A Closer Look

It's late summer, and a high school football team is gathered on a field in Baltimore for its first preseason practice. "What's our job as coaches?" shout the team's several coaches.

"To love us," is the boys' resounding response.

"What's your job?"

"To love each other," is the teammates' reply.

This "signature exchange," atypical in the rough and often ruthless sports world, takes place many times during each football season at the Gilman School, a kindergarten through 12th-grade independent boys' school in Baltimore City, Md. Gilman Coach Joe Ehrmann, a former defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts, created a curriculum used in the football program, Building Men for Others, to help young athletes avoid damaging stereotypes of masculinity, such as aggressiveness and competitiveness, and cultivate strong relationships in their lives. Much of the program's curriculum is based on tenets supported by APA's Div. 51 (Society for the Study of Men and Masculinity) president, Larry Beer, EdD, and other division members.

"Ehrmann's approach creates a conception of being a man in which men are embedded in relationships with other people and free to express their love and attachment for them," says Ronald F. Levant, EdD, a co-founder of Div. 51, its first president and APA's 2005 president. "This is very much in tune with our division's aim to erode constraining definitions of masculinity, which inhibit men's development and their ability to form meaningful relationships."

Stereotypes and sports

Div. 51 members investigate the link between certain masculine stereotypes, gender role conflict and negative health outcomes, like depression, says former division president Sam Cochran, PhD, director of and professor in the University of Iowa counseling psychology program. Men have traditionally been socialized to not express emotions like fear, sadness or vulnerability, he says, and they aresocialized to seek power, thrive on competition and win at all costs. The end result is that some men have difficulty in their relationships, at work and at home.

The problem is exacerbated in the sports arena, where the intense training it takes to be a successful athlete heightens the drive to seek status and appear strong, notes Mark Stevens, PhD, Div. 51 president-elect and director of university counseling services at California State University, Northridge.

"To be an athlete, you are going to have to compete, work through pain; you're going to bully, intimidate, have a sense of bravado and no room for weakness," says Stevens. "There are many athletes who lead successful lives off the court or field, but we also find that other athletes don't know how to differentiate between behavior on the field and behavior in the real world."

Much of this discrepancy is due to what Ehrmann calls the "three lies of false masculinity," which purport that high levels of athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic success make them more manly, says Jeffrey Marx, a writer who spent a season with the Gilman team before describing the program in his book "Season of Life" (Simon & Schuster, 2004).

Stevens speculates that the reason a higher proportion of male athletes are accused of date and acquaintance rape than the general population may be that the very traits that make them successful as athletes, such as a sense of entitlement or a lack of empathy, can lead to violence.

"If you think about what an athlete needs to do, particularly in the more violent sports like football, basketball, soccer and rugby, they can't worry about inflicting pain on themselves or another person," he says. "It's a gross generalization, but that inability to be empathetic is taken off the field."

Changing the culture

Such potentially negative consequences of sports culture bothered defensive lineman-turned-coach Ehrmann. The professional football retiree, together with Gilman Head Coach Biff Poggi, developed the Building Men for Others curriculum for the school's football players in part by reading Levant's writings on normative male alexithymia, a disorder that includes difficulty expressing emotions. This disorder, according to Levant, can be a result of men being socialized to not express their feelings.

In addition to the signature exchange before practices and games, the Gilman coaches teach pregame lessons about stereotypes of masculinity and how to avoid them. They encourage inclusiveness: It's a team rule that if a player sees any boy--athlete or not-- eating alone in the school cafeteria, he goes up to him and invites him to join a larger group. The coaches also emphasize family ties and community service.

"Our coaches taught us that it is OK to be the most popular guy, or date the best-looking girl, and be the best at sports, but he also taught us that those shouldn't be the most important things on our individual agenda," says Napoleon Sykes, who graduated from Gilman in 2002 and went on to play football at Wake Forest University, from which he graduated in August. "Masculinity, although socially constructed to be based on those material and superficial things, has been misused and misunderstood by today's society. If you can get past the stereotypes, [the coaches] tell us, you will be a better father, husband, brother or son."

Part of the program involves every senior boy writing an essay about how he'd like to be remembered when he dies, which he then reads aloud before the final game of the season against Gilman's archrival, Maurice J. McDonough High School.

Much of what the players write about ties in directly to what they have learned in the season, says Marx. Sykes's particular causes have included lecturing at length to high school students about the "Season of Life" book. He's also working with friends from Wake Forest to develop sports and education camps on the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona.

The broad definition of manhood taught at the Gilman School is just the definition that members of Div. 51 want to promote, says Levant.

"Div. 51 members provide the basic research that will inform people like Joe Ehrmann as a coach and educator," Levant explains. Indeed, the Gilman program is now used in schools around the country, including in the U.S. Naval Academy and at an all-girls school in Louisiana, according to Marx.

And it isn't just men who benefit from improved communication. "My girlfriend just recently finished the book, and it has inspired her to go down different roads in her life, as well as work to create a stronger relationship with her mother," says Sykes. "So it's not just for boys and their fathers. The ideas are universal."

Div. 51 at a glance

APA's Div. 51 (Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity) advances knowledge in the psychology of men through research, education, training, public policy and improved clinical services for men. The division provides a forum for members to discuss the critical issues facing men of all races, classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations and nationalities. Div. 51 publishes a quarterly journal, Psychology of Men and Masculinity, and a newsletter for members. Members hold the division meeting and sponsor programs at APA's Annual Convention, and Div. 51 will sponsor the National Conference on Psychotherapy with Men on June 2 at California State University, Northridge. Contact Mark Stevens, PhD for more information on the conference. For more information on or to join Div. 51, visit the Div. 51 Web site.