This week I’ve been helping my mom with a soccer camp for kids in our town. It’s a Challenger British Soccer Camp, where British coaches come to the United States to teach soccer and British culture. In addition to teaching skills of the sport, there is also a World Cup tournament in which the kids are put into teams and they pick a country to represent as they play the other teams.
Yesterday, my mom and I were watching the kids play one of their World Cup matches, and I remarked that two of the teams seemed to be rather unevenly matched. My mom replied that the team that was winning by a large margin seemed to have all the good players – several boys who were very talented at handling the ball, and a girl, who my mom said was good because “she plays like a boy.”
The comment caught me off guard, but I quickly tried to get my mom to realize what she had said by asking, “So you have to play like a boy to be good at soccer?” My mom answered, “Well, she’s tough.” I thought to myself how absurd of an idea that toughness was somehow inherently absent in girls unless they behaved like boys, but the conversation stopped there.
This one comment by my mother, a woman who was a dedicated athlete, playing soccer as the only woman on a men’s team when she was younger, completely blew my mind. I plan on having her read this post when I am finished with it so maybe she can see more closely the problems with comments like this.
First of all, it buys into the idea that being tough is the opposite of what is expected of a girl. The idea that girls are supposed to be passive, gentle, and nurturing has been used to shame girls into restrictive gender roles for years, keeping them from being able to accomplish all they are capable of, simply because society can’t seem to handle having too many “tough girls.”
When I was younger, playing in a youth league on a co-ed team, I remember my father, an avid soccer fan and coach, telling me to stop saying I was sorry whenever I ran into someone, stepped on them, or hit them with a ball. He used to say this to me so often that even eleven, twelve years later, I still can hear him telling me, “Stop saying you’re sorry! You shouldn’t be sorry! This is soccer!” Looking back on his words, I can see that he was trying to get me to focus on the game, be unashamedly tough, just as a boy would be. The boys never said they were sorry, my father would tell me. When I didn’t show the proper signs of toughness, I was told off by my own father.
I played varsity soccer for three years in high school, and during one match my senior year, I was hip checked by an opposing player. The hit was hard and I fell to the ground. I got up and was in pain, and as I tried to walk it off, I was limping a bit. The father of one of my team mates noticed that I was limping and he yelled at me from the sidelines to stop limping and just shake it off. The comment angered me because I was legitimately hurt. In fact, the same injury still bothers me from time to time two years later. But how dare I show pain. Pain is for sissies. For girls.
The second issue with associating being a “good” athlete with “playing like a boy” is that it plays into a huge problem when it comes to sports (and other aspects of life) – using the female as an insult. “You play like a girl!” and “Sissy!” are some of the biggest insults that one can throw at a young athlete, and both of them are so insulting merely because they equate said athlete with a female.
Females have the added struggle in this country (and most countries, I would think) of having to carve out a space for themselves in a sphere of life that had been, for ages, dominated by men. I will say here that I acknowledge that perhaps women and men have different physical abilities, but I would like to point out that just because men were allowed to participate in sports before women doesn’t mean that it is right to say that playing like a man is the only way a woman can be considered good at her sport. People of all genders could easily emphasize different aspects of the same game and all be good at it for different reasons. And who decided that being tough is a strictly male characteristic, anyway?
But until these problematic attitudes disappear forever, the girls and women who go out and play sports will be the real winners for taking on such ideas without even knowing it.