When I posed a Question of the Week about when youth soccer teams should be segregated, I knew from my own experience as a Coed team coach that there were a lot of other issues bubbling just below the surface there. There was a good debate in the comment thread with many topics raised for future posts surfacing. Joanna over at Second Hand Sun put up an excellent post about her experiences as a female player on a Coed team. Let’s just say she took matters into her own, er, feet :)

somewhere along the way I fell in love with the game. I first realized it when I graduated to U-14, a new team with a new coach, Coach Bill, who kept me on the bench for all but a few minutes of our first game. "Coach, can I go in now? Can I play now, coach? How about NOW?" I pestered and begged, more and more frustrated as time went by and everyone but me was substituted into the game.

Even though her league at the time, like many, had a 50% playing time rule. That type of behavior by a coach is infuriating.

Especially at U14 where its 11 v 11. Even if you have a kid, regardless of gender, who can barely dribble, you can put them in and get them playing time without impacting your team at all since there are 10 other kids on the field. Even in small sided matches, you can adjust for a less skilled player and win-win. The less skilled player gets more touches to get better and your team still does well. But I digress.

Unlike many players who just get discouraged and quit because of coaches like that, Joanna decided she’d work hard to get better so the coach HAD to put her in:

By this time my dad was coaching my brother’s U-10 team, so I ‘borrowed’ all his coaching manuals and dug through them to put together an exercise program for myself. By the time the fall season ended and the spring season rolled around, I had a soccer player’s leg muscles, and somewhere along the line I picked up something else, as well: a willingness to do what it took to prove that a girl could in fact be Good Enough. I still couldn’t shoot, so I still played defense or midfield, and I went to every game determined to tackle the boys at LEAST as hard as they tackled each other, if not more so. So the same scene repeated itself nearly every game. We took the field against an all-boy team, and some cocky thirteen year old twerp would look at me and laugh. "Hey, it’s a girl," he’d call out to his teammates. Not long after, if he happened to come my way with the ball, he’d find himself flat on his ass and me dribbling upfield looking for a target to pass to.

Read her entire post because even though she prevailed and got more playing time, in the end she still got reminded she was a girl not a player.

This is a tough situation all around, but I think there is SOME improvement being made. However more needs to happen. My thoughts on this have grown out of my own experience as a Coed coach, and I’m sure my experiences are not globally applicable or representative of all the dynamics at work in a Coed situation. However, it’s a start.

First, leagues have GOT to put their foot down about 50% playing time. In our league, we borderline encourage our parents to complain to the league if their kids aren’t getting full playing time. The coaches, as parents, know this and it helps keep them honest. But a large part of it is education as well. Coaches need to learn HOW to best deal with the situations on a Coed team and how to ensure the girls get just as much training as the boys.

Around U10, the game of soccer gets more physical than it ever was. More player contact is tolerated and it can cause some girls (and boys) to shy away from the ball. The funny thing is, at least with my team, the girls are bigger. The biggest two players on my team are girls. They aren’t overweight – they’re just taller. So I’ve been stressing all August that if they just separate, no matter who has the ball, the other player isn’t going to keep it. They only have to do it once or twice before the light goes off. In our first game this season, it did and you could see them start to realize that they could stop the biggest boy in their tracks. My tallest girl is someone who ‘squeaks’ when the ball comes near her sometimes – but I’ve seen her loft a shot into the back of the net from the 14 yard line in practice. The challenge has been getting her to believe she can do it because if she ever decides she can? Watch out.

It’s too easy for a coach to say ‘well the girls just aren’t aggressive enough going after the ball’ – baloney. Some aren’t – true. But I’ve had boys that weren’t exactly eager to go after the ball either. One of my girls kicks the ball so hard that when she’s back on defense and winds up to clear under pressure, kids who have played against her before will duck!

You have 10 different kids, regardless of gender, that will need slightly different coaching philosophies. As a coach you need to work with them all and try to get each one. The key is, never making them feel like they can’t play the game.

My tallest girl by far is probably the most scared of the ball. Over the course of last season, she got beaned with the ball at least 3 times, and each time she realized that it may sting, but it wasn’t so bad. She wants to play keeper now and I figure what better way to get her over her fear of the ball coming at her? :) No, I won’t ‘hide’ her in the goal – I need her on the field for when she decides to actually use her powerful shot. But the keeper experience may boost her confidence around the ball.

I have another who is very shy and not aggressive towards the ball at all. But she is always in position when our team is attacking. All by herself, right in front of the goal. She just didn’t shoot well so the kids stopped passing the ball her way last season. Well this season, we’ve worked on strengthening her shot and also drilling into the rest of the team (yes, the boys) that if she was open and they had defensive pressure – pass! Even if she misses 3 out of 4 crosses, she’s likely to have better luck than the boy dribbling up getting double teamed. A goal is a goal. Sure enough, she scored in our first match this fall.

The key thing for me is what I mentioned before – your players are ALL different, regardless of gender and you have to take that into account as a coach. Then you need to make sure they ALL get quality minutes to improve their game. This means playing time but also stressing to the better players, boy OR girl, that they need to pass to the less skilled players when they are open. I thought about a comment I made in a previous post regarding boys not passing to girls. In my experience, at least at the U8/U10 level, the more skilled players, boys AND girls, quickly learn who the less skilled kids are, boys AND girls, and neither will pass to them. It is something you have to overcome as a coach. Last season, I had a very skilled girl on my team who was often one of my starters – and the boys would pass to her without thinking about it. We lost her to challenge unfortunately.

If I had to come up with one thing I had to work with the girls more than the boys, it would be calling for the ball. None of the kids are eager to yell out, but overall the girls loathe the idea. "Coach – it’s embarrassing!" I’m still trying to figure out how best to approach that. Any ideas out there?

In closing, coaching a coed team has some unique challenges, but the more I think about them in my experience, they aren’t as aligned along gender lines as you might think. I’d still be hassling my better ball handlers to pass to the less skilled players on an all boys team and I’ve still have the boys who were less aggressive and afraid of the ball. Sure, you have to deal with boys who think ‘But she’s a girl‘ and nip that mess quickly. But in terms of how you deal with girls vs. boys as a coach – for me, they’re all unique regardless of gender.

I’ll leave you with an interesting tidbit. My U10’s first match went very well. We are an experienced team overall since I had almost ALL of my 8 year olds come back from last year and these kids have played together 2-3 years now (a couple since they were 5). Anyway, we were facing a new and younger team and were in control of the match by halftime using a variety of lineups with girls and boys. But with 15 minutes left in the 2nd half, I went to my 4 girls and said ‘OK, time for the girls to shine’ and put them ALL in. 3 up front, and 1 on defense (who can score from midfield and often tries). They did VERY well. The other team did not score and the girl who is always in position managed to score once and all the others came VERY close a few times. It was interesting watching the dynamic when it was an all girl line. They seemed less likely to take a push off from the opposing boys and fought with an extra step of intensity. I swear I saw my girl who often would ‘squeak’ if she got double teamed, actually grunt and stare daggers at a boy who shoved her off the ball and went after him full steam! It was a lot of fun to watch and they had a blast. I think it definitely helped boost their confidence some. Can’t say anyone else would have the same result, but for us, it definitely made for a fun 2nd half.

UPDATE: I completely forgot to mention this above (yesterday was a whirlwind soccer day!) My U8’s played their first match and won 4-3. The most exciting part is 3 of the 4 goals were scored by 3 of the 4 girls on the team, including my daughter (proud Daddy!). I was SO proud of them. This season, 4 of my 5 oldest players (we have 10 total) are girls and they are all doing very well. I’m so tempted to start all four of my girls, sending them onto the field to lineup early to see if an opposing coach will put on a weaker starting five. He/she would do so at their peril! :)