Exploring Masculinity and Female Role Models

Is man no more than this?

King Lear

This week, we wanted to look at what it means to be a ‘man’ with the team. This is a necessary conversation to have with young men as it will hopefully make them more cognisant of who they are and who they will become. As I have previously mentioned, the fact that such conversations are taking place in a sports environment could be a helpful way for these people to explore such ideas. One of my aims as a coach is to make these young men, better men through the medium of sport.

We started with two clips that Lynx had used in a campaign a few years ago called ‘Men in Progress’.

The idea behind showing the group these clips was to provoke some dialogue before we set them a discussion task afterwards.

One line that really stands out to me from the ‘Becoming a Man’ piece was this:

“Part of growing up as a man, is to take all the sh*t and bounce it off you.”

This idea seemed to resonate a lot with many of the group as they were fully aware of the pressures that come with being a man. It is one that I identify with and it can be burdensome, appearing to always be in control. Later, there were a few members of the group who touched on how tiring it is is to “have to” act differently between their male friends and female friends.

Towards the end of the ‘Becoming a Man’ video comes (in my opinion) the best definition of what it is to be a man:

“If you can be true of who you are and express yourself, how you want to express yourself, then that makes you a man really.”

No masks. No burdens. No bullsh*t. No agenda. No posturing. No competition. No fear.

Be true to who you are.

After some initial discussions, we split the group into backs and forwards. With the forwards, we asked them to discuss and put down some ideas around the question: What does it mean to be a ‘good‘ man?  In the next room, the backs looked at the question: “What does it mean to be a real man?” We asked them to jot down some bullet points or to think of some examples where possible.

We then had them swap rooms so they could see what the other group were doing. We then brought them all together and asked: What is the difference between being a good man and being a real man? I also introduced the line:

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

Marcus Aurelius

This was where we came a little bit undone. We had many ideas of what characteristics a good man was but how do we make it a reality? How can we live these ideals?

While this is the very reason I want to undertake this project, we left the discussion there. I wanted to start them thinking and I feel we had done that. We will find other opportunities to discuss these ideas with them in smaller groups or individually during training sessions.

*Side-note: Just in case anyone felt that this discussion was conducted with the most urbane and sensitive group of teenage boys ever, I would like to draw your attention to a comment written on the white-board desks that the backs were using (therefore written by one of the forwards once we swapped rooms):

Now apart from the poor spelling – I may or may not teach this young man English! – and his dotting of the ‘n’ for some reason(?), we did briefly explore how perceived ‘femanin’ traits can be positive such as a willingness to express yourself. But I am not entirely sure that is what the creator of this observation meant though…

While we left the discussion there, I have updated our online platform to try and introduce some other elements that tie into what we were exploring. I have spoken before about using female coaches to show-case their knowledge of the game. We have shared the segment below in which Rocky Clark, the most capped English rugby player of all time (134), talks through some ways to retain possession around the fringes of the ruck:

*Disclaimer: One for the rugby nerds!*

While I feel that it is important to have more female voices in coaching, I also wanted to  introduce some positive female role models to the group. I felt the best way to do this was through two incredible athletes in Heather Fisher and Portia Woodman. Both of these players are mainly part of the international 7s circuit and so I introduced a highlight from the Men’s England 7s team at the World Cup last year:

While it may seem counter-intuitive, I did so because I want the group to value the skills and execution under pressure of rugby players, be it women or men. We wanted to give examples from the men’s and the women’s game on an equal footing, side by side and asking the same sorts of questions of each clip.

To get them thinking about some aspects of the play that we could look to replicate in our training, I asked the following questions:

Look at how the ball is kept alive and how players work hard off the ball to get ‘Back In (the) Game’ (BIG); notice how Mitchell (the kicker) is aware of the space all across the pitch – how is he able to see this? How might he know the kick is the best option for a score? Does he have any other options available? What does training look like for him? Finally, think about Burgess watching the play unfold the other side of the pitch and yet holding his width – why? What else might he have been thinking or looking to do?

The next clip is from a 7s tournament in Paris last year and features some incredible efforts from Portia Woodman to affect the play and ultimately, cross the whitewash for a brilliant try:

The comments and questions to provoke them with this clip were:

Count how many involvements Portia Woodman has in this try – think about her getting Back in the Game (BIG), her catch/pass skills, her ability to offload; how she carries the ball into contact; how she supports the ball carrier and supports the space. Why do you think it is her that scores the try? What is she doing in training to help her perform like this? What things can you take from this clip to help with your game?

The last piece is an interview with Heather Fisher who is an incredible role model for young men and women both on and off the field. In this piece, she outlines some of her ups and downs through battling anorexia, struggling with long term injury, the significance of her team and her difficulties in dealing with alopecia.

Fisher’s story is particularly interesting because it touches on some of the issues about stress, anxiety and identity. Hopefully by reducing the stigma around such issues we allow more people to reach out for help if and when they need it.

So where to next with the ideas raised during these discussions? This Saturday we have an away game that will see us on a bus for over two hours. I have made hundreds of these trips before and always sit in the first few rows. I think rather than being just a journey to a fixture, I will see it as an opportunity to venture beyond the front of the bus to sit with the young men I coach and get to know them better. It could be a good chance to explore some of the ideas and discussions we started this week. Or just to ask them what they are doing for the weekend or upcoming half-term (and yes, it is almost half term already.) I am sure I will also learn plenty about music I have never heard before but I wonder what else we can learn about one another.

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