In February of 2017, a fifth-grade basketball team faced a choice: play in the playoffs, but sacrifice two players, or keep the two players and forfeit. The team voted and unanimously decided that they would forfeit rather than play without their two teammates who had laced up and hit the courts with them over the past two years. In doing so, the team’s season ended early, and they lost their chance at the title. After the vote, one player commented that “it’s not fair that we get to move on, but they can’t?”
The game officials singled out two specific players—the two females on the team. Both girls had played with the team from the third grade on, and their teammates clearly wanted to continue the season as an unbroken unit. The story ends with men and women, old and young, shouting “unity” together, but in another arena, it might have ended differently. Even three years down the line, if this had been a team of eighth grade boys who had the opportunity to have one or more females join their team (or vice versa), a number of players, coaches, and parents would likely have spoken out against it.
The reasons why this happens are familiar. Boys and girls are separated in sports for a reason. After all, men are physically stronger than women. Women may be injured when playing with men. Men’s speed of play may diminish if women join their teams. Still, from pre-K until about the fifth grade, right before puberty begins, boys and girls often play on co-ed teams for a few major sports (basketball, soccer, etc.) until they go home for the summer between elementary and middle school. When they come back, they are confused, changed, and most importantly, separated. Since the male and female body develop differently, puberty is when the gendered rules of strength and competition are set into motion; as a result, female and male athletes progress through their teenage years in their own competitive circles. The two circles evolve differently, coaching focus varies, and thus style of play does as well. These circles define avaliable competition, success, and game strategy. But what if the circles were never drawn? What if, despite what might seem to be an obvious strategy for keeping games fair, separating the sexes actually inhibits athleticism as well as understanding of one another?
Norwood High School in Massachusetts put this idea to the test when it brought a co-ed swim team to girls’ swimming meets. In Norwood’s case, the team was a product of budget restrictions and open access laws, rather than a grand experimentation in athletic performance for boys and girls. Regardless, controversy began when one of the boys broke a record for the 50-yard freestyle, set by a girl 26 years earlier. Parents and swimmers spoke out against the team’s integration after the event, as they felt having boy swimmers did not give the girls the chance they deserved to win. But what if having boys on the team spurred competition for all? And what if it gave the boys a better sense of collaboration? Norwood’s coach, Kim Goodwin, was an opponent of the co-ed team at the outset, but changed her mind when she saw the boys on her team develop more self-confidence and maturity. Norwood and its division may not have been prepared for such a break in tradition, but that does not mean that the break is not worthwhile under different circumstances.
According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, the gender gap in athletic world records stabilized in 1983. Since then, the gap in athletic performance between men and women has remained at about 10 percent (plus or minus 2.94 percent) on average in the 82 quantifiable events that comprised the study. These results may be read as evidence of different athletic physique, and thus capability. But what the results also demonstrate is that the events where the gap is the smallest are those in which athletes are coached primarily on an individual basis rather than on a team of men or a team of women.
The lowest performance discrepancy in the study is in the 800-meter freestyle swimming (5.5 percent performance gap), a sport where coaching is more about individual assessment and attention rather than team effectiveness to reach a single, shared goal. This is not to say that swimming is not team-oriented, but when it comes to addressing ways athletes can improve, there is a fundamental difference in approach to a sport like swimming as opposed to a sport like soccer. It’s possible that this individualized focus leads male and female athletes to achieve similar levels of performance, as they are not subject to as much disparity in strategy. In Norwood High School’s case, their experiment fails to reflect this theory, but as most boys on their team had not participated in competitive swimming prior to joining, their performance results are not comparable to the world records used in the study.
It is fair to note that events where the gender gap is the lowest are ones where outside circumstances also come into play. Swimming and cycling, two of the lowest gaps in the study, place considerable emphasis on something beyond mere athleticism: reducing drag. One could argue that it is not about an individualized coaching approach; rather, it is the medium in which the sport is played that enables women to close the gap to men. However, the smaller gaps in performance inspire the argument for men and women competing as one body in order to enhance competition for women and introduce new techniques to men. A closing gap, no matter the cause, is reason enough to attempt co-ed, higher-level competition. If not in all sports at first, at least the ones where the gap is already at historically low levels, and coaching may be the key to replicating the gap in alternate competitions.
This difference in coaching strategy for men and for women is evident in basketball. In women’s basketball for example, coaching in middle and high school revolves largely around fundamentals. How to do a defensive slide, how to shoot a ball with consistent form, how to dribble with control—these lessons are the cornerstone of the sport for women’s teams. Whereas with men’s basketball, fundamentals are of course covered, but they quickly evolve into more individualized athletic flare. These focuses are likely a result of the overall athletic potential for both men and women, and their ripple effect influences coaching from middle school to even college.
Acclaimed University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, worries that a focus on fundamentals is declining in youth coaching due to uneducated coaches. There is even an urgency among the NCAA—particularly over the past 3 years—to preserve the technicality of women’s ball specifically in order to improve the sport’s ratings and revenue. In the NCAA’s 2013 white paper on Division I women’s basketball, the organization states that “although women’s basketball is often lauded for its display of fundamentally sound skill levels, shooting and scoring in NCAA Division I women’s basketball have…progressively deteriorated since the sport came under the NCAA umbrella in 1981-82.” In this case, a Division I college women’s sport hinges, in part, on executing a style of play that is centered around fundamentals rather than flare.
At the high school level, onlookers at a women’s varsity game will see coaches getting on players for not helping on defense, boxing out, or crashing the boards; but at a varsity men’s game, coaches will call out players for things like speed of play or individual mistakes due to risky decisions. Herein lies an example of the two circles of competition; coaching strategy is based off of perceived ability, and therefore differs greatly between men and women’s teams of the same sport. But if each of the female and male athletes were coached individually—in theory—would their style of play be as different as it is now?
Sports psychologist Andy Lane sums up this effect when he said, “Effective training is specific. There is a great deal of individual difference and so gender is of less importance. An individualized training program is the most effective and, as such, gender differences will blur.” Lane has authored two books on inner emotional states that influence behavior in sports, and his point here hints at stronger intrinsic motivation for athletes competing more at the individual level, who are of course trained accordingly. Intrinsic motivation occurs when a person is motivated to accomplish a goal for one’s own sake, and according to the Self Determination Theory, this type of motivation encompasses three key factors: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Athletes who compete more on an individual basis, like runners, swimmers, or tennis players, likely feel that they have more autonomy than those who compete as a unit. As a result, men and women who participate in individualized sports are less likely to experience prescribed gendered differences because their training is 1:1, and their performance is up to them, and them alone.
Therefore, in theory, if training and coaching were to move towards an entirely individualized approach, the gender gap might shrink to less than its current 10 percent, as the different coaching strategies among the two circles of competition would yield to an intrinsic desire to win at all costs, regardless of an athlete’s gender. Full-force individualized training for team sports is not likely to dominate coaching strategy in the coming decades, but it does beg the question as to whether or not current methods are inhibiting athletes from reaching their full potential.
In most cases, female athletes are well aware of the performance gap between themselves and their male counterparts, and they have been taking their own steps to up their game for the last few decades. Since the early 1990s, only a few years after the performance gap plateaued, college-level and professional female teams have scrimmaged and practiced against all-male teams. However, these practice squads never consist of the women’s exact counterparts; NBA teams do not scrimmage WNBA teams, and men’s varsity soccer does not play against women’s varsity soccer. Instead, the women’s teams round up male athletes a few nominal rungs beneath them as a challenging opponent.
The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team won gold in the 2012 Olympics, and before they left, they played a men’s U-17 team, who won the scrimmage 8 to 2. WNBA teams consistently solicit volunteers to play against in order to improve their game—volunteers are often D-League players or players who are attempting to play overseas. From these instances, it’s clear that athletic caliber between the sexes is not equal at the collegiate or professional level, which relates back to the male/female separation occurring before athletes enter the sixth grade and athletic growth thereafter.
Whether or not the performance gap is surmountable remains to be seen, but a co-ed league post-elementary school would be the first step in providing answers. However, two things stand in the way: concern over propriety and concern over sanctity of fair play—and each has social and athletic consequences.
In regard to the former, a common argument against co-ed teams is that girls and boys in pubescence would be uncomfortable playing against one another or that playing with members of the opposite sex would be too much of a distraction. As a result, focus might be sacrificed if co-ed teams were the norm. But in order to break free from gender gaps of any kind—performance or otherwise—taking the uncomfortable route is exactly what society must do. After all, a main outcome of playing team sports throughout adolescence is understanding the power of teamwork. Why does teamwork have to end where the line is drawn between the sexes? If kids learn about teamwork in the company of both boys and girls, and continued to build upon their knowledge of teamwork with both boys and girls—facing adversity and loss along with success and showmanship—they would turn out to have a greater understanding of the capabilities of their fellow man and their fellow woman.
The social domino effect of keeping boys and girls together in sports, even just to the end of middle school, could be huge. Communication between the sexes could be stronger, empathy might increase, and most importantly, respect and equal view might be ingrained during a period of life where adolescents are most impressionable.
Despite these benefits, some might argue that although the social effect might be favorable, the athletic consequence is too risky to sacrifice. What if men playing with women do not accelerate as quickly as they might have? What if the men exclude the women on their team and invalidate the purpose of playing together in the first place? At this moment, there is no way to know the correct answers to these questions, but if what Lane says is true about individual training, perhaps an evolution in coaching for co-ed teams is the solution to maximizing talent and potential in both male and female athletes. Coaching might require more one-on-one attention in order to hold each player accountable to the same standard, and when put together, the diversity of abilities should also spur players to identify areas of weakness more easily. A middle school boy on a co-ed basketball team, for example, might learn why boxing out may be better than jumping in certain cases to get a rebound. A girl on the same team might be forced to focus more on improving speed in order compete on defense. In either instance, a different skillset forces a player to look upon their own and see where they need improvement, and with individualized coaching, players would have the autonomy to fix the weaknesses they identify with their trainer. Thus, individualized coaching in team sports might enable male and female athletes to not only play together, but to maximize athletic ability overall.
There’s no question that putting men and women together and keeping them together for competition would change the style of games the public has come to love. It would be a change many would be opposed to, but if, at the end of the day, the change improved both social and athletic understanding, it would be a change worth making.
Some athletes have already attempted to cross the gap with their exact counterparts, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge its existence. In one instance, Brittney Griner, first overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft and Phoenix Mercury player, challenged DeMarcus Cousins, fifth overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft and New Orleans Pelicans player, to a one-on-one matchup on Instagram during the 2016 Olympics. Both Griner and Cousins represented the U.S. on the men’s and women’s national basketball teams, but even so, notable basketball players (like Kevin Durant), doubted Griner’s ability to pull it off, highlighting the performance gap—or in this case, the perception thereof—once again. The match-up has yet to happen, but this challenge or another like it would be a step in the right direction, as it pits two athletes of similar accolade against one another for what should be an equal game.
In 1973, a man challenged a woman to compete. After claiming women’s tennis was inferior, Bobby Riggs, former top tennis champion and then-retiree, boasted that he could still beat any top female players. He soon played Margaret Court, who lost their match 6–2, 6–1. Emboldened by his victory, Riggs continued to taunt female players, which soon prompted Billie Jean King, another former top tennis champion and gender equality advocate, to accept Riggs’s challenge and play in a televised match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.” King won the match 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 and clinched respect for women’s tennis across the world. Fox Searchlight is making a movie about The Battle of the Sexes to be released in September of 2017.
Men and women have challenged each other in tennis a handful of times throughout the last century. Phil Neer and Helen Wills played in 1933, and in this case, Wimbledon champion Wills defeated NCAA champion Neer 6–3, 6–4. When the Williams sisters were 16 and 17, they claimed they could beat any male tennis player ranked outside the top 200. Number 203, Karsten Braasch, gave both Serena and Venus the chance to prove it. After two beers, Braasch beat both sisters back to back, 6-1, 6-2.
No matter what team they’re playing for, athletes want to win. Whether or not mixing the sexes on sports teams would actually be what’s best remains to be seen; however, the sanctity of fair competition seems to be less fragile than currently perceived. If a group of fifth graders can see the value of keeping two girls on their team, then it seems important to find out what would happen to the athletes’ growth if their team remained intact until the end of middle or high school. The two circles of competition are distinct, but perhaps blending them would produce stronger athletes overall.