills for their perpetuation of the domination of women. Moreover, they argued that this narrowly defined male sex role was emotionally limiting and often physically unhealthy for men.”

The physiological effects of the perceptions of masculinity and the increased pressure that sports add to the conception is nothing new, but perhaps the lasting consequences are finally being brought to light. The character flaws, the confidence issues, and the identity crisis individuals begin to face post sports are now being tied to the way men communicate, cope, respond, and form relationships.

Masculinity has been portrayed as tough, no crying, no emotions, and athleticism for decades. But are those who find a love and a passion for sports more susceptible to fall into the forced ideals of manhood, are the constant reminders to “dust it off and be a man” leaving more internal conflicts with athletic youth compared to the youth that do not participate in sport? Nina Passero has a history of working in biotechnology and mental health. She is skilled in market research, intake interviewing, and project management. In 2015 Nina wrote the article “Effects of Participation in Sports on Men’s Aggressive and Violent Behaviors” In here literature review she takes a closer look at the elevated ideals portrayed onto youth males participating in sports to those who do not.

“In general, men are exposed to masculine gender norms that emphasize aggression, success, competition, emotional strength, inexpressiveness, independence, and dominance over women (Chu, 2005; Cournoyer & Mahalik, 1995; Oliffe & Phillips, 2008). The socialization that men and boys experience necessitates adherence to these norms and expectations, while implicitly communicating ramifications for non-adherence, as well as engagement in behaviors deemed feminine. These norms are present in sports teams, which often promote a competitive, tough, and emotionally inexpressive mentality, in accordance with the expectations of manhood placed upon all boys and men (MacArthur & Shields, 2015; Steinfeldt, Vaughan, LaFollette, & Steinfeldt, 2012). Organized sports also serve as a setting to demonstrate proper masculine behaviors and prepare boys and men for life off the field (Fine, 1987; MacArthur & Shields, 2015). Furthermore, research has shown that men who participate in organized sports exhibit more aggressive behaviors, in both athletic and non-athletic contexts, than those who do not. These behaviors include bullying, sexual violence, and physical aggression (Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Pakalka, & White, 2006). Athletes also tend to hold more positive attitudes toward violence than do non-athletes (Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Pakalka, & White, 2006). Their increased aggression and propensity toward violence is likely due, in part, to the aforementioned masculine social norms that are established on sports teams (Boeringer, 1999; Coulomb-Cabagno & Rascle, 2006; Koss, 1993; Sonderlund et al., 2014; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). This literature review sought to explore the ways in which men’s participation in organized sports influences their engagement in violent and aggressive behaviors, as well as factors related to the variations in types of violence committed.”

How is it that sport adds to the conception of masculinity in the susceptible minds of our youth? How do sports enhance these ideals and leave lasting effects into adulthood?

The article “Playing “Too WoMany” and the Problem of Masculinity in Sport” describes how the nature of sports ties directly into one's masculinity; from strength, to speed, to aggression, and competition. Bringing light to the physical component required to be considered masculine in today's culture.

“Sport is a rite of passage for boys, and an institution that reinforces a hierarchy of masculinity. The very nature of sports, as developed in schools and at other competitive levels, is associated with core tenets of masculinity—physicality, aggression, competition, and winning. The more a sport revolves around these features, the more masculine it is perceived to be. And the more it emphasizes violence, aggression, or brute strength over aesthetics, the more masculine it is perceived to be. The more masculine it is, the more money gets poured into it, the more fans it has, and the more it reinforces traditional norms of masculinity. No one would, for example, question the relative placement of football or basketball to diving or gymnastics on the masculinity scale. Sports have always been a place where masculinity is learned and practiced. Sports were introduced in American schools out of fear that boys were becoming too womanly when the shift from an agrarian to an industrial labor force, along with limits on child labor, left them at their mother's’ apron strings rather than their fathers’ boots. For athletic boys, sports are a path to success and popularity. Conversely, too, boys who lack athletic interest or ability risk remaining on the periphery of masculinity. Indeed, sports are so typed as masculine that they are sometimes pushed as a cure for homosexuality in the pseudo-psychological/religious programs designed—on false pretenses, of course– to supposedly turn gay kids straight. The same message surfaces in more mainstream programs as well.”

This article was written by Deborah L. Brake, a Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Joanna L. Grossman, a Justia columnist and Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of Law.

So what does masculinity through sport look like? What are the labels of those who fail to meet this imagery? And how does the physical image of masculinity make up for lacking in other areas of masculinity in the minds of men? Eric Smith wrote a book, Sociology of Sport and Social Theory, focusing on the sociology of sport and how it pertains to individuals, teams, and coaches who participate.

“In competitive sport, male athletes who appear to lack aggressiveness and "intestinal fortitude" may find themselves labeled a "pansy" or a "queer" by their coaches and teammates. A man, after all, is inherently aggressive yet cool under pressure, leads others by example, and is strictly heterosexual. Hatty (2000) has noted that sport offers a vehicle for reproducing dominant conceptions of masculinity by alleviating fears of feminization among middle-class men, and for their part the mass media foster this process by providing visual cues to audience members-the kinds of cues that Messner, Dunbar, and Hunt (2000) cited as part of the "televised sports manhood formula.Hatty (2000), in fact, has described how male body ideals-broad shoulders, muscular chest and arms, and a narrow waist-lead to an achievement-oriented approach to masculinity. It takes work to build such a body, and the men who do so often view muscular development as a way to define themselves and prove their worth (Kimmel 1996). As Luciano (2001) argued, with a steady increase of women in the workplace during the latter half of the 20th century, heterosexual men realized they could no longer rely on the "breadwinner ethic" to attract a spouse. Consequently, large numbers of men built large, muscular bodies and became somewhat hyper masculine around women. In short, what men lost in the workplace, they looked to regain through their musculature.”

A theses written by Murray Drummond comes in to tie all these closely related topics into one. Written in 1995 his entry is titled, The social construction of masculinity as it relates to sport: An investigation into the lives of elite level athletes competing in individually-oriented masculinised sports. His writing covers the correlation between sport and masculinity while shedding light on why men participate in sports in the first place and the sociological implications that come from doing so. The thesis goes a step further then those previously mentioned as it contains a specific study focused on 3 elite level athletes and gaining a more clear understanding behind males self identity and sport.

Sport has long been regarded as a masculine domain. In the past the literature has tended to focus on male athletes with respect to sensational or noteworthy performances, however little attention has been placed on the reasons why men participate in sport and the subsequent underpinning sociological implications of masculinity. This research investigated the lives of 12 elite level athletes competing in the three individually-oriented sports of triathlon, surf lifesaving and bodybuilding to attain a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between male identity and sport, and the process of masculinisation experienced by men throughout the lifecourse. Further, it explored the notion that sport is becoming one of the primary sites for the construction of masculinity for men in contemporary Western society. During childhood these men quickly realised that athletic competition meant far more than merely winning or losing. Sporting success was interpreted as being accompanied by peer recognition, family attention and general acceptance by society. Future acknowledgment was therefore perceived as being contingent upon continued success. However, placing emphasis on sporting success can influence a man's development throughout the lifecourse as he undergoes changes during the transition from boyhood, through adolescence and on to adulthood. It is with respect to such changes that some of these men experienced crises in their lives. As young male athletes, they based their self-image and masculine identity largely around success-derived appreciation from others. Therefore, when failing to live up to the expectations of these people their self-perception was affected and they were faced with problems relating to self-image, masculine identity and relationships with others, both intimate and family-oriented. On the other hand, sport can offer its young male participants numerous pleasurable experiences and the opportunity to change various aspects of their lives. It is with respect to this element that the athletes' lives were explored to determine their motivation for participating in their particular sport and its subsequent relationship with masculinity. It was the subcultural environment of each sport which appealed to the men because it provided them with a support network and a form of safety mechanism in the event of a crisis. Therefore, feeling secure in their own subcultural environment had a positive impact on their masculine identity. Utilising life course theory within a social-psychological perspective, this research was able to identify some of the changes that emerge throughout sportsmen's lives and the role that sport plays in the social construction of masculinity for these men. By using sport to identify the problems associated with masculine identity it provides a looking glass for the problems associated with the social construction of masculinity for contemporary men in Western society. Murray Drumond goes on to become a Professor in Sport, Health and Physical Education and the Director of the SHAPE Research Centre.”

My proposed study on the topic of masculinity in sports is composed of 2 essential parts. A short term physiological analysis questionnaire or interview that takes 15 subjects involved in sports and 15 subjects not involved in sports from each age range; toddler, elementary students, middle school students, high school students, and college students. These subjects will participate in a 12 series questioning. The same students will attend counseling, watch video footage on the effects of over implemented masculinity on developing children, and learn forms of masculinity outside of the physical. Counseling will allow for the subjects to get familiar with the way they think, the way they operate, and the logic behind it. The video footage will demonstrate the same quotes, ideals, and methods that each of these males went through while giving them an outside view on the situation, and learning other key components of masculinity will not only help minimize the magnitude of the physical component of masculinity but hopefully develop the deprived components as well. The long term study will be made up of four subjects beginning at the age of 4 years. Subject 1 and 2 will be children involved in sports while subject 3 and 4 will be non-sports playing children. Each year the children will participate in an interview covering topics of what it means to them to be tough, what qualities a man has, how they describe strength, their interpretation of success, and possibly most important what they would like to be when they grow up. This study will give us a direct comparison on the psychological component that not only comes from playing sports but that is conveyed in natural male development as well.


Anderson, E. (2011, April 29). Masculinities and Sexualities in Sport and Physical Cultures: Three Decades of Evolving Research. In Taylor and Francis Online Pages 565-578

Denham, B. (n.d.). Social views of masculinity related to sport. In Excerpts.

Drummond, M. (1995). The social construction of masculinity as it relates to sport: An investigation into the lives of elite level athletes competing in individually-oriented masculinised sports. Retrieved from http://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/1189

Grossman, J. L., & Brake, D. (2013, September 17). Playing “Too WoMany” and the Problem of Masculinity in Sport. Verdict.

Levant, R. F. (1996). The new psychology of men. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 27(3), 259-265.

Lynch, J., & Kilmartin, C. (1999). Pain Behind the Mask (pp. 7-8)

Messner, M. A. (1992). Power at play: Sports and the problem of masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press.

Passero, N. (2015). Effects of Participation in Sports on Men’s Aggressive and Violent Behaviors. N.p.: NYU Steinhardt.

Whitehead, A. (2005, August 4). Man to Man Violence: How Masculinity May Work as a Dynamic Risk Factor. In Wiley Online Library .