The Whys and Why Nots of Separating Athletes by Gender

The importance of co-ed sports

by Sarah Forman | Thu, November 23, 2017

When it comes to learning to play with other children, parents want their little ones to get along with everybody, regardless of gender. But as they get older, in sports, boys and girls are often kept separate.

Why separate?

There are obvious reasons for splitting teams by gender at a later age – boys and girls develop at different rates, and in their teens, contact sports become more dangerous and increasingly physically aggressive. Basketball, American football, ice hockey, and wrestling are all activities in which differences in height, weight, and size become a potential safety hazard for students and, therefore, a liability for schools.

Playing togethe

Additionally, sports-related college and university scholarships depend on students playing for single-sex teams, incentivizing school leagues to develop a system for young athletes mirroring that.

Many believe that when kids hit their teens, i.e. puberty, it becomes important to start organizing by gender. When asked why this belief is held, Matthew Eddy of Shanghai-based Sports World elaborated by saying,

“At this age there can often be more differences physically between boys and girls. This can have a greater influence on the outcome than the kids’ skills and abilities . . . It’s important that kids still feel some success and accomplishment if they’re to get a positive feeling from sport and continue in later life. Trying to ensure that abilities and physical capabilities remain fairly even is important, regardless of gender.”

In short, it’s at this point when certain physical advantages become significant in terms of how, and how much, athletes excel.

Lacrosse Team

Continuing to foster a love of sport and build individual confidence is an important part of athletic programs, inside and outside of schools. But in efforts to cater to safety, emotional, and practical concerns, there are opportunities and benefits that students could be missing out on.

Coming together

In her book, Child Development, child psychologist Laura E. Berk claims that children start to develop gender stereotypes between the ages of nine and 11. Early involvement in co-ed sports creates a space for coaches and adults to start combating those notions first hand, while continuing these kinds of athletic activities later in life can have even more social benefits. Steve Sampsell elaborated on this further in KidSports Magazine. Structured teams create additional opportunities for boys and girls to strengthen communication skills and build friendships, two things that become strained as puberty takes hold and navigating them becomes more complicated. At that age, the opposite sex can be incredibly intimidating (as I’m sure we all unfortunately remember), and having daily opportunities to play together, work together and share in both successes and failures is a strong way to dismantle that feeling.

Developing these kinds of positive attitudes can be especially helpful for young boys, as these perspectives tend to develop throughout their life-time, making them better friends, partners and allies. Similarly, there are perceived social and athletic benefits for girls when it comes to playing alongside boys.

At Britannica International School, Shanghai, the boys and girls secondary basketball teams practice together, running drills, shooting lay-ups and playing scrimmages, or non-league matches, against each other. When speaking to team member Kelly Weng, 16, she said she felt that as an already strong athlete, she was pushed harder and had grown even more so than in her previous five years of playing on all-girls teams.

“If I had played on a team with boys before, I might be an even better basketball player than I am right now,”

Weng explained.

Brother and Sister

Twelve-year-old Lynn Tan, whose brother Ian is also on the team, agreed, saying that she, too, feels like she has improved by playing and practicing as a co-ed team. She went on to say that she felt they even made for a better organized team in and of itself, with specific and different skill sets being brought to the table by both genders.

"When you have boys and girls on a team you get both – girls that know how to organize and boys who are aggressive and can play against aggressive opponents.”

While at times there are clear differences in skill level and experience, Tan explained that the time boys, like their captain Kanye, take out of their day to help them has strengthened their individual and group relationships. A handful of boys and girls from the team often get together at lunchtime to help practice and set blocks for each other.

“If the boys want to improve, it’s our job as team members to help them do it, so that’s what we do. We all do as best we can. That’s why I think it’s bet- ter to have both genders.”

Time to play

While having co-ed sports teams in schools past the age of 13 might be a complicated proposal, there are other ways to expose children to the benefits of athletics that include both genders. By participating in extra-curricular camps like Sport for Life and Sports World, individually organized pickup games or non-competitive intramural leagues like those at many universities, children and young adults will be able to take advantage of the healthy relationships and habits developed on the court or on the field. Whether they be social, physical or emotional, we might be surprised at just what a little friendly competition has to offer.

Good to know

  • For programs ages 3-12:
  • For programs ages 4-18:

A special thank you to the Britannica Knights Secondary Basketball Team.