Monday, April 2, 2012

Girls and Boys Playing Sports Together—A Few More Thoughts

I received a number of interesting comments on an earlier post titled Another Reason Why Competitive Girls Should Play Sports with Boys. Some reflected strong opinions for and against girls "Playing Up" with boys. The last two people to comment didn't waffle in the least. One said, "Boys and girls playing together in competitive sports after adolescence is rubbish." while the other stated, "You are absolutely are setting the interests of competitive female athletes back 20 years with this philosophy."

Well, the last thing that I meant to do with my original post was to diminish the opportunity for female athletes to enjoy competitive sports!

In some of these blog comments and a few related tweets mentioning @InsideYouthSprt, there was some confusion regarding a couple of points I originally made. So let me clarify the message I was trying to communicate.

"Strong and Competitive"

First, my support for girls Playing Up with boys was directed primarily at strong, competitive girls who want to improve their play. These are the girls who have the physical ability, sports skills, confidence, and desire to compete against the best competition—regardless of whether its boys or girls, young or old. There is little doubt that these girls (and for that matter, any athletes with these qualities) benefit from this type of play.

In a recent twitter conversation on this subject, an interview with Katie Smith (the WNBA star basketball player) was mentioned. In that GameChangers interview (about 16 minutes in), Katie talked about always playing with boys when she was young. Katie recognized early on that boys provided her with the best competition to improve her already formidable skills.

But as one person later tweeted, "Not a whole lot of Katie Smiths out there." My response: "True...but they're out there! Get the best comp, wherever."

I had the opportunity this last summer to meet and briefly talk with Brianne O'Rourke, a former Big Ten honorable mention point guard who played at Penn State. She was working on her outside shot with another friend of mine. Watching her, it was obvious that she was both physically strong and possessed skills that were better than those of many (most?) high school boys basketball players. As we talked, Briane also struck me as both confident and tough minded. In other words, she possessed all of the traits need to compete against males, and get better in the process.

Still another example is my local high school's point guard. Although not tall, she is extremely athletic. She regularly competes against boys in pickup games to improve her play. (One of the tips I included in my original article came from a discussion with her.)

Self-Directed Play vs. Organized Sports

The second point I want to reiterate is that the recommendations in my original article were mainly directed toward participation in self-directed play (pick-up games). Although my response to some of the article's comments made this point clear, the wording in the initial post unfortunately did not do so. So here again is the point I was trying to make: For strong, competitive girls there are few drawbacks, if any, of Playing Up against boys in pickup games. It's simply one more opportunity to find better competition.

Playing Up in organized sports is another matter—especially when it supplants play with other girls. Whether its boys or girls, Playing Up at higher/older levels has its risks. One of these is that the young athlete ends up playing team roles that possibly stunt the player's development. Also, young players may find themselves in a social environment that is more challenging (and less fun).

In Mars & Venus Have Nothing To Do With It, the blog's author discusses in detail his real world experience with both coed soccer programs and ones that were separated by sex. He makes a number of good points why, for most girls, play with other girls is more beneficial. Even though many of the girls were physically able to compete with the boys, the drawbacks mentioned above came into play. Girls played less aggressively, focusing their play on team roles ("passer") that were not necessarily in their best long term developmental interest.

A similar experience occurred at my local YMCA several years ago. Although the Youth Basketball League was coed (ages 6-11) at the time, the Y's new director decided to establish a separate girls program. Girls participation substantially increased beyond what it was in prior years. For most girls it seemed, the "girls only" approach was the better one—at least in terms of joining in on the play. Interestingly, there were no girls who decided to participate in the "boys" league (which was still coed and available to the better girls who wanted to Play Up.) I can't help but wonder if the strong pull of "community" was in the best athletic interest of the more talented girls.


So to sum up, here's my recommendation: Physically strong, confident, and skilled girls should always seek opportunities to Play Up in pickup games. To find convenient competition, this will most likely mean playing with boys. Regarding Playing Up with boys in organized sports, parents should think carefully about the benefits and drawbacks of doing so. The right choice is likely one that is particular to each girl and each opportunity.

Do you have any further thoughts on girls competing with boys?

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
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Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved


Wendy LeBolt said...

Hey Jeff,
Thanks for the continuing conversation. I agree that for organized play your participation of girls is going to increase if you create girls-only options. But for the strongest players, choosing to "play up" or play with the boys may be a good way to get stronger competition. And in high school they will have 4 years worth of ages to compete with. Ironically, if you have read the latest Fit2Finish blog post ( have linked to a US Youth Soccer video which shows girls and boys elite U15 play. The girls are actually more "brute force" and the boys more agile and full of finesse. Opposite what I had supposed. Makes me agree with you more, mixing might be a good thing. Now the social consequences are something that needs discussing.

Jodi Murphy said...

Wendy makes a good point. Having girls-only teams means the girls that don't want to compete with the boys can still belong to a team, have fun, learn the sport and compete. But if a girl wants to play up (whether it's against boys or older girls) and she is prepared to do so, why not give her the chance?

Jeffrey Rhoads [Inside Youth Sports] said...

Thanks Wendy and Jodi for your thoughts. I don't disagree with providing the exceptional girl with the opportunity to play up against boys in organized sports. Take a look at this article that talks about a local girl, Annie Houghton, who won the BOYS WPIAL AA tennis title back in 2006. She is an excellent example of the special girl who should have the opportunity to Play Up on a boys team.

I may be wrong, but I don't believe there are a lot of Annie Houghtons out there. So, unlike, a few others who have commented here, I don't think we need to turn these situations into an ideological issue (i.e., if girls can play on boy's teams, than boys should be able to play on girl's teams). As you say Jodi, just give these unique girls the chance to compete to the level of their ability.

Wendy, I took a look at your video clip. To my untrained soccer eye, I would agree that the girls seemed to plough through their opponent more often the boys. When I assisted with the local girls high school basketball team, I saw some of the same behavior. A few girls were very physical (and fearless). But too many of these girls plodded around slapping their feet flat against the floor instead of playing more on the balls of their feet. I have no doubt that your training programs would help these girls. But I still wonder whether much of this is caused by younger girls' lack of self-directed sports play and games (compared to young boys). Do more games of tag, wrestling, and pickup possibly help teach boys how to better maintain an athletic stance (knees bent, proper weight distribution, and playing on the balls of their feet)?

Wendy LeBolt said...

Not sure, Jeff. My intuition tells me that the coaches of these kids skipped the "stronger" girls quickly through the creative stages to the forceful stage. It makes the game look (and feel) very different.

I would certainly say that with more girls playing rec sports than ever before, you'll see more girls than boys that appear uncoordinated and heavy-footed. The broad spectrum of girls more populated by the less "athletic" or "not yet discovered athleticism." (that is not the girls in this video)

Many of the girls on my rec teams arrived there because they/their parents wanted them to get exercise and gain "body" confidence. Of course, they don't arrive until 7,8,9 years old. Then, we start into the REAL issue - everyone is looking at me. What will they think?

You will be glad to hear I am getting ready to partner with a local indoor facility to offer some "pick up" soccer. Mixing boys and girls and ages, starting young. Allowing parents to bring all their kids to one place at one time. Whew! we'll see how this goes. I have my fingers crossed that the mixture will do what you and I remember it always doing - allowing the older to welcome and mentor the younger,and the younger to develop and embrace some role models. Plus, Fit2Finish can take some interns and get some young women into "coaching" where they belong!!

Jeffrey Rhoads [Inside Youth Sports] said...

Good luck Wendy with your pickup soccer program. It sounds like it will nicely complement your area's more organized leagues. I'll look forward to reading on your Fit2Finish blog about your lessons learned. :-)

Unknown said...

I'm interested in this comment you made.
So, unlike, a few others who have commented here, I don't think we need to turn these situations into an ideological issue (i.e., if girls can play on boy's teams, than boys should be able to play on girl's teams).
I'm considering writing an essay for a college class along these lines. What are your thoughts on boys playing in "girls" leagues? Thanks Karen A. Davis

Jeffrey Rhoads [Inside Youth Sports] said...

Hi Karen. I agree with you that "we don't need to turn these situations into an ideological issue."

Here's a quote from my latest book, The Young Athlete's Guide to Playing Sports, "Sports are essentially structured play,where participants agree to adhere to a set of rules that both define the game and promote fair competition." If you accept that, on average, boys have greater strength, etc., then it's hardly fair to have boys playing on girls teams after puberty.

Governing organizations generally need to set rules that establish a standard for fair competition as it applies to the whole. You see this done across many sports and at all levels. The most obvious example are the different size classifications in sports. You see it in the size of high schools (AA, AAA, etc.) and weight classifications in sports such as wrestling. You also see this principle throughout youth sports (age, weight, etc.). The idea, of course, it to promote a fair, safe competition, where each participant begins with a roughly equal opportunity to win.

I do think that the exceptional girl should be allowed to "play up" should her physical gifts enable her to compete. Given that girls, as a whole, enjoy no physical advantage over boys, I think that it's fair for the exceptional girl to play on a boys team.

I'm all for equal opportunity in sports. Ideally, every boy and girl has the chance to participate in the sport of his or her choice. But when this principle is extended to the point that it inherently creates unfair advantage, I believe that it undermines the core principles of sports play. And even where a boy many not have the opportunity to play a given sport, fairness in the competitive setting trumps other considerations.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your comments. I will check out the book. However, I would like to note, even if you don't post my comment, that as an adult female athlete, I cringe every time I read your "play up" term. It is insulting actually. I was a child athlete, an adult athlete, and a coach of children and adults. It seems condescending to assume that just because an athlete is, female playing with males that it indicates that she is "playing up". I have often been the most skilled player even among the opposite sex.
I just thought you might not have heard that perspective before, and it may give you pause to consider the term.

Jeffrey Rhoads [Inside Youth Sports] said...

Hi Karen. "Playing up" is a term I use to describe the generally accepted principle that a competitive athlete's abilities tend to improve when he or she plays against better competition. It applies equally to boys and girls and across gender. It's non-sexist. I have no doubt that there are many males who would be "playing up" against you in your best sport. But that's still looking at the issue from the perspective of individuals.

I suspect you're upset with my use of the term as it relates to groups. That, as a whole, at any given competitive level, females are "playing up" against males.

Sports are physical, some much more so than others. If you accept that males, on average, have more physical strength and size, then these attributes provide them with a competitive advantage. That advantage may not be significant when other factors such as skill, tactics, intangibles, etc. are factored in. But all things being equal, it is an advantage.

Again, this is about groups, not individuals. Take the 20 most accomplished female athletes in any given sport (basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, etc.) and have them play against the 20 best male athletes. Do so over multiple competitions. Who will win? Is that a fair competition?

The original question was "Should boys be allowed to play on girls teams?" If you can come up with a system to individually measure each athlete's physical ability, and qualify him or her for a given level of play, then maybe so.

But the reality is that the decision is not made at this granular level. Individuals are classified into groups based on factors such as age, weight, and sex. Schools are classified by their enrollment and whether they recruit. All of this is done in an attempt to foster a fair competition.

As long as these qualifying decisions continue to be made at the group level, I believe that it's unfair to permit boys to play in competitive girls leagues.

Anonymous said...

So I don't get it. Do you or do you not want girls in high school to play on boys team's? I personally as finishing my 9th grade year think that it could be a great thing for our oncoming seniors in certain sports. And what about football? We have some girls who mess around with the idea and then some who actually want to try out. What do you say to that. Should they try out.
This has all come to my attention because of a speech topic and I chose this one! And I don't get it at all. I mean Education Amendments Title IX states that girls and boys should have equal slots but now a day there seems to be only sports for girls and boys!
I mean for example look at the girl who is a quarterback in Florida for her South Plantation High School team. Why isn't everyone OK with that. We all love to do certain things. Why can't we just express ourselves! It's what everyone wants these days. I'M JUST REALLY CONFUSED!!!!!!

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