John Amaechi
Former NBA Player, Psychologist

Boys Have Become Emotionally Illiterate

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When society tells boys that being in touch with their emotions will make them into a girl or gay, they lose the ability to cope with stress and creatively handle adversity.

John Amaechi

John Amaechi is a British psychologist and a former NBA basketball player. At the age of 17, when he first picked up a basketball, Amaechi was not considered athletic enough to have any chance of success in domestic sports, much less overseas. Six years later he became a starting center in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over his eight-year career in basketball, he also played for the Orlando Magic and the Utah Jazz.

Since retiring from sports, Amaechi pursued a Ph.D. in psychology, recently co-authoring a paper on the subject of self-esteem, goal setting, and personality. He is a fifteen year veteran of the American Psychological Association (APA) and a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS), its division of occupational psychology, and the BPS Psychometric Testing Group.

In 2007, he released his bestselling memoir “Man in the Middle,” chronicling his life and work and revealing to the world that he was gay, making him the only openly gay man ever to have played in the NBA. 

Amaechi also has his own charity, the ABC Foundation, with a center in Manchester that sees 2,000 young people per week go through its doors. He has teamed with researchers at the Pennsylvania State University and the San Diego University for Integrative Studies to create a program that promotes social emotional training in young people who are coached in life as much as in sports.


Question: What is the biggest problem facing young students?

John Amaechi:  I mean my particular interest area is working in issues of emotional literacy.  What I see of the way that we educate boys and more than that, the way we socialize boys within their families and then in schools to me is tantamount to just removing any element of emotional intelligence from them. And then we wonder why we have problems with outbursts.  We wonder why we have problems with affect management, with emotional management, with executive skills—simply time management issues and things for especially boys in school. And I think for me one of the largest things I see is that as you deplete emotional literacy, as you take away from the emotional intelligence, as you tell boys, you know, being in touch with your emotions is not valid or in fact makes you more like a girl or even worse, makes you gay... what you find is their ability to cope with stress, their ability to handle adversity and their ability to creatively manage the educational kind of forum... it just diminishes.  I think one of the biggest problems you have with education is that this lack of emotional literacy as just having a massively deleterious effect on the success of boys.

Question: Is this true of all boys or particularly among minorities?

John Amaechi:  I think what is clear is that the impact of this lack of emotional literacy is not evenly spread over demographics, so I think especially when you start looking at Latino, Hispanic and African-American boys—black boys in Britain—you see that these impacts mean that they do less well compared to their peers, which is really unfortunate because you’ve got such a stereotype pressure on young people from minorities to be and act like people think they should. So combining the lack of emotional literacy they may be imbued with, with the fact that if you’re black you’re not supposed to be that smart and if you... as a boy you’re not even supposed to like school.  All of the sudden you’ve got kids who are afraid, black kids and Latino kids who are afraid to be great, afraid to bask in the enjoyment of education, lest they be labeled less than black, less than Latino, less they be called the oreo.  I think it’s a really deadly combination.

Recorded October 7, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller