Many boys and men are struggling to find purpose in the modern world. The signs are everywhere: men dropping out of the workforce, checking out of school, turning away from family. The most tragic symptom of all is the high male suicide rate, which is four times higher than among women, and now rising fastest among younger men.
What’s going on? I’ve been thinking a lot about this question in recent years. The plight of boys and men was a constant theme on the campaign trail in Ohio, where I ran for the U.S. Senate in 2022.
To me the answer is clear: we don’t have a positive idea of a man’s role today, and therefore, we don’t know how to guide boys into manhood.
Our politicians are not helping. Too many progressives are stuck in a negative messaging spiral. Meanwhile some conservatives are putting forth solutions that are regressive, angry, and narrow minded. This conservative approach is trying to teach males to mask the pain and insecurity with a false bravado and scapegoating. And it doesn’t work.
We need to be much better than simply retrieving a cardboard cutout of the 1950s Marlboro Man and sticking it on our boys’ walls. We’ve moved beyond the one-dimensional, brash male archetype. At the same time, we can’t only tell boys all the ways not to be a bad, toxic version of themselves and expect them to find their way. Find their way into what?
Men today have more freedom to determine their own path. This creates great opportunities. But it is challenging too. Freedom demands more discipline, not less.
“In today’s culture, discipline is considered a negative, almost foul, word” says former Ohio State football coach, Jim Tressel. “We think that discipline means no freedom, no fun and no joy. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fundamentals of discipline will actually help us live more freeing, invigorating lives.”
Tressel is expressing some ancient wisdom. From the Greek Republic to the Holy Roman Empire to the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, whose ideas gave birth to the American Republic, the lesson has been passed on that free societies require prepared, responsible citizens. As educator and historian Edith Hamilton writes in The Echo of Greece, “Fundamental to everything the Greeks achieved was their conviction that good for humanity was possible only if men were free, body, mind, and spirit, and if each man limited his own freedom.”
Ancient Eleusis, Greece
The ancient Greeks knew that handing over responsibility required a playbook. Believe it or not, dating back to Greece’s Eleusinian rites of passage, there were systems established to guide young people through trials. These exposed them to feelings of hardship in order to teach resilience and arm them with the discipline required to operate in a free society.
There was an innate understanding that self-discipline needs to be taught for the success of the individual and the flourishing of society at large. And this was especially true for boys and young men.
How did we lose track of these teachings and why are they relevant to boys today? Let me explain, because I don’t think it was any one change or a concerted effort to hurt anyone.
The shift was gradual, a result of a persistent refusal to accept only one version of what it meant to be human. These efforts, over hundreds of years, were done with just intention to create a more inclusive society and should be applauded. At the same time, our societies and economies evolved.
We left the woods and our connection to the outdoors; we moved away from our spiritual and religious gathering centers, leaving behind the practice of gathering in person with a shared purpose; and finally, we sat down to work at a desk, removing the physical purpose of our bodies. Importantly, the elements lost here are the same as the central tenets of what traditional rites of passage offered: a community-sponsored, spiritual, and corporeal process of maturation.
Put simply, we inadvertently phased out every practice and tradition designed to mentor boys into healthy manhood in a just and free society.
It’s important to note that many of the resulting challenges are deeply affecting girls too. Today, I’m writing about boys in particular because in the midst of rapid changes of recent decades, we have not fostered the vital conversation about the meaning of male identity in our rapidly changing world.
It is tempting to dismiss “men’s struggles”, but we can’t any longer. These problems are becoming grievances that, without being acknowledged and addressed, are being weaponized.
I believe this moment should be seen as an opportunity of a lifetime. Let’s take what we can from the old, embrace the new, and forge a new path for our young boys.
So where do we go from here? I believe it starts with empowering some of the most important people in mentorship positions, the ones who are there in person with a large swathe of our boys and young men: coaches.
Elite coaches embody and know how to teach the essential qualities our communities need to raise healthy and grounded men. Coaches hold their players to a certain standard and constantly push them to pursue excellence. These coaches develop their players’ focus, attention, and awareness. They teach resilience and overcoming adversity with class and dignity. They teach sportsmanship.
We can go even further and get our coaches out of the locker rooms and into broader leadership roles. We need them in our schools teaching these essential skills and mindsets.
Managing your feelings when you lose a game is a critical life skill that mirrors the challenges of our adult lives. It includes how and when to ask for help and how to talk to yourself honestly while seeing loss as an opportunity for growth.
Brian Kight, who established one of the best coaching systems I’ve ever read, asks:
“What would happen if we went back to developing kids for the adult life they’ll someday need to live? What if rather than lowering expectations when they experience stress and struggle, we instead allowed kids to experience stress and struggle. And we used those experiences to teach, train, and mentor them on the value of stress, and struggle to learn and grow?”
This wisdom of coaching should be available to all our boys and men. A key ingredient is the in-person model that activates and challenges boys, mentally and physically. Coaching can be a conduit to broader conversations about how boys can take responsibility for their time instead of being passive consumers of content, create spaces where boys can talk about what it means to be a man, and cultivate the idea of positive masculinity in a fairer and freer society. Boys and young men need guideposts that go from the playing field to the classroom to everyday life.
There are many efforts already underway. Backed by a host of professional athletes, organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes are modeling coaching and mentorship programs that support young people, on and off the field. We need to bolster these efforts, learn from them, and build similar models that can appeal to a wide variety of young people.
I believe a national effort led by the most elite coaches in America is just the strategy we need to galvanize the support of the American people. They have a proven track record of making good men out of boys. There is no group of people that would connect better or inspire our boys and men more than our coaches. And we need them now. The game clock is ticking.
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