Girls Competing Against Boys: Part II

I’ve been thinking more about 12 year-old MN female Ingrid Neel who will play on the High School boy’s tennis team this spring. I can see both sides of this issue. I’ve gotten some interesting emails offline and my students this morning had some thoughts as well. Here is a rough summary of those opinions and thoughts:

Why it might be good idea to let her play: the team will mirror the gender composition of the workplace in which she will largely compete against males, helps her develop life skills and “toughness” in competition, her tennis skills will improve, increased recognition which may help with recruiting, helps the boys learn to appreciate athletic talent of girls, has the potential to change outdated gender stereotypes of female athletes as “lesser”, separation of boys and girls in sport is arbitrary anyway so why not let them play together?, challenges the gender binary that all males are better than all female athletes and provides proof that many females CAN outperform or perform with males.

Why it might be a bad idea to let her play: the boys might not want her on team and it will destroy team cohesion, it might reinforce outdated gender stereotypes and ways of thinking about female athletes (the best athletes are male), her experiences will depend greatly on how the coach and the boys’ parents handle her presence on the team, Is it appropriate or should a 12 year old girl be around 17 year old males?; it takes her away from her female peers during a critical developmental window, Is it fair or healthy to ask a teen age boy to play (and possibly lose!) a younger girl…isn’t that emotional abuse?, it might open the floodgate of boys wanting to play on the girls’ team.

There are many facets of this issue to consider, which have been discussed and debated previously. To help us all think through the complexities and know the facts, I would guide the reader to Issues Related to Girls and Boys Competing With and Against Each Other in Sports and Physical Activity Settings: A Women’s Sports Foundation Position. The WSF piece is a nice summary and includes the legality of co-ed sport participation and opportunities to play under Title IX.

Related to the Ingrid Neel case, a colleague (thanks LW!) sent me a story about an Iowa wrestler who defaulted his state tournament match, rather than face a female wrestler (Cassy Herkelman).

One thought I want to share is that I think that most boys can greatly benefit from having to compete against girls. It has the potential (and I say that cautiously) to be a great opportunity for both competitors. Isn’t that the true meaning of competition…to strive together and bring out the best in each other? (NOTE: for a good book on this topic, read True Competition by David Shields & Brenda Light Bredemeier, former colleagues of mine at Notre Dame) However, the opportunity will be lost if the adults in the lives of both competitors mess it up. By that I mean if the coach or parents tease or allow teasing of the boy if he loses, which reinforces that boys should naturally be better than girls. It also tells the boy he isn’t “a real man” if he can’t beat a GIRL and therefore should be ashamed. Comments, teasing, hazing, and bullying directed towards the female competitor should also not be allowed or tolerated.

Some colleagues and I (Fink, LaVoi & Newhall, 2015)  did a study of male practice players of NCAA D-I women’s basketball teams. These researchers found the men in their study respected and appreciated the female athletes, and perspectives about female athletes and women in general did change. Overall the men described it as a very positive and transformative experience, therefore providing evidence that co-ed  competition can work and lead to positive development and growth.

If it can be done at one one the highest levels of competition, surely co-ed competition can be successfully achieved at the youth and interscholastic level. Let the kids play and hopefully if the adults get it right, it will be a positive and teachable moment for all involved.

I’d love to hear your additional thoughts.

5 Replies to “Girls Competing Against Boys: Part II”

  1. What is not being reported is what is (in my mind) at the center of the Neel family’s decision. Earlier this year, a chief rival of Neel’s (also from Rochester, also 12) received Sports Illustrated’s national “Sportskid of the Year” award. In our little Minnesota tennis community, these two (Neel and her rival) are frequently compared. The Neel family just couldn’t stomach the fact that Ingrid was all of a sudden viewed as playing second fiddle. This is a publicity stunt more than anything else, as Neel does have adequate competition in girls’ tennis. She is a clear cut top 3 or 4 player in our fair state, but does not dominate her competition, and should not have the audacity to shun the rest of her female adversaries as ‘unworthy.’ As many may have assumed, Mom is calling the shots here. Anyone who has seen Ingrid compete has no doubt seen the somewhat maniacal gaze cast by her mother upon the little phenom. As a tennis coach and enthusiast, I would hate to see such a talented kid be pushed too hard at a young age and end up ‘burning out’ by the time she’s 16.

    This is hugely detrimental to the boys team at Mayo. How is the last boy cut from the varsity team going to feel when his potential spot is taken by Neel? How does the girls’ team feel knowing that their team is ‘beneath’ the Neel family? Ingrid is a tremendous athelete, and seems to have a very healthy disposition while on court competing, at least for now. I aggressively question however, the motivation behind this decision and the consequences that will arise in its aftermath.


    1. MNTennisDude, Thank you for your post! This is really insightful and you offer other perspectives around this issue that aren’t covered in the media. While I don’t know if what you say is true or just your opinion as I haven’t seen Neel or her mother in action, it brings up some additional things for us all to think about. I did find it odd that Neel wasn’t the best 12 and Under player in the Northern Section or not ranked more highly at the national level.

      However, I do want to argue that if a boy were to be cut due to Neel EARNING a spot, then he should have nothing to feel badly about. He would have been beaten out by a better opponent…gender of the opponent shouldn’t matter. Again, if this were to happen I think how the adults handle it determines how the boy who is cut will feel and react. Conversely, to play devil’s advocate–why would or should the girls and their families care if Neel played on the girl’s team or not?

      Thanks again for posting! -nml


      1. I think MN tennis dude brings up some good points. He is not saying that the boy who doesn’t make the team should feel bad because a female beat him for the spot on the team but the gender does make a difference as that boy can not play on the girls team -consequently if we are looking at equal opportunity shouldn’t boys be allowed to play on the girls volleyball team -seeing as there is no boys volleyball offered? I think this sets a bad precedent for a couple reasons as in tennis Ingrid would not be allowed to play in boys local or national tournaments so why then should she play :boys: high school tennis. If her aspiration is to be a pro it would be to play on the wta tour not the ATP so shouln’t she focus on being able to beat girls first? Also I think if there is not an equivalent sports for girls they absolutely should be allowed to play with the boys but if the boys can not play on the girls team -then shouldn’t all sports simply be open in which case in the majority of them most girls would be beaten out and it would have an adverse effect as you wouldn’t get as many girls going out for sports. Just some thoughts to consider.


  2. I wish there was a way to “like” your blog posts. Often I read them and I just like that they make me think differently but I don’t want to leave a comment. 🙂 Can you work on that? Thanks.


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