Friday, January 4, 2008

And she scores – 2 points!?: Coed Soccer

Those of you who have never played organized coed soccer (mixed football) will be surprised to learn that in some coed leagues (e.g. UC San Diego's intramural leagues) your team wins 2 points when women score. First time I heard that (while playing one weekend in a coed 5 aside league in Santa Monica, CA) I was shocked and offended - until I took the field and saw that there was always at least one woman playing forward.

My admittedly casual research suggests that this rule is largely confined to "weekend warrior" leagues with a fair amount of inexperienced players (all coed leagues have rules about the ratio of men to women on the field, and ban or severely restrict slide tackles). Generally, when men and women are left to organize themselves, women end up in the goal and playing back. Put twenty two men and women on the field for a kickabout, and nearly every woman on a team will volunteer to play goalie before even half the men will have done the same. Regardless of experience, women will step into the box before men: This of course goes against all that people tend to think about femininity – the mentally and physically toughest position has got to be goalie, requiring a willingness to take ultimate responsibility, to confront attacks, to throw your body in the path of that attack. (Most people who used the uneven goal keeping at the World Cup to argue that 'the women's game will never be entertaining as the men's' didn't watch the final, and have never actually seen what women can do with just a fraction of the support and training available to their male counterparts. This was the subject of a great blog entry by David James. If you want to see a fierce woman goalie, check out the aptly named German keeper Nadine Angerer - best in the world - pictured above left successfully blocking a penalty from Marta in the last World Cup. ARGH.)

Anyway, among us amateur coed players, the division of labor that assigns women to the back four happens only because we often place defense in the same category as washing dishes, and making the boys in the office a pot of coffee. Many men drift up, many women drift back in spite of themselves.

Personally, I started off playing defense and am still most comfortable with it – not because that’s where my limited skills lie, but because it’s the easiest role for me to play on a team. I like feeling helpful, supportive – I find it hard to put myself forward with the confidence of a goal scorer. I also like taking the ball away from people, I like the challenge, and I like the collaborative aspect of defense (you have to communicate with everyone else holding the line). I am a big Michelle Akers fan (pictured left, check out her autobiography) - there's nothing like the level-headed, single-minded focus of a great defender to inspire a whole team. But if I don't play up, I don't learn if I can play up.

Anyway, leave it to social habit, and you’ll have co-ed games with men up front, and women on the back four: A bad idea with broken bones. Defense is really physical – especially when you have a lot of inexperienced players on the field, in an un-refereed game. You can take real beating – on average, guys are bigger, heavier, and have physics on their side. And, when you really get into the game, everyone forgets this – it’s hard to remember, “shit, if I really tackle him, I’m going to break my ankle”, or, “if I kick the ball as hard as I can at her, I might break her arm”. Fact is, in a good, hard game men and women play each other as people – we forget ourselves, and our differences - and unless everyone has a good skill level, there’s a lot of ugly tackling and dangerous play.

Furthermore, if you don’t have an outside mechanism pushing against habit, teams don’t play the ball to their own women players. People (men and women) on coed teams tend not to “see” women players – even when they are calling for the ball. This habit is harder to break than one might think.

THIS is why many lower-level coed leagues give women 2 points – not because it’s harder for women to score, but because without giving men and women a material incentive, neither gender will pass the ball to the women on the team, and neither team will place women on the forward line (even though, in the United States, many women playing in such leagues are more likely to have played competitive soccer through high school and college than their male teammates).

I learned the truth of this by playing on women’s teams after a long time of playing in co-ed situations. You get more time on the ball, and there’s also more pressure on you – you can’t drift in and out of the game. It’s both more fun (because you can play a lot harder against people your own size) and more stressful (because you are given more responsibility).

Interestingly, coed play is a relatively new idea here in the UK (see FA site statement about the topic and a 2006 Guardian story)- partly because there is so little out there for girls and women in general. Girls can play with boys until they are 11 (the FA is experimenting with changing this), at which point they are disallowed from playing with boys (other countries, like Germany, allow girls to play with boys up to 17). There seem to be very few adult coed leagues out there - the whole idea poses some interesting challenges to the UK footie fan.

Coed soccer is harder to organize than single-sex soccer, but it has some real rewards - I think we learn a lot about each other, about collaboration, about the integration of differences into a team. I think it does us gals good to compete with and against men, and vice-versa. (See Honolulu Advertiser story about coed play - from which the image right was pulled.)

We never instituted a 2-point rule in our LA kickabout (photo left of winter 2006 core members). None of us would tolerate it. We work out the division of labor together - and over four years of playing together and processing what it means to keep the game mixed and open, we've built up a good sense of each other's strengths, and how to create a game that gets everyone involved (lately by instituting a three touch rule, for instance). But we don't play in a league. (I think we'd do well in one of those 2 point leagues - Sally & Sojin, pictured here standing, are unbeatable when they've got the goal in sight!)

In a world in which sexism didn’t exist at all, in which it didn’t inform how men and women think about themselves and each other, no coed league would need that “2 point” rule – teams would choose their line-up by skill and size. Until that day arrives, however, I’m happy to hear guys shouting to their back 4: “Mark the girl! Mark the girl!”


  1. Interesting thoughts. I've linked to this post in The Offside's Daily Dose for Saturday, 1/5/08.

  2. I've participated in a LOT of coed games--and I've usually noticed that a winning formation is what determines where people play.

    The only position that seems to ALWAYS be male is the CB. Other than that, i've seen women play just about every position. Although I've seen teams employ two male strikers, it usually isn't any more effective.

  3. I've been enjoying lingering over your blog this evening (even though I should really be working on the new semester). You even make me want to come out of my scrapalicious retirement and resume my "wall of death" duties. Much love from Los eScandales. We miss you!

  4. Nice topic Jennifer. I love playing pick-up soccer with men although organized co-ed is little more difficult. Women tend to gravitate to the back simply because men are more selfish and many won't play back AND because some women lack confidence (easier to disrupt than create!). It's okay to put an experienced
    women in defense but you need to spread the
    speed and power around. I say "play your game"
    and it'll all work out.


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