Friday, 20 June 2014

Working with Boys - ideas on getting it right...

Are there things about boys that we should consider to help them flourish? Are these things any different than what you might do to help girls flourish?  Are there ways of working with boys that optimize the engagement, the learning, the relationships? Can these things help boys commit to something in a deeper way? be more willing to work hard to achieve something challenging? 

Don't get me wrong, My work here isn't about diminishing the important needs of girls (I have two of my own daughters) and I'm not suggesting for a minute we need to segregate sexes in training sessions - at least as the norm.  But would there be value for girls and for boys to spend more time in same sex training groups as adolescents?  These are some questions I have been thinking and talking about for some time.  I think its our role as men to do the important work for boys that incredible female role models in our sport such as Chandra Crawford or Kikkan Randall have been doing for girls.  

It started for me because I am a father. When my son was about 12 I read a book that changed the way I looked at my role as a dad in his journey to manhood.  The book was The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian from Washington state. Oh, I had always been a super engaged dad even up to then.  But the epiphany for me at that time was around realizing the important role that men (most importantly Dads, but also coaches, teachers. etc) play in helping boys grow into men who have purpose, passion, direction, and most important have a sense of the important role that men play in our world - as parents, as spouses, as coaches, as teachers, as community leaders.  This is important work.  

Yesterday evening something serendipitous happened.  I had a bit of free time and so wanted to tackle tidying a corner of the basement that was in disarray.  In doing so, I opened bins full of things that came from a different time in my family's life and consequently spent a couple of hours doing work that might have only taken 30 minutes.  I came across notes i had written to myself while reading Gurian's book.  I came across artifacts of relationship between my son and myself - from a time in his life when he was a toddler, a preschooler, a school boy, an early adolescent.  I'll admit, I was captivated by the reflection.

The timeliness of this reflection was profound for me - this year my son graduates from high school.  An honour student from the National Sport School, a national junior team biathlete, a descent human being with ambition, direction, passion, and a caring and fun being.  Finishing high school, I realized is one of only a few societal rights of passage for boys to transition to being an adult male in our world.  An important acknowledgement of accomplishment and effort.  Gurian points out well in his writing that sadly in our north american culture these cultural opportunities to transition boys from childhood to adulthood are few and far between.  And so, as men, as dads, as coaches, we need to provide this important input to boys lives in a deliberate and thoughtful way, if we wish to ground boys in becoming men who give to our world, who respect women, minorities, children, and community.

What things can we do as male coaches to support boys in growing into men who are strong, independent, caring, nurturing, responsible, and who have vision and passion for their dreams?  Some of the things I have tried to do over time are as follows:

- show my own son that men can have deep and meaningful friendships with other men - I have found that men need other men to talk to about things that they might not be able to talk to with anyone else.  Boys need to see that men respect and love women in their lives as well - cause this models for them how to be a partner in life.

- surround boys with positive male role models - It was extremely gratifying to pull together a couple of world snow day boys' events we called 'boyz got game' aimed at creating an experience where young male skiers could spend a day with national and provincial team role models.  Drew Goldsack, Sean Crooks, Phil Widmer were only a few of the Olympic athletes who helped with the intiative.

- provide boys with physical challenges - give them something they can feel proud of having accomplished.  Immerse them in healthy competition.  Model the separation of competition in the arena of play and friendship at all other times.

Supporting the needs of boys is important work.  Its work for everyone.  But I think its particularly the important work of men to think about helping our boys find purpose and passion in their lives.  For some boys this comes easily.  For many. many boys they need the helping relationship of a caring, compassionate, positive man to guide them as athletes and more importantly as adolescents growing into our next generation of men.  I know of many, many men who do this important work.

C'mon men - we can do this!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


  1. I realize you posted this a while ago, but just reading it now.

    I have 2 boys (and am separated from the father, so can't do much to provide a 'male' role model myself personally, but do try and find some better ones for them).

    I read this and kept thinking how equally applicable all your comments would be to a girl and even feeling puzzled as to why this is 'boy' oriented. All your comments are bang-on, and equally applicable to girls. I know because I am one.

    That said, I remember one of my greatest lessons as a young 10-yr old girl, when I was selected to be among the small group of girls to meet Roberta Bondar when she came to our school (pioneer canadian astronaut). She herself pointed out that although its great to have female role-models for girls, its equally important for boys to have female role-models too! Surely, girls have lots of male role-models as surely we must since men still dominate a lot of the major high-repsonsilbilty roles in our world. But Bondar was quick to point out how healthy it is for boys to also have high-profile women to look up to! That goes a long way to developing a respect for women.

    I always wanted to have girls of my own (and boys too), and now I am blessed with 2 boys. I wanted to be their role model and open all the doors for them to transcend what girls were traditionally brought up to aspire to. Took me a very short while to realize that indeed guiding boys to transcend the limits of what they are traditionally brought up to be is equally vital. Hence your comments resonate with me a great deal (about teaching them to develop meaningful relationships, a comfort and ability to deal with things emotional, a respect for all...)

    Thanks for your post!

  2. Thank you Anne for your thoughtful and thought provoking comments and reflection. It is true that boys flourish when they have a mom or female role models that care about them as people. I see the deep and meaningful relationship my son has with my wife(his mom) and I know she has set the standard for him of what it means to be a women in so many ways. Some of my perspective comes from my time of teaching in elementary schools, a place where there are few men, and experiencing first hand the importance to little boys of having positive, adult male presence. Boys are special beings, as are girls (I love my two daughters immensely). They all deserve the best effort we can give as parents to give them a good start. I wish you the very best with your boys! I am sure they are very lucky kids!