Find Your Dirty Dance

A man I'll call Mr. Pebble had this to say at a "Girls Under 10" soccer coaches meeting I attended last fall in Los Angeles: "Girls at this age should not be coached to win; they are not competitive, not as intense as boys, and should not be pushed."

Incredulous, I went right for the soccer manual where I found under "Player Development" that "all players should be able to develop their soccer skills and knowledge to the best of their abilities, both individually and as members of a team." I wondered, is coaching not to win a rule made up by this administrator, Mr. Pebble?

I found the answer later that day in the warm glow of the TV, during the Netflix women's prison series, "Orange Is the New Black," a show everyone's been talking about. Only a few episodes into the series about life on the inside of a women's prison, I recognized in the prison manager, Mr. Healy, a fictional analog to Mr. Pebble.

Somewhere along life's path, Mr. Healy had decided that women loving other women was wrong. Mr. Healy is entitled to his opinion, of course, but one might wonder about his career choices. After all, as a women's prison administrator surrounded by female inmates in all kinds of intimate, platonic and sexual relationships, Mr. Healy is constantly forced to confront the tension between his personal feelings and his professional responsibilities.

A pivotal moment occurs when Mr. Healy observes the show's incidental drug-trafficking protagonist Piper Chapman and her former lover in a sensual dance at a prison party. Mr. Healy explodes in unprecedented rage and sends Chapman to solitary to wallow undistracted in her sins.

Mr. Healy's reaction is so extreme and disconnected from the crime that the audience is left in a state of shock coupled with a new awareness -- in a classic abuse of power, Mr. Healy has crossed the line from keeping the peace to expressing his prejudices.

Parallels were being drawn before my very eyes. Like Mr. Healy, Mr. Pebble was institutionalizing his preconceptions about women (well, girls under 10). In addition to his proclamations about girls and athletic competition, Mr. Pebble also announced he would be handicapping teams with competitive players to prevent the level of play from getting, as he said, "uncomfortably high." Mr. Pebble added by way of rationale: "None of them will be soccer players."

Mr. Pebble had inspired me. As a coach of one of those teams, my determination to lead those non-competitive, not-as-intense girls as far as their non-soccer-player abilities could take them had been ignited.

At practice, my players learned to focus on everything that could improve their game: how to throw the ball in while dragging a foot for added power; how to play goal-side and execute corner-kick plays; how to form a connected defense, and show for the ball. And while Mr. Pebble never saw our dirty dance during practice, he did get a chance to see it at our final game several months later when we won the division championship.

Mr. Pebble congratulated us on the hard work and achievement by insisting privately via email that as a coach, I showed a "lack of appreciation or understanding" for what he was trying to achieve with his soccer division. To hear him say it, the girls and me were an aberration, a disruptive example not to be followed. It was clear that our drive to win made Mr. Pebble uncomfortable, even though the girls were thriving.

I am grateful to Mr. Healy for helping illuminate how much the real world of girls soccer and the fictional world of women's prison (as seen in "Orange") have in common. In both cases, administrators abused their professional power to reinforce a retrogressive gender paradigm about how girls and women should behave.

Mr. Healy is so old-school, he would have fit right in on the network television of my youth. Mr. Pebble however is the true anachronism, imposing his beliefs on players, parents and coaches in a reality show of his own making. That's unscripted programming we all need to reject. I feel a dirty dance coming on -- how about you?