Girls versus Boys in Youth Sports – Sports Leadership for Success
A big story happened in Iowa this week when high school wrestler Joel Northrup refused to wrestle his female opponent Cassie Herkelman at the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament. Northrup stated that he felt uncomfortable wrestling a girl, mentioning how he was worried about hurting her physically if they were to compete. While he didn’t discuss whether he had additional concerns taking the match, one can only imagine the “lose-lose” proposition he faced when contemplating whether to wrestle Herkelman. In addition worries about hurting Herkelman, he also faced the general expectations that he would win the match because he was wrestling a girl. if that’s not tough enough, can you imagine what he would have experienced had he lost?
The idea of having kids of mixed genders competing against one another in sports may have some advantages, but it is also important to watch for potential risks in the pursuit of gender fairness. The good news today is that most sports have gender specific sport opportunities in almost every youth sport available to kids today, providing for wonderful opportunities for both boys and girls. Still, there are situations where either there is not a sport opportunity available for one sex (usually girls), or the student athlete is so good she needs better competition against boys in order to improve.
When deciding on whether girls and boys should compete against one another in sports, it is important to keep the following thoughts in mind:
- Generally speaking, girls and boys begin developing physically in very different ways from an early age. These differences become more prominent during the teenage years as it becomes easier to see the differences in size, speed, and strength between boys and girls. As a result of these physical differences, some girls may be at greater risk for physical injury competing against in boys (especially in contact sports).
- When girls compete against boys and win, it usually comes with great surprise and excitement for the girl. Boys, however, often face harsh ridicule, teasing, and out-casting because they “lost to a girl.” While this may not seem like a big deal to adults, for some boys it can lead to depression, anxiety, anger, and even premature quitting of the sport. Therefore, the risk of potential problems for boys must be balanced against the potential advantages for girls when competing against one another.
- If you are a coach of a team that competes against kids of the opposite sex, it is important to talk frequently about the spirit of competition, equality, and fairness. When boys understand that competing against girls is not any different than playing a boys team, the potential for problems will decrease should the boys lose. At the same time, girls need to be reminded that winning against boys should not lead to unique “gender teasing,” and that role modeling and positive sportsmanship are great leadership skills.
- While it may not be obvious to see, many boys and girls experience unique stressors when competing against one another. Boys sometimes worry about physically hurting girls, and as a result may play softer in order to compensate for their worry. When this occurs, boys may be setting themselves up for increased injury by competing in unnatural ways. Similarly, some girls may over-play, and risk unexpected physical injuries due to over-compensating in order to meet perceived expectations.
- There may also be issues around the physical closeness boys and girls experience competing in some sports – like wrestling. Kids develop at different ages and experience puberty, causing hormonal changes that often lead to awkward feelings when within physical closeness of the opposite sex. In some cases, kids may experience unusually high levels of anxiety having to compete so closely with the opposite sex.
Boys and girls should have fair opportunities to compete and grow through athletics, but there may be unforeseen complications when the decision to let them compete against one another is poorly planned. Physical and emotional safety and wellness needs to be carefully considered when deciding upon inter-gender competition, therefore quick decisions around this question are never recommended.