March 2009

Co-ed Sports
When to Separate Boys and Girls
By Steve Sampsell

Despite the angle of the sun and the baggy jersey, fans notice a difference about one player in the midst of all those hyperactive boys. As they settle into their chairs, the ponytail confirms their suspicions.

That player on the other team? She's a girl!

Whether it's baseball, basketball, hockey, football, soccer or almost any sport, coed options for young athletes have increased in recent years. While many coaches, doctors, parents and players seem comfortable with those opportunities, the real questions arise when people consider when to separate the boys and the girls.

"Age-wise it's all relative. It depends on the sport and it depends on the level of activity," says Keith Gorse, an athletic trainer at Duquesne University.

Relatively few youth sports organizations have specific rules that address the matter. In most cases, existing rules favor creating opportunities rather than segregating by gender. For example, PA West Soccer provides two types of teams - coed and girls.

"Our leagues are set up as girls and coed simply because in some communities the number of players is small and if we had them separate we wouldn't have enough girls to play," says Tim McCoy, director of member services for PA West. "There seems to be two schools of thought.

"If you're looking to build numbers then you want to have all-girls teams if you can. However, if you're looking to develop a player, you probably would prefer to have the girls continue to play against the boys."

Coed classes

At Rowan Elementary School in the Seneca Valley School District, all first- through fourth-grade gym classes feature boys and girls participating together. According to teacher Mike Manipole, the approach works well.

"Every student is different, but for the most part when we separate them for anything we separate according to ability, not gender," Manipole says. "More than gender, the thing that really seems to separate kids is their activity level. You can always tell the girl who has older siblings or comes from a family that enjoys sports, but you can also tell the boys who spend more time playing video games than playing outside."

According to child psychologist Laura E. Berk, distinguished professor emeritus at Illinois State University and author of several books about child development and child psychology, the "middle childhood" years between ages 6 and 11 show reasons to separate children by age, but not by gender in terms of their cognitive development.

For example, while children age 6 to 8 are starting to use logical thought patterns and to develop the concept of self-esteem, their older counterparts can better implement and master step-by-step processes. Children age 9 to 11 differ because peer groups emerge and gender stereotypes become pronounced.

Actually things such as generalizations and stereotypes might play the biggest role in determining when to separate the boys and girls. In many ways, society's acceptance of coed opportunities has been the biggest key to their growth.

"The education system has different people in it than when we were brought up, and people's perceptions in general are a little different," says Wendy Lydon, whose 12-year-old daughter, Keara, has played on both coed and girls teams for baseball, basketball and soccer. "Young kids playing sports are at an age when it doesn't matter if they're boys or girls, and if nobody tells them it should matter it doesn't.

"Years ago girls might've been able to play dodgeball, but they only played with the girls. Now, people are pretty accepting and even supportive if there's a girl on the team."

Camaraderie or contact

Despite an improved atmosphere, the larger question about when to separate young athletes remains. For the most part leagues and parents attempt to make that separation according to physical milestones and safety.

"The criterion needs to be the safety and the emotional and social well being of the participant," says Sherry Cleary, former director of the University of Pittsburgh Child Development Center. "The real issue is contact - and all aspects of contact. That means from an emotional, social and physical standpoint. Our job as educators is to keep them safe.

"Physically seems straightforward. As children's bodies change, certain coed sports might make less sense. Emotional and social safety might be different, though. Emotionally, a female athlete might want the challenge of playing the boys but socially that might not be acceptable or encouraged."

Girls start their growth spurt as much as two years earlier than boys, and that keeps them competitive in terms of size through most of elementary school. Throughout those years, the height and weight of boys and girls in the same grades or across age levels may differ greatly.

When boys hit their growth spurt, the physical differences become more marked with many boys often bigger than girls. As a result, by junior high school, most coed options have ended.

At the youth sports level, though, while coaches and parents wrestle with what do to, those who deal with the athletes themselves and those who have experience over numerous years point to the real experts in the field-the kids.

"Kids are inherently fair. They want things to be balanced. They want to have fun, but they want to do it in a manner that's competitive," McCoy says. "It becomes different when they're 12, or maybe even older, and the game itself becomes more physical with some slide tackles and things like that. Before then, they don't care or know as much about any differences, and they only worry about them because their parents tell them they should."

While Gorse and Manipole believe clear differences in style of play exits between younger boys and girls, they do not believe that should force a separation of athletes along gender lines. For example, Gorse sees many younger boys as "me oriented" and Manipole cites the "detail-oriented" nature of girls, especially in team sports.

"Boys always seem to focus more on the goal, scoring a goal or getting points," Manipole says. "For the girls, they know that's the goal but they grasp some details a little better and will make an extra pass to get to the goal."

Only half jokingly, Lydon credits that difference to the ability of women to multitask. But, if you watch separate age-group basketball or soccer games featuring boys and girls in those middle childhood years, you usually do see more passes from the girls and more one-on-one efforts from the boys.

Still, whether young athletes compete in coed or gender-specific leagues, they can reap the same benefits.

"With youth sports at the community level, it's really more of social environment," McCoy says. "Some of the kids are going to be really good and some aren't going to be very good. The idea is to get them out there, have fun and get some exercise."

Eventually, physical differences become apparent by junior high school and force necessary separations.

"Once you get to where its gets really competitive, then you might have a chance for injuries or physical problems," Gorse says. "That's probably the right time for things to be separate, but until then, if there are no dangerous situations physically it's good for them to just play."

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