Leading From The Front
"I always try to show that soccer isn’t just for boys. If you’re technically better, you can compensate for being perhaps physically weaker.” - Andrea Gomez, AEM Lleida
This month, a 9 year old girl playing soccer in Washington state was told by her soccer league that she cannot play on a boys team that plays in a boys division. Why? Well, the league has a rule that boys and girls cannot play on the same team and another youth soccer club in the league objected to the girl being allowed to play on a boys team. Why? What is the purpose of such a rule? Let this sink in for a minute. Take stock of your own initial reactions, whether in support of the league's decision or in opposition to it. Reflect on your own views about separating boys and girls in sports in general and soccer in particular. If you are a coach or involved in youth sports, consider the basis for your reaction. Dive into your personal deep thought mode. Seriously. Think! Are your reasons based on facts, science, experience, prejudice, tradition, history? Are they sufficient to justify such a rule? Are your reasons consistent with a goal of developing all players?
The girl at the center of this story is not alone. When the league decided to enforce its gender segregation rule, member clubs were reminded about the rule and warned they would face forfeits and monetary fines if they allowed girls to take the field alongside boys. Suddenly, girls at many youth clubs in the Seattle area found themselves banned from playing unless they could find an all-girls team to play on.
In the U.S. there are very few voices arguing for gender equality in youth soccer. The Women's National Team sparked an important conversation about wage discrimination. In the end, they were able to improve their situation, but fell short of pay equality with the Men's National Team. But when it comes to gender inequality in YOUTH SOCCER, we hear nothing. Which youth soccer league, state association or sanctioning body (e.g. US Club Soccer, US Youth Soccer, US Soccer Federation) is leading the fight for young girls who want the choice to play alongside boys or against boys? None. In Washington state, there is no youth soccer league or state association actively advocating on behalf of girls for change and choice in youth soccer. That's probably the case in your state. There is a leadership vacuum of national proportions when it comes to gender equality in youth soccer. There are a few brave voices at the club level who are willing to speak out and advocate for young female soccer players. Everyone else is silent.
In the Spring of 2017, Spanish youth soccer was rocked to its core. That's the year an all-girls team known as AEM Lleida were crowned champions of the the 2nd Division Boys Infantil (U14) division. Yes, you read that correctly. They were champions of a BOYS division. And that's not all. It wasn't even close. AEM Lleida won the division with 4 games to spare! Just as impressive is that fact that in 22 games the team suffered just one loss and earned two draws. The team also scored 93 goals and allowed only 25, a goal differential of +68. Check out the New York Times' story about this team's accomplishments. Its a great read.
AEM Lleida's accomplishments were universally hailed as remarkable, stunning and extraordinary. These are all appropriate adjectives, but let's be honest. For many reporters and observers in Spain, this was the equivalent of observing a once-thousand years comet or finding a two-headed dog. Something so unusual that it cannot be repeated. Many do not remember or know that in 2016, just one year earlier, an all-girls team from Rayo Vallecano were also crowned champions in a boys U14 division.
The most important part of these triumphs may not be what the girls achieved, but rather the rules that allowed them to achieve. The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) allows girls teams to play in boys divisions until age 14. That is progressive! Youth clubs are also permitted to have boys and girls playing on the same team. Without these permissive rules, AEM Lleida and Rayo Vallecano would not have even been allowed on the same field with the boys teams.
And beyond the rules lies another triumph. The triumph of principled leadership. Spain has a culture of machismo. That is not a secret. Its a culture that still has not yet fully embraced gender equality. Yet, Spain is among the most progressive nations when it comes to the rules and structure of organized youth sports. The leadership of the Spanish Football Federation's rules is what allows AEM Lleida's and Rayo Vallecano's girls teams to play with and against boys teams.
One footballing nation that struggles mightily with its soccer prejudices is England. In 2016, the English Football Association (FA) took a bold step and altered the rules for its Talent Pathway for girls teams that are part of the FA's Regional Talent Clubs (RTC). The new rules require that girls teams play against boys teams in their local leagues. Now, girls teams from the youth academies of professional clubs like Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea compete against boys teams. The FA has even started a pilot program that allows U15 and U16 girls to train alongside boys at the same age at professional academies. Still, the prejudices remain and the instinct to keep the girls separated from the boys persists. Only the strong leadership of the English FA stands between developmental progress for their female players and outdated prejudices conspiring to keep boys and girls separated in soccer.
“We have a couple of pilot programs at the moment where we are encouraging some of our youth internationals at under-15 and under-16 to do extra training sessions with their equivalent boys’ academies. Twelve months in and we can already see mixed football is making a huge difference.” Brent Hills, Head of Women's Elite Development, FA
Sadly, Washington state is not the only place in the world where girls are prohibited from playing on boys' teams. Just this month, a 7-year old Argentine girl named Candelaria Cabrera was banned by her league from playing on a boys team. Allowing a girl to play on a boys' team violated a league rule. Sound familiar? Outraged, Candelaria's mom turned to social media to publicize her daughter's plight. The response was eye-opening. Argentine girls and mothers from all over the country weighed in with their own stories of discrimination and being banned from playing on boys teams. As a result, two important things happened. First, the outpouring of rage and sympathy caused the the league to commit to reviewing the rule at its next annual meeting. That's a step in the right direction. Second, Candelaria's team continued to let her play! If an opponent objects she isn't permitted to play. I'm not sure how many games she's been able to play since the league decided to enforce its rule. I'd like to think an opposing coach in that Argentine league would be supportive of Candelaria or too afraid to object and have her removed from the field. On the other hand, we know that a handful of coaches in the Seattle area have no problem telling a little girl on game day to leave the field. And the Seattle league has threatened to impose fines on any club that allows a girl to play on a boys team. We have a long way to go in Washington.
The video below is in Spanish, but it will give you a good sense of Candelaria's passion for the game, her coach's desire to fight for her right to play and the absurdity of anachronistic rules that keep girls and boys from playing together.
As the Executive Director of Eagleclaw Football Club, I am particularly focused and energized about being at the forefront of efforts to improve player development opportunities for girls. Its a very simple proposition. Every youth player at Eagleclaw is a "footballer". Male or female, it doesn't matter. They are all footballers. That is why we strive for inclusiveness , equality of opportunity and choice for boys and girls. But especially for girls. Why? Because giving young girls the choice to play with or against boys leads to better player development outcomes.
Re-read that last sentence because its really important. Choice leads to better player development outcomes. If a girl wants to play on a team with boys because the boys are her friends, why not allow it? If a girl wants to play on a boys team because she thinks the boys will push her to become a better and stronger footballer, why not allow it? If a girls team wants to play against a boys team, why not allow it? And if a girl wants to play on an all-girls team and only play against other all-girls teams, that should be fine as well.
This is a point championed by Stephanie Labbe, a former professional soccer player and Canadian Olympic athlete. Stephanie sought to play as a goalkeeper on a men's team in the USL Premier Development League (PDL). The PDL barred her from playing on the mens team because the PDL is a "gender-based league". Stephanie makes the point that we need to consider the female who beats the odds. Definitely read Stephanie's story and argument. It is moving and compelling.
"I believe if any woman chooses to play in an environment that challenges her to be a better athlete … if she chooses to be in a place where she’s at a biological disadvantage and she proves that she can hang, then she deserves the right to play. It gives everyone on the team a chance to grow and learn, not just as athletes, but as humans, too." - STEPHANIE LABBE
What purpose is served if a league imposes and enforces a rule keeping girls and boys separated? What is the goal of such a rule? Can you articulate it? Player safety? Do you think the boys will hurt or injure the girls? Really? That's rather patronizing, don't you think? Are you trying to protect the girls from the boys? Can't one of the girls hurt or injure one of the boys? Anyway, player safety is the referee's job. What else? Any other reasons? Will the league be less "elite"? Or do you feel the games will be less competitive for the boys? Really? Maybe you should go back to the top and read more carefully about AEM Lleida and Rayo Vallecano.
“It’s hard to lose against girls, but these ones really are very good.” - a boy on team that lost to AEM Lleida.
“I delayed as long as possible because I was afraid that she would get hurt by the boys. She kept answering that she could also hurt boys.” - mother of an AEM Lleida player
At Eagleclaw, mixed gender training sessions are common, not an exception. Wherever we can, we look to incorporate girls with boys for developmental objectives as well as social considerations. Developmentally, the boys teach the girls the value of speed and physicality. The girls teach the boys the value of judgment and patience. The great equalizer is technical skill, particularly at the youngest ages. Often, I find that the girls pay more attention than boys to the quality of their technique, and that enables them to not only compete but succeed against the boys.
At Eagleclaw, we will continue to devote just as much energy and attention to the development of girls as we do with boys. We will continue to speak out as a leading voice for gender equality and choice in youth soccer. At the moment, we are the only ones speaking out, but we do not stand alone. Other clubs and coaches know what we are saying is true and correct. If you agree with us, then to you I say, be brave! Do not sit silently and assume progress will be made quickly in spite of your inaction. Don't just leave this effort to others. Be a leader! If the institutions empowered to lead youth soccer are not willing to make changes to benefit young girls in our soccer clubs, then it is our responsibility as coaches and club officials to accept the challenge, move to the front and lead. We must use the depth of our real-world experience as soccer coaches and soccer educators to persuade institutions and other youth soccer clubs to drop their prejudices and start doing what is in the best interests of ALL players.
It's time for you to lead from the front. Will you?