Make Sports Coed Redux

A few months ago I made the argument that schools should move towards a coed model of sports.  The logic behind those arguments can be found here, and I stand behind the basic concept.

I was surprised to find, during August inservice, that a former student was denied a place on the high school field hockey team because he was male.   Our high school is pretty progressive, and our state’s sport governing body, starts its bylaws with the rules around the rights and responsibilities of transgender athletic participation.  Under Title IX I knew women could join traditionally male sports if there was no female equivilent, and I had assumed that went both ways.  A dinosaur of an athletic director at fault, I figured, and sought clarification.

Nope.  It was the state’s governing body, the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA).

My first take-away is that it is important to get the facts and go to the source before you jump to conclusions and begin writing letters to the school board.  The local AD was quick to respond and detailed.  My second lessons is that organizations fear lawsuits.  The VPA lawyers prohibited males from participating in female sports because being male gives them an unfair advantage.

In my previous article on coed sports, I took that question to task.  You can decide if it holds up.  Researching the issue, I found letting boys play field hockey is controversial in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts because, when they do play, they tend to be pretty dominant.  That may be self-selection–only the most adroit males and if more join it may even out.

Here is why I am revisiting it: What is the goal?  Title IX was drafted because women got the short end of the stick.  Since Title IX women’s participation in sports has growth, and women’s participation in other areas has grown along with it.  It is not necessarily about allowing girls to play baseball, but getting everyone in the game.

When I wrote my original article, I was more thinking about my female students who wanted to be on the typically more competitive male teams.  Some could do it, and were underserved by the female equivalent.  Separate was not equal.

But, what happens when boys enter the traditional domain of girls?

If, say, ten boys went out for field hockey (assume they were good), would they change the dynamic of the team?  Of play?  Would girls get pushed out over time?  Ten is not enough to create a separate male team, and they would have few people to play.  Still, ten females would not be playing sports.  How does this affect the goals of Title IX?

With popular sports that have both male and female teams, it seems logical that, if you have enough B, C, D teams then everyone can play.  I made that argument earlier.  With one team, not so much.  This might not matter–perhaps everyone just wants the best players?  At some point, though, the sport stops being empowering for women and begins to be another place they have to fight for a toe hold.  I look at the WNBA as an example of how men can participate in coaching, but women coaches, regardless of success, are not welcome in the male NBA.  Men ruin everything (ha, ha).

I’m not sure what the solution is.  A prep school in my youth just had endless teams, from Varsity to JV to JV VI.  That sixth level of JV was not even a good intramural team, and they rarely played other schools, but they learned and participated.  If sports went genderless, that might be the solution–as I argued in my basketball example.  Even then, I’m not sure when the free market gets involved.  The discussion is still open.

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Make Sports Co-ed

Two years ago our administration told us not to use gender in our classroom. It had come up when students were asked to pack-up the room for the day–boys putting away materials, girls stacking chairs. It was one of many daily sorts we do, and students self-designated their gender and responsibility, but one student who was questioning their gender felt stuck. We were asked to look at other data when we make groups, be it classroom chores or placement in classes. It was a solid decision that moves us forward in a number of issues–read my post about “the boy problem” here.

When told that gender was no longer being used for groupings, I asked if this was going to be true for sports, too.

It is a complicated issue, but it gets at the heart of problem with using gender as a designation–it offers no path to a solution, except if the problem is gender discrimination.

For the sake of argument, let’s use the stereotype that “boys are physically bigger and stronger than girls” because this has a basis in data.  We line up everyone who wants to play basketball and find that for 80% of boys that is true.  If a co-ed team was created, 80% of the A-team players would be boys.  What, then, to do about the other 20%?

If we stick to gender, we are going to fill the team with sub-par specimens instead of the best players–period–filling up those roster spots.  From a tactical standpoint, the coach would want that 20% of stronger girls.  A co-ed team.

Let’s add some complexity–skills.  Teams have smaller, quicker players with skills that trump size and strength.  If the roster was filled with the best players–if the coach was able to evaluate without taking gender into consideration–the team would probably be a diverse group, physically.  From a tactical standpoint, a good coach would want the best fifteen players on their squad–size and strength being only one factor.

Note that in that last scenario, other than a concern about discrimination, gender has moved to the side.

What, then, is the issue?  Let us take plain bias in evaluating talent off the table–it is a huge one, but this will allow us to look at other, overlooked issues.

The first is equity.  Our school has four basketball teams–Boys A, Boys B, Girls A, Girls B.  If we went co-ed we could simply have A, B, C and D.  Extending the above, let’s assume Team A has an 80:20 split of boys: girls.  Let us further assume that Team B has a more equitable ratio, if not the former Girls A 80% taking up the majority of the Team B spots.

Does Team A being mostly boys and Team B being mostly girls create inequity?  Typically, our Team A goes to more tournaments, gets the new uniforms, and has a more committed coach.  Team B is more developmental–and I would assume Team C and Team D would be more so.  As the majority of girls are on the lower teams (even on Team B), the majority of girls would get less.  At least with a Boys A and a Girls A schools can easily count dollars spent, games played and the like.

The real issue here is the purpose of the sports program in the first place: The eternal debate–winning vs. participation.  For those hoping to be the best, they need to play the best.  On the court, you want the best players regardless of gender.  Those who are not in the top fifteen need development.

Equity means respecting development.  Players on Team B should be striving to earn a spot on Team A.  Instead of focusing on winning games, though, that program needs to focus on development of the player.  This requires participation and good instruction.  Equity falls away when players are no longer pushed.  Team C and Team D should be the same, even as they are even more elementary in terms of skills and development.

When players are on the team where they are, the system is equitable.

Bias.  Of course, this is only possible when bias in evaluation is taken off the table.  But parents get ugly when it comes to sports.  When teams are by gender, parent after parent still finds a reason their kid is being held back, not on Team A or riding the bench too often.  One coach a town over, after a win, was confronted by a spreadsheet wielding parent, recording time played by each player and a quibble over a two minute variance (the coach scheduled roles and times prior to the game, except the fourth quarter so he’d have flexibility if the game was close).  He moved to absolute equity the next game, lost, but no parents complained (the players were not as happy).  Whoa the burden coach’s kid actually being good, but constantly being told they got their spot because of bias.

Add gender and the result is explosive.

In the data world they call this issue “the signal in the noise.” 9780143125082The signal is the problem–finding the best players and playing them to win–while biases are the noise. We identify gender as an easy way to categorize people. We notice it. Evolutionary, we are built to recognize patterns as a means of survival. But our intuition can cause us to fall to, create and reinforce stereotypes. We create more noise, and lose the signal. Every stereotype has some truth at its core, but it ultimately binds the person it is being done to–we put the person in a box. And, it makes others blind to the real problem and its solution.

In the case of those 20% of boys who do not get spots on Team A because there are girls who are better, gender now becomes a factor.  A battle to be fought.  This is where cries of political correctness and reverse discrimination become issues, not what is best for the players.

The issue, then, is dealing with this bias.  Notice how, over several paragraphs, we have moved away from the stereotype of boys being more physically able than girls and are now talking about bias and equity.  Dealing with equity is hard.  It requires education and community support.  It requires a commitment, so that it becomes, over time, the norm.  “You are on Team B because you need to develop skills X, Y and Z.”

That we shy from implementing this tells us something about our values as a school and community.  Schools need to set the standard against bias in all forms.  They cannot do this when their institution underscores this in the group representing them to the larger community–wearing uniforms with the logo across their chest and being photographed for the paper.

The way forward.  There are plenty of obstacles to move forward.  Looking at basketball, girls use a different ball.  But people adapt.  Until seventh grade girls playing recreational lacrosse did so with boys, with full contact rules.  When they were segregated, playing by girls’ limited contact rules, most felt it was a step back.  These girls were ready to hit.

One step is to desegregate those sports without such conflicts.  There is no reason I know to have separate cross country races for boys and girls.  Wrestling, golf and typically single-gender sports (football, field hockey) should be gender-free, too.

It should be noted that, through most of schooling, the physical size and natural abilities waxes and wanes.  A small kid one year comes back from summer break having grown half a foot.  The kid with no balance suddenly catches up.  As educators, we should be embracing a growth mindset.  If only K-8 schools embrace a gender-free athletic process it will create a foundation for growth.  There is no reason not to.

Finally, schools should focus on both winning and development, but the second part is key.  Having a Team A, with the understanding that it is competitive, is important in giving an aspirational goal for all.  Those on the team need to accept that, in being on that team, they might sit.  But practices should be developmental.  And Teams B, C and D should be levels of development.  There is room for both those who compete and those who just want to play.  The emphasis is on work and commitment, and from that comes growth and joy.

Data to Make Kid’s Sports Fun

How does a father enjoy his child’s athletic career?  Data, of course.

I began using data when my son became deflated after nearly every game.  Being seven, he often saw the battle on the court or field as coming down to a loss.  Then, he’d internalize it.  All losses were his fault, any win due to someone else.  When he played defense, he would moan how he sucked because he hadn’t scored a goal.  Even when there was no score, his focus would find mistakes and ignore the successes.

Then he took on being a soccer goalie.  In his mind, every goal was his fault.  No team.

Now, my son is a passionate kid.  He takes losing seriously, and the car ride home is often long and tense.  After a 0-6 season of futsol (indoor soccer) the previous season, things did not look much better.  In goal, my son got hammered.  But, this year I kept a simple statistic: Goals saved to goals allowed.

That first game: 23:1

Now, I counted a save as any time he put his hands on the ball and it could have gone in.  He did not play the second half, and they lost 0-4.  He was upset.  But, walking to the car, I noted his saves and the ratio.  I also mentioned the other goalie’s ratio: 7:1.  Instantly, he felt better.

The next game he had 84 saves.  They hammered him.  No defense to speak of.  No offense to take the ball past the half.  84 saves.  For 40 minutes he only gave up 3 goals, but from exhaustion and mental fatigue he let in another 5 in the last 10 minutes.  Still, 84.  He could not believe it (nor could I).

I got hooked.  I’m not one to stand on the sideline with a clipboard and get too detailed.  Still, I like to know what’s going on beyond the score.  Many parents have opinions, often biased towards their own kid.  But data tells a story that is more true than not.

For example, this spring my son’s team spent a lot of time on its heels, with the ball on their side of the field and the defense doing all of the work.  I wondered how much.  A simple statistic is how much time the ball spends on each side of the field.  That offers a simple ratio.  The Sunday I did it, it came pretty close to 50%.  That marked a huge improvement over past weeks, and it was good to know it.  This weekend I am going to look at how often offensive players go solo up the field, and how often they pass and use their teammates.

Simple insights appropriate for the age.