Why This Pro-Athlete Wants You To Stop Asking Boys What Kind Of Man They Want To Be
"What kind of man do you want to be?"
That was a question I often got from influential adults in my life growing up: coaches, teachers, trainers, townspeople. Today I have strong feelings about this question, or suggestion. Mainly, I don't trust those who are asking it.
The environments where this question is often posed are of competition and adversity, moments with an opponent. It's yelled by a coach at his players during a game when the team is down by a score. Or by a parent on an autumn day when a kid tires from raking tree leaves earlier than expected. Or you'll hear it on the playground when a boy trips and scrapes his knees, asked alongside demands to "be strong" and hold back tears.
In each of these, there is a friction. A resistance. What's absent in the environments we most often hear this question in is the cultivation of love, compassion, and kindness. The question almost implies, "This is not the time or place for those."
In truth, it is the exact time and place for these. But I don't trust that those asking this question believe there is an equity between these traits and being a man.
When we continue to subject young boys to attitudes and beliefs of male dominance, then our children are unlikely to develop differently.
The generation of men asking this question to young impressionable boys grew up in environments where men were the main income earners and women had traditional homemaking and motherly roles. The expectation of what it means to be a man specifically has evolved over time, from wartime heroes to Heisman winners to unicorn CEOs. But whatever its current flavor, the core ideal elevates a form of self-interested machismo that is dangerous to maturing men and those they interact with.
I would know. As a former professional athlete, my evolution has been more than waist-deep in this conversation. At 16, I was the captain of the U.S. Under-18 National team, at 22 graduating from an ivy league university with two degrees, and at 25 retiring from three and a half seasons of professional athletics that saw me become a French national champion, suit up for the Italian National team, and play through concussions, separated shoulders, and herniated discs because that was the "type of man I wanted to be." Or, thought I wanted to be.
My position as a defender was to separate the offensive player from the puck, which I physically did with pure strength. During each of my three seasons of professional sports, I also led each of my teams in fights, an action allowed in the sport of hockey. For three decades my entire existence was within a sport that prided itself on stoicism, endurance, and brutality. It would be naive to believe my athlete attitude never exited the arena.
I carried this idea that my value was based on physical dominance over others with me through life and failed to mature as there was a void of voices advocating for the development of other emotions and traits.
This was the man I wanted to be. This was the man my coaches wanted me to be.
When we continue to subject young boys to attitudes and beliefs of male dominance, gender inequities, and misassigned values on emotional traits, then our children are unlikely to develop differently. When we ask, "What kind of man do you want to be?" we communicate that we value certain behaviors, or traits, in our men more than others. Moreover, we subject our young people to conforming to these previous ideals in an attempt to please our elders.
Consider the relationship between the person asking and the subject answering. The person asking is either an authoritative person or seen as one by the subject, who is often a young person. Young people, meanwhile, aim to please. Research on child development shows us that young children often mirror the attitudes, beliefs, and identities of their parents. Up until age 12, children have yet to fully develop their emotional regulators, which means that when you ask a child a question, in their response they search for what you, the adult, wants to hear.
Recall the familiar interaction when the child being asked pauses in response, and the adult follows up with "Don't you want to be strong? Smart? Successful?" to which a child nods. During no part of that interaction was the child able to make their decision.
It's time to remove this question from our interactions with young people, today.
This definition of manhood wasn't working for me. In fact, it was killing me.
Since retirement, I've been shedding the skin of toxic masculinity slowly. The day I announced my retirement, I went from being the professional athlete to the former professional athlete, now unemployed and looking to join the workforce. In my eyes, I was not interesting anymore and socially felt that I lost my value. This feeling of insignificance exposed a fragile self-esteem, that for years relied on a role I played and the attributes that made me successful in sport.
Retirement, though, gifted me something else. With retirement came an exhale. I was now able to pursue passions, discover myself, and lean into underdeveloped emotions—a process that was also accelerated by the sudden end of a romantic relationship just a few months later.
The subsequent heartbreak-fueled depression was amplified by alcohol and drug use and even manifested as self-harm. I was trying to "tough it out" and not seek any help or consider the role my actions and emotions played. I mean, this was all I knew. The expired language of locker rooms had taught me that manhood meant to purse your lips and hold your pain until it goes away.
But this definition of manhood wasn't working for me. In fact, it was killing me. So finally, I sought to update it.
It started with new role models, educators who had been privy to this conversation for decades before me. It continued when joining a company founded by two women and having a female manager. Soon, I began to dress myself in my emotions, to channel vulnerability and empathy as if defaults, to educate on and invest in my mental health, to say "I love you" more.
Today, I'm still a work in progress, but through sobriety I've begun to unsew the incorrect teachings of my youth. Not only have I invested in emotional equity within myself, but I've distanced myself from associating the male gender with certain traits and roles. I've learned that vulnerability is a strength, that phrases like "manning up" betray the fact that women have been the best educators on what courage is in my life, and that expressing love and compassion are simply human traits.
When we hear reports of what kinds of regrets are expressed at death, most of them relate to not living truthfully, creating community, expressing love, and enjoying this moment more. When we ask young boys what kind of man they want to be, we invite regret into their lives and strip them of what they are.
A young boy. A seed.
We must not interfere with the development of our young men. Rather, we must use our words to nourish and support them as they grow. We must water them.
Rather than asking "What kind of man do you want to be?" let's start asking better questions.
What kind of human do you want to be?
How do you want to treat and be treated by others?
How do you want to help improve the world when you're older?
The response from young boys here will create a blueprint that they can mature into.