Monday, September 22, 2008

Soccer Monogamy: Why Don't Women Play Pick Up?

I am putting the question out there. Why don't women play what we Americans call "pickup"? A friend of mine joked that it was because women want soccer monogamy - to commit to one team, whereas guys will play with anybody. It's a funny joke, but not much of an explanation.

Pickup is by far my favorite way to play soccer. These are informal games between whoever shows up. You know the spot and the day of the week. The hour is usually sometime between when you get off work and grab dinner. There's no league, no ref's - you use garbage cans for goal posts, and barely keep score. No uniforms and usually you don't divide up by who is wearing light or dark. You line up, every other person steps forward, and there's the teams. (Not wearing different colors had the advantage of making you much more vocal, much better at signaling to teammates when you want the ball.) Some games in LA have been going on for ten, fifteen years - friendships develop through these games that outlive most marriages - though you may only know each other by nicknames like "The Russian" or "Barça." Pickup games are a big part of the pleasure of playing sports like soccer which require little in terms of field and equipment (as is the case with basketball too), and so can be played in these informal settings (whoever heard of pickup baseball?). (When you are watching Law & Order and the detectives need to talk to a black man, he's invariably found playing pickup basketball.)

For reasons I don't entirely understand, however, women - as a class - don't play pickup soccer. Sure you'll see girls like me out there with the boys, girls who are so crazy about the sport that they'll push through the weirdness that they feel when they first try to join in a game not knowing if their participation will be refused because of their gender (believe me, that's a depressing experience and not easy to get past). And you'll see quasi-organized coed games, played outside leagues and teams - but usually those are more formal than what I mean.

I don't think guys know how lucky they have it - when women want to play regularly against other women, they have to join official teams, register, get ID cards and fill out league forms. That's basically your only option.

I used to play pickup with guys in Griffith Park in L.A. Sometimes these games were insanely big. One night, we were at least 15 on 15. Some girls were gathered at the other end of the park, though, warming up as if they were going to play. No uniforms - looked like an informal game. A guy playing near me said that if he were a girl, he'd go play with them, as it looked like a smaller and more reasonable game. I thought that sounded like a good idea, so I went over to my sister soccer players.

They were standing in a loose circle. They were younger than me, and most had sleek ponytails. I explained that I was playing in a huge pickup game, and that I would love to get in on a smaller game if they were going to play.

They turned and looked at me, as a single Borg-like unit. Their leader stepped towards me and squinted as she explained:

"Uhm. We're, like, a TEAM. And, uhm, this is, like, our PRACTICE."

The others seemed really relieved as she said this. So, I was, like, "Uhm. OK." And I went back to the 15 aside game, which was, however, quickly getting better as guys peeled off to get dinner. By the end of the night, I was having a great game in a 7 aside match. I felt like I had wheels on my cleats - the game was fast, competitive, and played in the middle of a cloud of dust.

I have yet to experience a female version of the chaotic fun of a pickup game. I suspect one problem might be that when women start such games, they let guys in, and the guys take over. But that doesn't explain the complete and total absence of the phenomenon.

If you have theories about women and pickup soccer, I'd love to hear them. If you know of a great women's pickup game, I'd love even more to hear about that!


  1. In general, I think it can be attributed to women's soccer being predominately "white" with a pedigree of being highly organized (as youth) by white/anglo men.

    It's a similar mentality to anti-immigration (read minute men) activists, and law enforcement -- they don't see or address the root causes, instead they tend to react (with anger/hate), and promote building (privatized) walls or prisons.

    Denying you access is to say, we don't play "that" soccer/football/futbol, we're organized, structured (law obeying).

    That is not to say I have never been turned away from a "Latin" scrimmage or pickup game -- but for different reasons. Managers/organizers were hesitant mainly because they thought we would be rough or aggressive (see premier league) with their players, a chance their team could not take (injuring a star player would be devastating).

    Going back to your point, it could be that in Leagues dominated 20 to 1 by men (Los Angeles), women may feel a need to protect their practices from men, therefore pickup is not prevalent.

  2. re protecting a game from men, sure - makes sense, but why turn away women? though in the above example, these gals had every right as they were a team and practice isn't the same as pickup.

    i wouldn't say the women's amateur scene here in LA is necessarily the same as the white/suburban thing people tend to think of when they thing of US women's soccer. i see all-latin women's teams in the municipal league, and when i've played on women's teams here they've actually always had a good mix of players from different contexts (both in terms of their backgrounds and where they learned to play).

    in london i found it was the same - not much of a women's pick up scene (tho my team held open scrimmages in a park on wednesday evenings, which is super close to what i mean). i found this lack of a pickup scene surprising, too, because it is so much easier to find places to play in london than in LA. (do guys play 'pickup' soccer in london? i couldn't really tell.)

    anyway, i wonder if it's the same for women who play basketball. i mean, that's really where the pickup ethos comes from here - the neighborhood court.

    there's room for another blog entry here about pickup etiquette. it is very true that groups are wary of certain kinds of players - for example, if your group is mostly smaller players, playing a 'latin' style, you may hesitate to welcome a bigger anglo guy for the reasons you cite above. its a delicate scenario with its own largely unspoken rules.

  3. I used to play in a league at Griffith Park, I bet I know some of those snotty girls. Maybe I can shed some light--

    It's really, really tough to find practice space in LA. I worked for Rec and Parks at the time and *I* had trouble finding open, well-lit space for my team. The permits are all taken. League play is in session. Players live too far apart. When you find yourself a field, you protect it, because every other team in your league is looking for one. You're always turning them away or shying away from the question "So where do you guys practice?"

    So it's a matter of scarcity.

    Another idea is that women's skill levels really vary. Were you just a fan of kickball as a kid and are now looking for a fun way to lose weight? Did you play AYSO for a few years? Were you on a varsity high school team? On a select club team? Played Division III? Played Division I?

    I think the higher level you attained, the more the risk for a sense of superiority. Pickup games leave you too open to lamers coming in, making bad passes and either frustrating you or boring you. I find women want to play at the level they've attained, it's not so much about a love of the beautiful game. I can think of a couple exceptions to the rule, but even they never stuck.

    I know a team of ladies who play in Santa Monica at 8pm each Tuesday, they were semi-willing to let me play with them, but mostly afraid I'd bring down their level. Their coach, on the other hand, I'd played with in pickup games, and he loved me and kept telling me to come back. Even though the park was across the street, the feeling that I wasn't good enough got to me and I stopped. But overall I just fell away from playing because I got too busy.

  4. C, I think your comment brings up a broader issue in Los Angeles -- the Privatization of Public Space. While there are dozens if even hundreds of free lit (til 11pm!) Pubic Tennis Courts in the city, there is not place in the city for open pick-up games with decent field conditions and lights. Perhaps something like the public pool system ($1 admission or free with a library card) could be applied to new public soccer fields with lights for pick-up games (with supervision)?

  5. "...Public Tennis Courts..."

  6. I played a pickup game after work with colleagues for years. However, I was the only woman who played. I am used to working & playing sports in (traditionally) male-dominated fields, and I was playing with friends, so I wasn't put off, but I can imagine that another woman in a new job or new city, or playing with people she didn't know well, might not be as comfortable.

    When I moved to England (still working for the same company & doing a similar job in a male-dominated field), I was... umm... gently discouraged by my work colleagues from joining a similarly organized pickup game. Instead, I joined a women's league team, my first foray into organized soccer since I was a teen. I played five seasons with the women's team and really enjoyed it. But the only pickup games I get these days are when I visit the friends I used play with in Chicago.

    My friends who play on co-ed teams (in the US, of course) usually have at least a couple of women playing. I don't know if this helps, or adds anything, but my comments are really just leading to a suggestion that more women don't play pickup games because they like to have the comradeship of other women; even in a male-dominated sport where they are accustomed to being a minority. If I were to join a new pickup game, and I didn't know the participants, I would feel more comfortable if other women were playing. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I've been overly influenced by the sexist English football culture =)

    By the way, I love "From a Left Wing". It's the only blog in my favorites.

    -A Yankee Footballer in Britain

  7. Addendum:
    In trying to organize my thoughts, I left out a bit.
    I have also (not recently) played the occasional pickup game with my teammates from the women's team. You know, just messing around, basically no rules, certainly no coach or manager to yell at us. BUT we're a team. And even playing a pickup game, we can't help but act like one. Other than my team and the ones we play against, I've never seen enough female soccer players in one place to make a decent pickup game. Certainly, we are fewer in number and more scattered about than the men.

    These things usually start amongst friends, without a real organization behind them. Maybe because we are fewer in number it's simply harder to get enough of us together without an organization?

    -A Yankee Footballer in Britain

  8. yankee footballer - e-mail me at jennifer(dot)doyle(at)ucr(dot)edu, and i can tell you about a nice co-ed game in london (mostly but not only guys). only problem is it's on sunday afternoons, so depending on the league you play in, that might be your match day. still, it's nice to know about and there are nearly always a few other women there. JD

  9. First let me just say that I really enjoy your blog. Your posts about soccer and politics are very insightful, so thank you for that.

    Regarding women's pickup soccer, I didn't start playing pickup games until about 3 years ago when I moved to Brooklyn. I grew up playing in formal leagues, and the thought of joining pickup games never crossed my mind.

    I was surprised when I found this cool group called Prospect Park Pickup Soccer that is geared towards beginner players and women. Co-ed pickups are every weekend and during the summer they have women's games on weeknights. But the majority of the women are beginners, and I have yet to find an intermediate or advanced pickup group for women.

    I don't know why but the advanced female players that I've met want structure. Maybe it's because that's the only way they grew up playing soccer?

  10. Hi Kirstina,

    Thank you for your comments, and it's great to know about the Prospect Park game! I've played in a more advanced pickup game for guys in Chinatown NYC - they welcome women, but I don't think there is more than one or two there at a time.

    Some friends of mine and I started a game like the one you describe six years ago - it is still going, but it's harder and harder to keep the right tone for the variety in skill. I'm proud, though, to say that it's basically a feminist environment.

    I would love to learn of just ONE really competitive pickup scene that was all women, or majority women!

    I think that the fact that a lot of women don't grow up with the unstructured form of the game is true....I've noticed that players like this (men and women) are confused when you say - no corners, or use tiny goals, or don't really even have throw-ins.... It's a whole different ethos, really!


  11. Hi. Looks like I'm a bit late to this post, but I just discovered your blog. And I LOVE it. I'm a long-time lefty and a long-time soccer nut, so its great to find this blog. I play on a men's amateur team and I play in a regular weekly pick-up game. I've observed two things in this pick-up game that I think speak to this issue. First, I once brought a female colleague and friend from work to the game. She is quite a good player (played varsity at a top college program) and she is physically attractive. i think she came twice with me. The first time I came without her after that I was pestered by two different guys, where the "babe" was. I was immediatly offtended, and let them know by asking "what babe." This utterly confused them, so they asked where was the my "hot" friend. So I unloaded and pointed out how she had come to play soccer and not to be oggled and referred to as a babe, etc. etc. These guys thought I was nuts. I got a small degree of satisfaction out of shoulder charging one of them into the ground later that day. THe second thing I have observed is how "confused" some guys get when playing pick-up against women. At the pick-up game, a friend of mine (who also plays on my mens team) tackled a woman very hard. Very clean, but hard. She wiped out. I thought it was COMPLETELY appropriate. Well, another dude (older) comes over and goes off on him and this huge fight breaks out. I was more cowardly this time and did not rush to my mate's defense, but I think my own hesitation was caused by the same confusion (it WAS a hard hit I had to concede - not that the older guy's position was right, but I could sympathize with where he was coming from). The woman got up, didn't take sides and the game resumed. No conclusions here; just two observations. Keep up the great work on this blog.

  12. as AEK Baltimore says there is a large degree of confusion when playing against women as a man, do you treat them as you would any other player (for me this would mean being very physical but fair) or do you downplay the physicality of your game -running the risk of getting made to look silly?

    I appreciate that it must be very annoying and depressing to be denied a game because you're a woman but I think this mostly comes as a result of the above dilemma rather than out-and-out sexism. Of course this doesn't help in the case of a flat-out refusal but if it were swinging in the balance, it may be something you try to actively address in order to play pick-up? Just a thought.

  13. hi will, these things are sometimes so subtle, that it's nearly a matter of mood.

    my favorite recent moment - playing in a long-standing pickup game - a friend whom i was marking wanted to cross the ball hard across the field but i was in the way. so he said "look out" - because he didn't want me to get hurt - but i was of course standing in his way because i was marking him. we had a good laugh about it.

    i have also seen guys tackle women hard because they can - once, i saw the same player slide tackled the same woman three times. my first real slide tackle was against him, in fact - a retaliatory instinct on my part - all ball, and he went flying ass over tea-kettle. one of my career highlights! he didn't slide tackle anyone after that.

    i digress: since i wrote this post and other early posts about coed play, i've worked to own up more to the part that is my head - the part that has me being more quiet when i play with guys, the part of me that pulls back from a lack of confidence. i still long for all-female pickup, just to see what it's like!

    thanks for your comment!


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