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

Studies find allowing girls and boys to play team sports together provides advantages for both genders.
Team players — why we need to mix boys and girls in school-age sport 

Sisters Aisling, Roisín and Caoimhe Power enjoy the soccer on the Green in Bishopstown organised by Cork City Council in association with the FAI and Cork Sports Partnership. Picture: Brian Lougheed

“Playing against girls is bad for the boys’ morale”. 

This was the response I received when I approached a local sports club about starting the new season with a mixed U7 team. “Mixing doesn’t work”. 

The conversation was shot down rapidly by a club’s senior member, without any evidence to back it up, contrary in fact, to the countless studies done on the subject. It simply isn’t good for our boys to be shown up by girls. That’s the message. Loud and clear.

I’m a PE teacher in a large mixed secondary school. I recently moved from a single-gender female school where the participation rate for physical education was up around 90% in the Junior cycle, dropping more for the senior cycle. 

I had not anticipated any difference in the human behaviour of my students by the simple fact of their school being mixed. This was an incorrect assumption. From day one the girls stepped back from team selections, they stepped back from managing players but most importantly they stepped back from participation. Yes, they participated, but not to the best of their ability. No matter how much I changed groups, or modified games, the girls did not perform to the best of their abilities. 

Invisible

They shied away from tackles, they stood on the various pitches and courts and made themselves invisible. In a chat with a group of my students, I found out one of them played soccer for Cobh Ramblers. I had never seen her once make a tackle or take the ball off another player. This girl was hiding her amazing talent. She certainly wasn’t the only talented sportswoman in my classes. Many more of my female students began telling me about playing for GAA clubs, soccer clubs, basketball clubs, etc. 

Yet, if you watched a game of PE on any given day, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that most of the females had never seen a ball in their lives. I asked them why they didn’t play. “I’m embarrassed, Miss” was the most common reply. If they’re embarrassed by male peers in first year, at 12/13 years of age, then when and where did it start? Most of the students I teach came from mixed-gender primary schools. Are schools the problem or just society in general? I know in my own children’s primary school sports training is segregated and blitzes and matches are segregated.

The segregation of sports, in particular team sports, was historically based on the assumption that men are superior to women on the sporting field. Furthermore, the implementation of modifying sports to make them more suited to females, for example, Gaelic Football allowing ladies to pick up the ball, not get their foot under it in the men’s game, is also embedded in deep sexism, which accepted female athletes as capable, but clearly less capable than men.

We need to open our eyes to the benefits of mixing team sports. If you asked any female county camogie player, footballer or soccer player how their underage training went they’ll tell you they played with the boys. Exceptional female players are allowed to play with the boys. Imagine what we could achieve as a nation if we let the non-exceptional players, the average players play with the boys too? According to a study by the English Football Association, girls improve their awareness, reactions and positioning in mixed-gender environments because getting past the boys sometimes requires some out-of-the-box thinking. (That particular study showed such benefits to all players from mixed competition. The EFA increased the age of mixed soccer to Under 18s).

Advantages?

But what about the boys themselves? Are there disadvantages to boys playing with girls or more to the point, are there advantages? Yes, there are.

Firstly, it establishes mutual respect for the opposite gender both on and off the playing field. Secondly, it encourages a more varied skill set. For example, studies have shown that boys are more narcissistic in how they play, they want to be the one to score the goal, a singular drive to get as many scores as possible. 

Girls on the other hand pass more. They tend not to focus on their own goal count but rather the team's one. Thirdly, mixed-gender sports can have a lower injury rate as aggression rates are lowered by both genders performing together on the one pitch. Finally, it breaks down gender stereotypes and gender bias which ultimately will improve society for the greater good.

Many people have said to me boys won’t pass to the girls. This is not true. My own daughter subs up for her brother’s team when they need players. Maybe the first match or so the boys were dubious but once she showed her skills they accepted her as one of them. That’s what it should come down to, your skills. If a child can show age-appropriate skills then what should it matter what gender they are? If we got this right at the youngest age possible, then maybe fewer girls would drop out in their teens. 

Then maybe fewer girls would hide their talents from their male peers and furthermore, maybe more girls would achieve greater success in sport. Athletics, swimming, tennis, and martial arts, to name but a few, gender-mix, so why not team sports? Keep children mixed in sport until they are not children anymore. We have nothing to lose and so much to gain.

Is it bad for morale to be beaten by a girl? It is only if we allow it to be. If we continue to enable the “beaten by a girl” mantra that’s thrown about in casual conversation at the side of the pitch then we will stay stunted in our development as a sporting nation. Let them play, let them play together and see what we can achieve.

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

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