Why do outdated perceptions of masculinity still dominate sport?
Everyone gets angry. Even Chelsea manager Graham Potter, it turns out. By now, you may well have seen the clip of the London club’s head coach answering (with admirable self-restraint) a question about whether he airs his frustrations from time to time. For those with better things to be doing than scrolling through their Twitter feed, Potter - on the back of calls from English pundits to be more aggrieved at decisions that go against his team - was asked, simply: ‘Do you get angry?’
The former Brighton manager’s withering response is well worth watching (you can take a look at the video clip below to see his answer), but the line of questioning is almost as interesting. Why was a reporter asking the coach of one of the world’s biggest clubs whether he experiences anger?
Glib comments about the media’s capability and appetite for clickbait aside, the answer surely lies in sport’s continued veneration of outdated stereotypes of masculinity. That Potter’s anger - or lack of - was even a talking point was driven by comments made by a number of former footballers, including Danny Murphy, a prominent part of the BBC’s Match of the Day commentary team.
Pointing to Potter’s reaction to a penalty appeal in Chelsea’s recent match against West Ham - which was turned down by the referee - Murphy said: “I wish he was more angry…I feel I am more angry than him.”
Murphy’s logic, you’d assume, is rooted in the belief that an overt display of frustration from Potter might have a) influenced the official’s decision-making and b) provided players and supporters with reassurance that he cares about the club’s on-pitch fortunes. Less emotional regulation, more tubthumping, was the gist of the comment.
But the idea that a manager prowling the touchline, spitting venom at referees and opposing dugouts, would be better placed than Potter to affect Chelsea’s performance, isn’t borne out by the facts. Research shows that during English football’s Covid-enforced lockdown - when coaching teams were forced to watch matches from the stands - managers reported an uptick in their ability to analyse players’ performances. By distancing themselves from the type of distractions Murphy was keen to see Potter embroiled in, their focus improved.
This irrational, but widespread, desire for demonstrable anger isn’t confined to the touchline. In an interview last year, Wycombe midfielder David Wheeler explained how a culture of hypermasculinity can influence players’ behaviour, encouraging footballers to suppress vulnerability by putting public displays of anger on a pedestal.
“If you are, say, not picked to start a game or you're taken off when you feel like you maybe shouldn't have been, I think some feel that the correct response is anger or frustration,” he said.
“One of the most common phrases in football is, ‘Oh, my head's gone.’ It's almost a way of saying, ‘I should show anger, I should show frustration, I shouldn't show vulnerability.’
“It's got to be, ‘Oh, I'm going to kick out at someone, I'm going to boot a ball away, I'm going to shout at the coach or the manager for taking me off or throw my boots on the floor.’
“That behavior is almost acceptable behavior, an acceptable response…It's like, ‘Oh, he cares because he's angry and frustrated’ whereas if someone were to go and see the manager and say they're upset and they feel their confidence has been knocked and they feel vulnerable, that doesn't really fit with football culture.”
Wheeler also described the way in which outdated perceptions of masculinity can force elite athletes to play through injury, a trend common to many sports. NFL star Byron James recently took to Twitter to tell of the chronic pain he is suffering as a result of injections and pills administered during his playing career. Whilst the interventions allowed the cornerback to take to the field whilst injured, James, who once leaped over two Mini Cooper cars, is now unable to run or jump.
It’s a cautionary tale that will be familiar to anyone with an interest in or connection to elite sport. An athlete’s 'resilience’, it seems, is still largely measured in arbitrarily-picked, intangible qualities such as their ability to traverse the ‘pain barrier’.
Definitions of ‘resilience’ abound, but the below example - taken from Mustafa Sarkar and Abigail E. Page’s ‘Developing Individual and Team Resilience in Elite Sport: Research to Practice’ - is a useful example of how removed traditional depictions are from an up-to-date analysis of the concept.
Withstanding pressure, maintaining a sense of wellbeing and the ability to perform or proactively managing stress has very little to do with disguising sadness or vulnerability through public displays of anger.
Indeed, if coping with conditions of financial hardship is a better barometer of resilience than bad-mouthing referees, it’s worth referencing ‘The Poor “Wealth” of Brazilian Football: How Poverty May Shape Skill and Expertise of Players’. This 2019 research paper investigates the influence of poverty on Brazilian footballers’ physical and cognitive skills.
The study supports the idea that economic constraints in Brazil - where, in 2019, 13.5m people lived in extreme poverty and 11.3m were illiterate - provide an environment conducive to acquiring psychological skills, not least resilience. As one of the paper’s interviewees explains:
“When I went to Sao Paulo at the age of fifteen I was feeling like I was walking on a cloud. However, I must say that it was difficult to be on my own. I missed my family and friends a lot. On the other hand, I knew that it was the opportunity of my life. My mom was deeply sad when I left but I tried to cheer her up by promising this: “Soon I will be able to buy you a house”. Years later when I got the money from my first contract, the first thing I did was to keep my promise to her. Subsequently, along the years I bought a house for each of my brothers and sisters. But you see, I had determination and motivation to overcome any obstacles because I knew how hard the dark side of life is when you don't have enough food on your plate.”
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Thanks. In my work with ADHD clients (and in my personal experience) anger/masculinity is a consistent issue. So much so that I am currently considering writing a book about it, maybe next year (or at least including it in the one I am slowly working on). One of the most interesting conversations about anger for me in current times is about the constructive role of anger in Black activism, for example in the work of Myisha Cherry, building on the work of Audre Lorde and others (even more interesting for being largely a conversation about women and anger). This opens up lots of interesting angles when it comes to considering whether anger can be a constructive element in sport, but it also invites deep consideration of the differences in context and application between the two conversations. I think Roy Keane’s infamous tackle is Exhibit A on the evidence table for me, as a complex example of the use of anger in sport, and how it can open up all sorts of questions about violence, revenge, and competitive spirit. Such an important conversation, and great to see it raised here.