Monday, October 02, 2006

Boys against the girls

Before the start of Saturday's game, the ten year old's soccer team lined up at midfield for the coin toss. The opposing team lined up across from them and from where I was, behind our goal, I could see every single one of their kids' heads over the tops of our kids'.

Oh oh, I thought.

I wrote last spring about how the ten year old's team, playing in a coed division that included third, fourth, and fifth graders, had a disproportionate number of third grade girls---little third grade girls. Their goalie was barely four feet tall. She had lots of range to her right and left, but as you can imagine a lot of shots went right over her head.

The team somehow won its first two games but lost all the rest, managing to average half a goal over six games.

This season the ten year old's moved up a division and is playing with and against mostly fifth and sixth graders with a few fourth and seventh graders. Those fourth graders are there because they are very good and the ten year old's team has a couple of them. The rest of their roster are almost all fifth graders, but they are all good-sized and quick. Well, except for the tenth grader. He's a good size, but speed his not one of his strengths. He's very good on defense though.

Their whole defense is pretty solid and even though once again their best goalie is a shortish girl, this one can jump and she's made some excellent stops. The problem is the offense. Our strikers are fast, they control the ball well, but they're afraid to take shots, they wait for the perfect opening. This is mainly because they're not strong kickers. But their other weakness is that they won't pass to each other.

Actually, the boys won't the girls.

Drives our coach crazy.

He has them working on this in every practice, but it still in the excitement of the games it happens, the girls become invisible.

I've noticed that other teams have the same problem.

The mother of our team's best girl player is philosophical about this. She says that the boys naturally pass to the kids they're used to playing with, the kids they play with in their neighborhoods and on the school playground, where it's usually the case at this age that boys are playing with other boys, while the girls are standing around watching and gossiping. There's something in this. In our second game one of our strikers made a beautiful pass to his cousin and best friend, forgetting that he was on the other team.

But I've also noticed that our girls tend to take themselves out of the play.

It's not that they're passing to the boys while the boys aren't passing to them. They have the same tendency to look for their friends as the boys do. Trouble is, they usually can't find their friends.

When there's a loose ball, they don't chase after it.

When there's a group of players fighting for possession, they back off.

When they're in the open and have a shot, they don't get their hands up and shout for their teammates to pass it to them.

They don't seem to want the ball.

But that's not really it. They want the ball. But the ball attracts attention, and what they don't want is attention.

Not from the boys on the other team anyway.

At this level the girls are taller but the boys are heavier and stronger. They are more reckless and they are moving a whole lot faster.

The girls are scared of getting run over and hurt.

This is a shame because while the best players in the division are boys, it looks to me as though the players with the most talent and potential are girls. That's the case on our team, at any rate.

And what concerns me is that by the season's over several of these girls will have concluded that they just aren't good enough and they'll give up the game.

Our coach is doing what he can to keep them interested by keeping them playing and encouraging them to play hard. The coach of the team we played Saturday, though, is a woman, and all game long she was yelling from the sidelines at her girl players to pass to her boys. She wanted to win the game. Her best players were boys, that's all. But she had some very talented girls too. I don't think this is a problem coaches can solve.

The simplest and best answer is to split the girls off and give them their own division to play in. Most soccer leagues that I've heard of do this. The littlest kids play boys and girls together. But by the time they're in third grade they're playing on single-sex teams. The mother I was talking to Saturday thinks there aren't enough girls for this. I'll have to do a count. But I have a suspicion that if there was an all girls' division to move into a lot more girls would continue playing longer. I expect the drop out rate for girls after their first year in this division is pretty high.

Separating the girls into their own division where they wouldn't have to worry about competing with boys would let the girls' talents blossom. I think it would make them more aggressive players too.

Of course there are a few girls who will always be able to stand up to and even outplay boys.

But for the most part, from here on out, the girls will be too much smaller, too much slower, too much less brawny to compete with boys.

On the playing field.

I am all in favor of sex-segregated sports. I am very much opposed to sex-segregated schools.

Separating the boys from the girls in sports recognizes a simple biological fact, that no matter how talented she is, a five foot two inch, 85 pound 12 year old girl is at a distinct disadvantage against a talented five foot seven inch, 140 pound 12 year old boy. Treating the two as though the differences don't matter will result in the girl not playing. Her talents will go to waste and she will learn, consciously or unconsciously, that girls just aren't up to competing with boys in any arena.

Separating the girls from the boys in school doesn't recognize any fact; it merely flatters a whole lot of prejudices, the main one being that when you put boys and girls together after a certain age their only ways of relating to each other and dealing with the fact of each other's existence is sex.

Mostly, I think, this is a prejudice against boys, a belief that they can't control themselves and will always be either distracted by the girls presence, showing off to get their attention, or competing with each other for their attention.

When they're not trying to attract the girls, they're ignoring them, dismissing their ideas, interrupting them, not letting them get a word in edgewise, and stealing their thunder.

There's also the belief that boys just generally can't sit still and focus and that the amount of time and energy teachers have to spend making the boys behave means keeps them from gving the girls the time and energy they need from teachers.

To the degree that this is true, it's because on the whole boys aren't taught how to behave in school. They are allowed to run riot on the principle that boys will be boys and boys are little monsters, the darlings. They can't help it.

I've seen some evidence that boys and girls do better in single sex classes, but looked at closely it looks to me as though the boys do better because is more discipline and higher expectations, and the girls do better because there is...more discipline and higher expectations.

And often, in the case of the girls, it turns out that the single sex envirnoment is a privileged one, with more resources, better paid teachers, smaller classes, and more individualized attention---things that all kids can benefit from.

There is biological evidence that male brains are different than female brains, but this turns out to be interesting's interesting. The differently configured brains do, on the whole, seem to work differently. Boys and girls learn differently.

But the differences between the way one girl's mind works and the mind of the boy sitting next to her works are not much greater than the differences between how her mind works and how her sister's mind works.

Brains are infinitely more complex than muscles. Two boys who go to the gym together and lift the same set of weights for the same length of time will, assuming they are already the same size and strength, will probably wind up with very similar silhouettes and evenly matched for an arm wrestling contest.

But the same two boys sent to the same school, taking the same classes from the same teachers, will, even if their innate intelligences are exactly equal, will wind up two very different people.

And if one of those boys is a born engineer and the other is a born artist, then the engineer will think a lot more like girls who are born engineers than like his friend the artist, who will think a lot more like girls who are artists.

Which is not to say that the engineer won't find an artistic girl with whom he shares all kinds of thoughts and feelings that he doesn't share with his best male engineer friend.

On the soccer field you're dealing with groups of bodies in motion. In the classroom your concern is individual minds in development. Single-sex classrooms are based on the idea that the body the mind comes in makes the mind's individuality irrelevent.

The ten year old's team lost Saturday. It was a tough game. Final score was officially 3-0, but I don't count one of those goals. The ref called a handball in the box and gave their team a penalty kick.

The referees are junior high school kids who have aged out of the league and the coaches have an agreement not to argue calls, but this was a bad call.

The rules say that a player has to be trying to get an advantage by putting a hand on the ball. A ball kicked by an opposing player that happens to strike your hand or arm isn't a handball.

Our player put up her hands to block the ball and, strictly applying the rules, she shouldn't have. But it was coming hard, right at her chest.

I think that when a pubescent girl reflexively throws up her arms to protect her chest that shouldn't count as a handball.

Technically, I suppose, the ref made the right call.

But the ref was a boy.

My prejudice: What I "know" about the ways men and women are different tells me nothing---NOTHING---about the way this man is different from that woman.

To put it another way, just because some study shows that women tend to be one way and men tend to be another, that study has proved nothing to me about you.

But if you are making the case that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I can't help suspecting that what you are really arguing is that you think the gender you happen to be is the superior one.

Little while back, Echnide wrote a post that took off from another stupid David Brooks column, this one making the case that SCIENCE shows that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, how about that? Echidne's post looked at the flaws in the study that Brooks used to prove that "girls are icky."


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