This week's post

As I have moved from facilitating masculinity conversations with college guys to facilitating conversations with middle and high school students, I have found myself thinking about some core questions that I need to answer as I progress forward, particularly for the coaches I work with:


Why exactly should coaches have their teams participate in the Male Athletes Against Voilence (MAV) conversations? How will these conversations benefit their teams? How will the conversations contribute to each team’s success on the field, court, rink, track, or hill?


What follows is my first stab at answering these questions. By no means do I believe this response is either complete or comprehensive, but it has forced me to think closely about what lies at the core of MAV conversations.


First and foremost, MAV conversations provide teams with a generic team-building experience outside of their sport in much in the same way a team retreat would. Regardless of the content of the MAV conversation, the discussion forces participants outside of their comfort zones. And while a team retreat might be longer than a MAV conversation, the conversation forces partakers to confront questions that they are rarely, if ever, asked in their lives and which certainly wouldn’t come up on a team camping trip. Therefore, not only does a MAV conversation build team chemistry as the group goes through a common experience outside of players’ comfort zones, but it also provides a deeper experience because participants are actively reflecting on their own identities, as well as the team identity to which they belong, and how both those units fit into the community around them.


The conversations make all of us look at our own assumptions of what it means to be a man, and reflecting on these suppositions requires much of the same leadership and courage that it takes to win a league championship. How do you expect to perform in tough athletic situations if you don’t have the courage to personally open up and challenge your teammates to look at everyone’s individual attitudes as well as to discuss the collective team assumptions?


In addition to forcing us to reflect on our own attitudes, MAV conversations encourage a hugely beneficial leadership culture within a team. Teams in which players blindly follow their coaches or captains, simply due to their authority, are not usually very successful, especially if those same coaches or captains don’t make an effort to connect with the people “under” them. The best leaders are those who know more than just what position their players or fellow teammates play. As a member of these leaders’ team, you know that your coach and captain are invested in your well-being as a person – not just as a player – and how your well-being contributes to and benefits the collective goals of the larger group. In order to truly strike this balance between the individual and the group, team leaders have to connect with everyone through personal conversations. The conversations do not necessarily need to center on masculinity, but they must delve into subjects that percolate below the surface. Until a group opens up and truly challenges one another, like individuals do in MAV conversations, that team will remain much more isolated from itself than the teams who engage in the dialogue.


If we go beyond the forum style of MAV conversations and look closer at their content, we see that our attitudes toward masculinity mirror some of the things we talk about when we discuss leadership. In the same way that we agree that blindly following an authority figure on the team is not beneficial to a team’s success, blindly following what society tells us constitutes masculinity or what it means to be a man, without evaluating how we think and feel about masculinity, will clearly not benefit us as individuals. Most of the college men with whom I talk to during MAV conversations say that they have never been asked,  “What does it mean to be a man?” and many of them tell me afterwards that they wish they had participated in a MAV conversation in middle or high school. The conversations provide the space for guys to consider not only what they want to see in a man but also the factors that influence that definition. As a result, boys feel freer to be who they actually are and to own who they want to be in the future.


My first encounter with the Man Box, the exercise that now acts as the foundation to the rest of the session, was one of the formative experiences for my own identity, and it explains this sense of freedom. Athletics have been a huge part of my life, and I fit into the man box in many ways. However, as a shy child who often felt more comfortable with his female friends, I never felt like I totally fit in with all the other boys. Even in high school, I felt at home with my soccer or ski friends when we were on the field, going to games, or doing anything that related to the team, but I often felt a little distanced from many of them when we were out of season. Overall, the high school party scene held no appeal to me, I didn’t have a girlfriend until late in my senior year, I loved school and loved the small New Hampshire community in which I lived (while everyone else wanted to get out of both), and I had a group of very close female friends with whom I sometimes felt more at ease. It took me until I saw the man box my sophomore year at Colby to realize that the anxiety that I felt about not quite fitting into the “boys will be boys” group was superfluous and self-inhibiting. Once Professor Tappan revealed the pressures of our society’s definition of masculinity, I was able to relieve that pressure from my shoulders and be totally comfortable being Eric. Once I could see the box and see how it’s socially constructed and not “just the way things are,” I could live both in and outside of the box simultaneously and be exactly who I wanted to be rather than who it seemed like I should be.


I explain this process as one example of the transformation that can occur from even one exercise of a MAV conversation. I wouldn’t even consider claiming that my experience can be applied to all the young men who have seen the Man Box, but it does show the potential growth that can happen within individuals and within teams as a result of a MAV conversation. One of the greatest things about the facilitation (and one thing I focused on a lot when writing the curriculum) is how the activities don’t say that you cannot be the picture of hegemonic masculinity - the super macho athlete who drinks a lot and “gets” a lot of women – but it does open the picture for boys so that they don’t feel that they have to be that guy. MAV conversations shift the dialogue so that the image of that man is not the one and only standard.


Finally, my experience as both a participant and a facilitator of masculinity discussions like the MAV conversation have shown me that the exchange helps adolescent men form better relationships. They can form healthier connections with both their teammates and the women in their lives, because they have a better grasp on how societal pressures of gender act on both sexes. Partly as a result of these better relationships and partly as a catalyst for them, boys also show improved self-confidence, since they find it easier and more enjoyable to be themselves.


I will close by asking my reader to follow the request that we make at the end of every MAV conversation and which we hope that every participant feels more comfortable undertaking as they leave the session: we hope you can use your leadership qualities to act with courage, compassion, forethought, and especially empathy on behalf of one another both within this team and in our community, as well as on behalf of those you love.





For more information about MAV conversations and Eric's work facilitating groups, please check out his website at



 The Impact and Importance of Masculinity Conversations with Sports Teams


By: Eric Barthold



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