Sports and the Tsarnaev brothers: Their backgrounds and their target

Sports involvement isn't typical of domestic terrorists. What's the relationship between the Tsarnaev brothers and sports? Photo: AP/FBI

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2013 - As details about the Tsarnaev brothers emerged, Tamerlan and Dzhokar, in the last week, two particular details seemed atypical of other domestic terrorists—their involvement in sports and their focus on a sports event.

According to numerous sources close to the family, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an accomplished amateur boxer, “fighting in a Golden Gloves Tournament in Salt Lake City and sparring in local gyms around the Boston area.”


The younger brother, Dzhokar, was equally accomplished in wrestling, becoming the team captain of Cambridge Rindge & Latin’s wrestling team his senior year. However, according to his coach, Peter Payack, he didn’t become team captain because he was the best wrestler, but because he was “usually the best leader and hardest worker. Some years, if no one is deserving, the coaches don’t assign a captain.”


Although both boxing and wrestling are considered “individual” sports—that is, sports in which athletes are paired up with an individual opponent rather than on a field or court with several teammates and several opponents—team spirit and cohesiveness still occur. It’s that cohesiveness that is thought to help keep young people from becoming depressed and anti-social.

Typically, sports involvement is a considered a benefit to children and young adults. The benefits range from physical activity (which combats obesity) to social connection.

According to Livestrong, “Sports also introduce and help to develop a variety of social skills. Sports teach children about the need for regular practice, how to follow directions, take turns and compete with a healthy attitude. Sports may also improve your child’s performance in school and help boost their confidence and self-esteem.”


In addition, in an article by Lucy Rector Filppu, “A dedicated, thoughtful, and skilled coach can have an amazing impact on children. In fact, sometimes your child will respond better to an objective coach than they will to their own parent. When kids have early, positive experiences with coaches, they continue to seek out and learn from mentors who can help them with school, jobs, and other interests.”


What’s interesting about that last assessment of the benefits of sports involvement is that Dzhokar may have, indeed, sought out and learned from a mentor to help him with other interests: his newly radicalized brother.

As close as the family appeared to be, some family interactions Americans take for granted were not present. According to several friends of Dzhokar, he rarely (if ever) mentioned having a brother—even one as athletically accomplished as Tamerlan. Some friends didn’t realize he had a brother at all. In addition, “Dzhokar never had family attend any of his matches…On senior night, Dzhokar walked out with one of the coaches when most of his teammates did so with a parent or relative.”


Then there’s the issue of their target—The Boston Marathon. Considered a “soft target” by law enforcement, the sports event was targeted more to cause mass fear than it was to harm a specific political or religious group. “Soft targets” are the most effective form of terrorism because attacks on them can almost never be predicted. And, they kill and hurt innocents. As athletes, one would think that both Tamerlan and Dzhokar would be hesitant to target a sports event.

News reports are leaning toward blaming Tamerlan Tsarnaev for brainwashing his younger brother into the terroristic acts. If that brainwashing did, in fact, occur, then the unfortunately truth it reveals is that a healthy involvement in sports cannot always protect a young person from committing atrocities. However, as has been made clear by many runners across the country who have focused their training on honoring Boston, a healthy involvement in sports can help individuals and groups heal.


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Jenni McNamara

With over ten years’ experience in the youth sports as a parent, coach, administrator, and fan, Jenni McNamara has seen how good sportsmanship can positively affect kids and families, but also how poor sportsmanship can have a devastating impact on their physical and emotional health.

As a volunteer with USLacrosse, first on its Youth Council and now on its Board Development Committee, Jenni has seen a national trend toward integrating sportsmanship into activities at the youngest ages. Her company, CHILL Manager ™, provides tools for organizations looking to enhance their sportsmanship efforts.

She writes a blog on sportsmanship at and her training information can be found on her website:


Contact Jenni McNamara


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