This week’s question deals with gender separation of soccer teams. Many recreational leagues across the country have coed teams, though the reasons for this can vary. Our league has all coed teams at the recreational level and only when players move to Challenge (travel) teams do they split up into boys teams and girls teams. However, girls CAN play on the boys teams. In fact, my son’s U10 Challenge team has a girl on the roster who earned her spot via tryout like any other boy. But is that the best thing for her or any other girls playing ‘coed’?

I get asked by a handful of parents each year why our league doesn’t split the teams up. Their queries are usually due to their daughter being nervous around the boys or the boys playing ‘too rough’. In Britain, FA Rules dictate that teams must split at age 11 (U12) for safety reasons. However, a young player has petitioned the FA to change the rules after she was expected to leave her teammates when she aged up. She has apparently found folks willing to listen.

Some believe that teams should never be coed since the players are destined for segregated teams once they grow up anyway. Others feel that girls playing on coed teams will improve even more because the competition is tougher on a coed team than on a girls team. Footie Girl isn’t sure about that:

This may surprise you, but I don’t think that doing away with segregation is the answer. One of the leagues I play in right now is technically co-ed, but in practice about 95% of the players are men. It is more competitive than the women’s league I play in, and playing with the men has made me a better player (although that’s not why I joined the team — it’s because I want to have fun and play with my friends). This same league also has a women-only division, and frankly, they suck. Any of the women who are any good play in the coed division, and the level of play in the women’s division suffers accordingly — and I suspect the same thing would happen if you give girls the option to play on a boys’ team.

By way of comparison, when I was growing up, I played in a city-wide recreational league — there were also competitive teams for all the age groups — with separate teams for boys and girls from age six and up. There were just as many girls’ teams as boys’ teams, and as far as I know, they both got an equal amount of support from the club. And you know what? Those girls’ teams were good. They won tournaments, they had sponsors, they got covered in the local media.

On the flip side, a recent study found that young girls seemed to compete at a higher level in mixed groups than when they were just competing with girls:

When comparing the performance of boys in homogeneous groups and in mixed groups, the p value for the difference is 0.6215, and for the percentage improvement it is 0.6988. That is, their speed was not affected by the gender composition of the group. Similar comparison of the performance of girls in homogeneous groups and mixed groups generates a p value of 0.094 for the difference and 0.0038 for the percentage (i.e., girls performed better when competing against boys than against girls).

I know one of the main reasons we like coed teams in our league, even as we’ve grown big enough to split some divisions like U8 and U10, is the belief that the girls will develop into stronger players having to play against both boys and girls. That’s not to say girls can’t develop into great players unless they face boys. But coed play may be beneficial. My daughter is 7 and I think she has benefited from playing on a coed team. The one problem we do see is that some boys won’t pass to the girls much, reducing their ball touches. This can be minimized by a good coach, but not always.

UPDATE: Here’s a thread on BigSoccer talking about the same question. Not sure if I agree with ‘up until first grade’ though.

So what do you think? Should teams split around U12 like they do in Britain? Should girls continue to play coed into their teens? Or should teams be segregated from the start (U5/U6)?

When Should Soccer Teams Stop Being Coed?

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