Visions of Glory: Our Sons’ Unhealthy Fantasy of Being Pro-Athletes

July 23, 2014

What did you want to be when you grew up?sandlot-01

When I was in school, I was fascinated with outer space. I thought I wanted to be a scientist and work for NASA. Over time, I discovered more about my natural gifts and inclinations, not to mention limitations and so I quietly gave up this ambition without any real fanfare.

I was unusual in my boyhood ambitions. Many boys do not dream about going to work for NASA. On the contrary, it is no secret that many boys, a majority, harbor hopes and dreams of being professional athletes. I know this because I am a teacher and talk regularly to children about what they want to be when they grow up.

A teacher.

A veterinarian.

A doctor.

Those youthful ambitions are almost exclusively held by the female students. The boys on the other hand, by a wide margin, tell me that they want to play for a living. They want to be soccer players, baseball or basketball players. They want to be stars. They don’t dream of being writers or artists (though there are plenty of males in both of those fields.) The one widely acceptable career goal for boys is to throw, catch and hit a ball for a living.

I did not always think this was a big deal. Who cares, they are just silly childhood dreams, right? But the more I think about it, especially now that I’m going to be a dad, I have to wonder why so many boys dream of lives of athletic conquest, if we as adults are encouraging this fantasy, and if it is even a healthy dream to begin with.

There Is No Off Season

The landscape of little league sports in our culture has changed dramatically since I was a child. Even though a new school year will soon be upon us, the athletic season will not give way to an academic season. For many boys, there are no “season” for sports and games, they just run together in one continuous string. Baseball gives way to soccer. Soccer makes way for basketball. On and on it goes.

For many children, it is no longer enough to even participate on one baseball team or one basketball team. I have asked boys what they did over summer vacation and heard with my own ears their answer: “I played on four baseball teams.” That’s four teams…at the same time. I don’t know of any professional players who have such a rigorous schedule.

Furthermore, there is an ever growing pressure to sign up children at younger and younger ages for sports teams. Especially in the affluent parts of town, you can find soccer teams that are as difficult to enroll a three-year-old into as any private preschool. For many boys, sports are life. When did sports stop being just for fun?

Road to Glory

When I was a kid, all around me were boys who dreamed of being star athletes. I watched boys give up other hobbies in order to pursue sports. Kids quit Boy Scouts so that they could join another sports team. Boys leave my art room with great skills, but quit pursuing art in order to make time for soccer.

I have to wonder how many parents, especially dads, once dreamed of glory on the court or field. But one day, they slammed hard into the reality of their physical limitations. But years later, they have a son of their own, and all of a sudden, those dreams are rekindled. Sure, there must be plenty of parents who have a healthy attitude toward their sons’ sports. But there are so many times I wonder when sports stopped being about fun and started being life.

What I especially do not understand is priority of sports over other life skills. Why should a boy feel he has to choose between playing a game and learning to paint? Why does a kid need to specialize in soccer and forego those survival skills? Why doesn’t anyone tell a boy that he won’t be able to play ball forever, but his watercolors will keep him company while he’s recovering from knee surgery?

Real Jobs are “Women’s Work”

What is most distressing to me may not be readily apparent at first, but go back and look at some of those dreams that girls have. They dream about being teachers, doctors, veterinarians. It’s not just that those dreams are more realistic than the boys. It is that the dreams we encourage our girls to have fundamentally benefit other people. A girl who wants to teach will be serving other people. A girl who wants to care for animals will be giving people her compassion. There is real virtue in the dreams of our daughters.

But the dreams we encourage our boys to foster are about personal glory. They are about winning and conquest. We want our boys to dream of lives of play, complemented by incomparable riches and hoards of cheering fans. So are they innocent childhood dreams? Or are we encouraging our boys to dream of self-centered lives, while viewing lives of service as women’s work? 

I favor the latter. I my son wants to play sports, I’ll cheer for him. I think he will find out on his own soon enough that he has Appling genes, and little hope of an athletic career. But if he doesn’t quite see it that way, I might nudge him a little bit by giving him a telescope for his birthday.

What say you? Are we doing a disservice to our boys, or is it all in good fun?

5 responses to Visions of Glory: Our Sons’ Unhealthy Fantasy of Being Pro-Athletes

  1. Let the boys dream a bit. Those whose parents don’t have unrealistic expectations will figure out on their own that they aren’t going to be a sports superstar. By high school, in my experience watching both my sons and their teammates, all the boys figure out where they stand on the sports pyramid. Most of them get it that once they finish high school they’ll be done with organized sports except for fun and they turn their attention to the “real” world. Don’t let it worry you if lots of middle school boys think they’ll be the next Lebron James, or Peyton Manning. If their parents aren’t dopey about it, they’ll come around.

  2. We are doing a disservice. Gus, earlier commenter, makes some good points. It is okay, even healthy, to allow the boys to dream a little. His conclusion that “if the parents aren’t dopey about it, they’ll come around,” is also valid. The problem is that many parents, as you point out, try to live their lives vicariously through their kids, and thus the unattainable dream is as much that of the parent as it is of the child; and that is a problem. Too, society as a whole has contributed greatly to the fostering of unrealistic dreams. Case in point: even the last player picked for the pro team gets more “wealth,” yes, and notice, too, than does the vet or the teacher.

  3. Like you I wonder how many of us are living vicariously through our kids.

    Passing the park the other day, I saw moms yelling “encouraging words” as their kids tried out for the local travel soccer team. “Faster, Faster. You can do better!”

    By the way… the tryouts were for the 7 year old girls’ team.
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  4. Sports can teach us a lot: team work, bonding, motor skills, etc. It is also a different sort of learning, one that many think males are pre-wired to learn. A full-body style of learning. But like everything, it can be made into an idol and has a dark side. I love sports. But there’s more in life than that. And you can learn bonding, team work, motor skills other ways.

    So I’m split. My kids are way younger too, 5 and 2. So I will let you words sink in as I near the playing sports age.
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