Girls hear that boys are "naturally" stronger and faster all the time -- and it's the premise for sex-specific sports leagues starting from very young ages. But a new study reveals that the claim is actually based on a false construct: boys don't begin to generally outperform girls until puberty.
And that means that girls and boys can be well-matched rivals in many sports -- including swimming, which was the subject of research in the recent study. Researchers from Indiana University analyzed data from more than 1.9 million swim meets, registered with the organizaton USA Swimming. The meets they studied, all 50-yard freestyle events, included both boys and girls between the ages of six and 19, broken up into age groups. They found no gender difference in the performance of six to eight-year-olds and a negligible difference between 11 and 12-year-old boys and girls. Around puberty -- ages 13 to 16 -- the accelerated growth and muscle development of many boys meant they began to surpass the performance of female counterparts.
“Due to differences in developmental pace it seems to be true that at least in some sports there are periods of time during which girls and boys might be athletic equals,” lead author Joel Stager, a professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Indiana University at Bloomington told ABC News.
Of course, muscle isn't the only factor in sport. In fact, the researchers chose the freestyle specifically because it didn't rely on dedicated training as much as it did muscle function. When it comes to strategy, conscientious practice and teambuilding -- all essential to a good athlete -- many girls remain as strong or stronger than boys.
And as we often tell children, sports participation isn't about winning or losing. Research indicates that getting active improves self-esteem, social skills, problem-solving, discipline and stress management in all children. Who knows what else it could teach about gender relations if young boys and girls were able to compete as equals on the swimming pool, or field.