Team players — why we need to mix boys and girls in school-age sport 

This is the answer I got when I contacted a local sports club to start the new season with a mixed U7 team. “Mixing doesn’t work”.

The conversation was quickly shut down by a senior member of a club with no evidence, contrary to the myriad studies that have been conducted on the subject. It’s just not good for our boys to be shown off by girls. That’s the message. Loud and clear.

I am a physical education teacher in a large mixed secondary school. I recently transferred from an all-women’s single-sex school, where the participation rate in physical education has increased by about 90% in the junior cycle, while dropping even more for the senior cycle.

I hadn’t expected any difference in my students’ human behavior from the simple fact that their school was mixed. This was a wrong assumption. From day one, the girls resigned from team selection, they resigned from managing players, but most importantly, they resigned from participation. Yes, they did, but not to the best of their ability. No matter how many times I changed groups or modified games, the girls didn’t perform at their best.

Invisible

They avoided duels, stood on the various squares and courts and made themselves invisible. In a conversation with a group of my students, I found out that one of them played football for the Cobh Ramblers. I had never seen her make a tackle or steal the ball from another player. This girl hid her incredible talent. She certainly wasn’t the only talented athlete in my classes. Many of my students began telling me about how they played for GAA clubs, soccer clubs, basketball clubs, etc.

However, if you’ve watched a sports game on any given day, you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that most women have never seen a ball in their lives. I asked them why they weren’t playing. “I’m embarrassed, miss,” was the most common response. If in the first year, at the age of 12/13, they are embarrassed by male peers, when and where did it start? Most of the students I teach are from mixed-sex elementary schools. Are the schools the problem or just society in general? I know that in my own children’s elementary school, physical education training is separate, and blitz and competitions are separate.

The segregation of sports, especially team sports, has historically been based on the assumption that men outperform women in sports. In addition, the implementation of sports modifications to make them more suitable for women, for example Gaelic football allowing women to pick up the ball instead of kicking their foot under it in the men’s game, is also embedded in deep sexism that accepted female athletes equally capable, but significantly less capable than men.

We need to open our eyes to the benefits of mixing team sports. If you ask any female camogie player, soccer player or county soccer player how their underage training went, they will tell you they played with the boys. Exceptional players are allowed to play with the boys. Imagine what we could achieve as a nation if we let the non-extraordinary players, the average players, play with the boys too? According to a study by the Football Association of England, girls improve their perception, responsiveness and positioning in mixed-gender environments because getting past boys sometimes requires thinking outside the box. (This particular study showed such benefits for all mixed-competition players. The EFA increased the age for mixed-competition football to under 18).

Advantages?

But what about the guys themselves? Are there any disadvantages when boys play with girls, or rather are there advantages? yes there is

First, it creates mutual respect for the opposite sex on and off the field. Second, it encourages more diverse skills. For example, studies have shown that boys are more narcissistic in the way they play, they want to be the one to score, a unique urge to score as many goals as possible.

Girls, on the other hand, happen more. They tend not to focus on their own goal score but on the team’s. Third, mixed-sex sports may have lower injury rates because aggression rates are reduced when both sexes perform on a field together. Eventually, gender stereotypes and gender bias will be dismantled, which will ultimately improve society for the greater good.

A lot of people have told me that boys don’t pass girls by. That is not true. My own daughter joins her brother’s team when they need players. Maybe at the first match or so the guys were dubious but when she showed her skills they accepted her as one of them. That’s what should matter, your skills. If a child can demonstrate age-appropriate skills, what should it matter what gender they are? If we could get this right at the youngest age possible, maybe fewer teenage girls would drop out.

Then maybe fewer girls would hide their talents from their male peers and more girls might achieve more sporting successes. Athletics, swimming, tennis and martial arts to name a few, mixed genders, so why not team sports? Keep kids in sports until they aren’t kids anymore. We have nothing to lose and so much to gain.

Is it bad for morale to get hit by a girl? It only works if we let it. If we continue to allow the “beat by a girl” mantra tossed around in casual pitchside conversations, we will remain stunted in our development as a sporting nation. Let ’em play, let ’em play together and see what we can accomplish.

  • Stephanie Lynch is a qualified secondary school PE teacher in Cork with over 20 years experience. She also volunteers as an underage GAA and soccer coach.

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