A common type of experiential group is a sports program that teaches basic skills in a sport and provides opportunities to play the sport. Participants learn how to function on a team and have the chance to work through defensive detachment and face and resolve their fear of the sport.
In addition to the conventional support groups, you may find an experiential group helpful. Experiential groups exist to provide you a specific experience. Some men's organizations kinds hold retreats and provide opportunities for men to experience rites of passage that may have been missed.
A common type of experiential group is a sports program that teaches basic skills in basketball, softball, or another sport, and provides opportunities to play the sport. Participants learn how to function on a team and have the chance to work through defensive detachment and face and resolve their fear of the sport. For many men, sports may have been one of the things that separated them from other boys. Participation in a sports program can help you:
- learn the rules of the sport and through practice gain a certain level of skill. These skills can improve his ability to relate to and father his own children.
- learn teamwork by playing with other men.
- experience friendly competition in a team sport.
- develop a healthier body image and increase feelings of self-worth.
- face and resolve old fears and feelings of rejection and feel accepted as a member of a team of men.
I enjoy individual sports such as weight lifting and running, and have even played competitive, nonteam sports like racquetball. But I always feared team sports. The first time I showed up at an experiential group basketball practice, I froze in the hallway when I heard the balls bouncing inside the gym. However, when I finally got the courage to go in, I found the other guys were just as uncoordinated and fearful as I was. I found it was a nonjudgmental environment where I could learn the rules of basketball and enjoy playing the game with other guys. Participating in the sports program really built my feelings of self-worth. My lack of skill in sports had been a reason for me to distance myself from other men, but with a little practice I found I was actually a good basketball player, and then had the confidence to play on the church basketball team.
The next season was softball, and I had greater fears. Even though I actually enjoyed basketball, I dreaded the thoughts of softball because it brought back old feelings of ridicule that I experienced on the ball field in elementary school. I wrote the following essay after my first softball practice in the sports program.
Take Me Out of the Ball Game
"The last time I was on a softball field was in the third grade, when we occasionally played softball for physical exercise. When they chose up teams, I was always the last to be chosen (even after the girls!). I always played outfield, because out there no one expected you to actually catch the ball or to be able to throw it all the way to the infield. In the batting lineup, I would say that I had already batted and continually slip to the end of the line.
"Now I am thirty-five years old and I can do anything I want— except play softball. And it still separates me from other men. I don’t care to become very good at softball; I just want to feel comfortable enough to join in an occasional game. So I determined that I would be at the first Saturday practice. After all, with basketball I found that I actually knew most of the rules of the game, and with some practice I wasn’t a bad shot. By the end of the season, I could mix it up with the best of them. Now, why couldn’t I do the same with softball? Besides, most of the guys learning softball were the same klutzes I had played basketball with.
"I showed up in the parking lot with my brand new Dale Murphy Rawlings mitt. How was I to know that you’re supposed to oil down a new mitt before you use it? I didn’t even bring a baseball cap. How can I act like I know what I’m doing without a baseball cap? And besides, where’s Buzz? He played little league, so he’ll know what to do. I need him! I got nervous and turned back to get something I suddenly ‘remembered I had left in the car.’ I met Buzz halfway back, and my confidence waxed strong again.
"Buzz and I picked up a softball and threw it back and forth. He showed me how to hold the ball and how to throw. Now that wasn’t so hard. I even caught almost every throw. The group then gathered for introductions and a little stretching, then the inevitable decree, ‘All those who want to play a game go over there. And everyone else comes over here.’ Of twenty-five guys, I was the only one to ‘come over here.’ I didn’t intend to play a game that day. I just wanted to practice throwing and batting, and learn some of the rules of the game. The coach gave me a few more pointers and we threw for a minute until he had to coach the game. I found a spot on the bleachers and watched my friends bat and run the bases. And everyone cheered. My mind went back to grade school, and suddenly I was a fat, uncoordinated little boy again. I was up to bat and the pressure was on to perform. Everyone was counting on me. And everyone knew I would fail. Why does it matter if you hit a ball with a stick or if you miss? With a few swings of the bat I would be a hero or a felon. Self-images are created and destroyed so easily. For some reason, softball represented all the negative experiences I had as a child. It reminded me how I felt as a fat, clumsy boy trying to fit in with the crowd. It represented peer pressure and inadequacy. And the tears came freely. Thank heavens for sunglasses. But soon the sunglasses couldn’t hide the tears that were streaming down my face and I had to leave. I found a shady spot under a tree about a hundred yards away where I could still see and hear the game. It was safer there. I could see them but they couldn’t see me. And no one could see me cry.
"Before long, Buzz found me and I cried on his shoulder. He reminded me how I started basketball without any experience and ended up doing well and how softball could be the same. He reminded me that courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in spite of fear. As I left the field that day, the immature side of me said, ‘Never set foot on this field again. You don’t have to go through this humiliation.’ But the side of me that wants to grow assured me that I had to face my fears head-on. I have something at stake. My four-year-old son plays t-ball on a community team and I am scared to play catch with him. (As I write this, I am overcome with emotion that a thirty-five-year-old father would be scared to play catch with his four-year-old son.) It won’t be easy to show up for practice next Saturday. The fears won’t be gone, and the tears will probably be near the surface again. But it’s something I have to do. And if it does not kill me, it will make me stronger.
"The next Friday, my friend Buzz took me to the batting cages to learn how to bat. He showed me how to hold the bat, how to stand, and how to swing. We were both surprised at how well I did. I missed only a half dozen out of fifty pitches! All it took was a little time and encouragement to give me the confidence I needed to go to the next practice.
"The next Saturday practice was a good experience. Since Buzz had helped me the day before, I went up to bat with confidence. The coach helped me in a kind way without being condescending. In the practice, I hit my five balls with only seven pitches. We then played a short game, and I hit both times I was at bat! After the practice, Andy talked with me about my fears of softball. He had only seen the confident side of me and was glad to see that I had fears and doubts and hesitations like everyone else. He admitted that although he feels comfortable about softball, he is scared to think about playing basketball. Since I feel comfortable with basketball, I promised to help him when basketball season comes. As I think back on what Buzz did to help me with softball, it is surprising what little it took to get me through what I viewed as an insurmountable fear. All it took from Buzz was a little time and concern for me to feel comfortable to show up at practices and now I can do the same to help Andy."