Thursday, June 11, 2009

She's good at soccer. She plays like a boy.

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.


Anonymous said...

In a situation where a male and female have equal training, the male will be a superior athlete.

Our bodies are better at physical activity, and feats of strength.

That's not sexism, it's just straight fact. Give a male and a female of similar body type the exact same workout, and at the end of the workout period, the male will be able to lift heavier weights, etc.

So, yes, playing sports "like a boy", means a female is showing physical capabilities that are in the realm of a male's performance at such.

I would hope you wouldn't be attempting to deny that males simply do have more strength and athleticism than females.

Females excel at things that require flexibility and dexterity, males excel at things that require speed and strength.

lindsay said...

"You _____ like a girl" is one of my biggest pet peeves and one I constantly call people out on saying. One of my roommates this past year said it all the time and I found your 'repeat the statement back' strategy useful. Sometimes it just takes the person to hear what they said in different words or to follow the statement to its logical conclusion. He'd also use say things were "so ghetto" which drove me crazy as well. He tried to blame it on his laid back Californian upbringing, but that's just being insensitive and ignoring the reality of what living in a ghetto is actually like. I've never lived in a highly impoverished neighborhood, but I'm guessing it's not like missing the bus or having your mail put in the wrong box.

Jane said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing. Obviously partiality exists between male and female athletes – even at a young age.
Navigating a life course is filled with variables, and girls in particular have to make hard personal choices to express their identity. Through their performance, their bodies, activities, etc. they try to chart a course that defines what it is to be female. The good news is that the range of what is acceptable for girls is broader than ever. A person’s identity doesn't have to be reducible to just one personality. We can have constitutive or “non-competing” identities. A young woman’s femininity and desire to play hard and be strong can co-exist. I think that's the message we should be trying to convey.

Amelia said...


As I said in my post, I cannot claim that all male and female athletes have the same physical abilities, so the fact that you focus on that seems a bit off topic.

However, I do find it particularly problematic when certain athletic attributes (toughness, strength, speed, etc.) are assumed to be only male attributes. Women can be tough, strong, and fast, too, but that is never acknowledged without comparing them to a man. Women can have these attributes in their own right, but that is not how it is seen in this society.

I also think it's wrong that the "male way" is often considered to be the best or only way to play a sport. Like I also mentioned in my post, people of all genders can emphasize different aspects of the same sport, playing to their physical abilities, and all be good athletes. Assuming that being "tough" and playing "like a man" is the best way is a patriarchal way of thinking.

21st CG said...

Hmm, I can certainly relate to your father always telling you to stop saying you're sorry to other players. I grew up playing soccer from age 5 up till age 17. I recall one game where I accidentally tripped an opposing player right next to where all the parents were sitting. The player went down hard and I paused to say, "Oh I'm so sorry!" One of the girls from my team's mother then screamed in my face saying what are you telling her sorry for and and I need to get my head in the game. Being the sensitive child I was I burst into tears.

It was incidents like this one, that really cause me to look back on my soccer years with disgust. There were just too many times where I was told to stifle what I was feeling and act like a boy, to toughen up. This may have had something to do with having all male coaches. I guess none of them were able to relate very well with how I sometimes reacted to the game.

Maybe I'm wrong but I almost tend to side with your mother. While growing up going to soccer games, in the same age group I always noticed that guys teams seemed to play differently than girls. Not that they seem to be faster or more cut throat, but that they move the ball across the field in a different manner. I don't know but maybe that's what she was referring to?

Amelia said...

21st CG,

Maybe I'm wrong but I almost tend to side with your mother. While growing up going to soccer games, in the same age group I always noticed that guys teams seemed to play differently than girls. Not that they seem to be faster or more cut throat, but that they move the ball across the field in a different manner. I don't know but maybe that's what she was referring to?

Knowing both my mom and the children at the soccer camp whom she was referring to, I can say with 99% clarity that she was not speaking of the way this girl moved the ball on the field. She was more likely referring to this girl being one of the only girl players who actively engaged in the game and wasn't afraid to take on the boys to get the ball from them or get it past them. Many of the girls at this particular camp seemed to enjoy hanging back by the goal, "playing defense" or just standing around so they didn't really need to get involved. Therefore, this particular girl's willingness to "get in the game" was noteworthy, but I think it was so for different reasons than my mom, apparently.

I played co-ed soccer until I was 13 and then played on my high school's girls team for all 4 years. From these personal experiences, I have to say that I never felt overly aware of differences in the ways players of different genders/sexes moved the ball. The main difference I have noticed is the hesitation that was part of the game of many female players, whereas their male counterparts would be more likely to "go for it" without stopping to think. And I feel as if that particular difference has more to do with different socializations than anything. Girls are brought up (to varying degrees) with the idea that because they are girls, they should be the opposite of boys - loud, aggressive, strong, etc. So when you put girls who have been socialized in this matter (to whatever extent) into a sport like soccer, I think that is when the gender differences start showing up.