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Should We Teach Girls to Push?

From now on, in addition to zipping my lip on the sidelines, I am going to seek out opportunities to encourage my two daughters to push more--legally, of course. Life, after all, can be a contact sport.
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On our local soccer field last weekend, I overheard an exchange between a father and his tween daughter after her game: "You should be pushing people more out there," he told her. She demurred, and he replied, "Well, all I know is I see everyone else out there doing a lot of pushing. It's a contact sport."

This sounded wrong to me. I mean, it's soccer, which as far as I know is played mostly with your feet: when kids throw elbows or deliberately push each other, isn't that a foul? Football, wrestling--those seem more like contact sports to me. Also, this is AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) soccer, famed for its inclusive "Everyone Plays" ethos. Should an AYSO parent be encouraging pushing? I recalled the pre-season pledge AYSO parents were required to sign this year: we vowed not to shout directions from the sidelines, not to say negative things, not to overemphasize winning, not to criticize the volunteer coaches or the referees, and so on. In other words, to be basically decent human beings. To be the adults. Yet a visit to the field on any given Saturday will find parents doing all of these things, and worse. And mine is a neighborhood often mocked for its lefty, touchy-feely, trophy-for-participating leanings--if I wanted a super-intense competitive atmosphere, we would pack up and move to the suburbs. Or play travel soccer. My gut said this dad was breaking an unwritten contract by telling his daughter to push other kids on the field.

Then again, I acknowledge how poorly qualified I am to judge athletic standards: I never played a team sport, and on the terrifying occasion when I was forced to compete in a camp tennis tournament, I deliberately lost in round one to avoid moving on. Happily, my daughters haven't inherited my athletic timidity, so I now find myself on many a soccer and softball sideline, cheering them on. Well actually, I try to remain silent ever since reading Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's amazing letter to baseball parents. But still, I'm there, cheering them on in my head and thanking my stars they are braver than I ever was.

Because I wasn't completely sure about this AYSO dad's advice to his daughter, I turned to my most trusted source for a gut-check and posted it on Facebook. The first responses confirmed my initial feeling of outrage: similar stories popped up about parents behaving badly on the sidelines. A friend with twin boys said she recently turned to a dad on the soccer field after he screamed at his six-year-old to focus and told him, "World Cup tryouts are next week. This is the first-grade field." Unlike me, she is an amazing, competitive athlete. Another friend told of a dad screaming at their ref for not calling fouls in a game between six-year-olds, where there are no fouls and the ref was a teenager. Another described the extreme competitiveness at her young daughter's gymnastic studio: "Those mothers would drag you in the restroom and cut out your liver if it would advance their daughter's career." Her daughter is five.

But just as I decided my instinctive response had been on target, some of my male friends weighed in. One gently pointed out that some people do consider soccer a contact sport, and that aggressive players may ultimately have an advantage on the field. Another recalled learning to use his whole body in basketball at around the same age: boxing out, setting hard picks, using his elbows to get a rebound. He also wondered how much my objection stemmed from this being a father talking to a daughter, and how the omnipresent double standard might be tilting my and others' responses.

Finally, in a thrilling example of virtual discussion turned actual, a neighbor I'm not even friends with on Facebook caught up with me on our block and gave me his take (his wife had joined the discussion online). As a father who's coached AYSO teams for years, he too wondered how much the discussion was sex-biased; he certainly saw his answer very much in those terms. As an AYSO coach for both girls' and boys' teams, he's seen that the girls are generally less willing to be physical with each other in games. He'll try to correct this tendency, for example teasing his players when they run alongside an opponent that they look like they're having a conversation, instead of trying to take the ball away.

Was it possible, he asked me, that if the dad I heard had said, "You need to be more aggressive out there," everyone's objections would fade away? Moreover, he argued, that actually might be the best advice that girls in particular need to hear on the field. They are already intuitively better than boys at teamwork--but many girls need to overcome a fear of playing aggressively to help the team win. And parents aren't really helping build that confidence, despite all their sideline screaming; another coach told me he gets requests from parents that their daughters not be asked to play goalie.

Ultimately, my takeaway is that yes, parents can absolutely suck on the sidelines; even my most competitive, athletic friends confirm that parental involvement in kids' sports has taken a very wrong turn. (Strangely, only one friend 'fessed up to yelling directions to his kid on the field--points for honesty, Dave, and I guarantee you aren't the only one here who does). But to my surprise, I also had to acknowledge that there is an instinctive recoil from aggressive play, especially when it happens between girls. From now on, in addition to zipping my lip on the sidelines, I am going to seek out opportunities to encourage my two daughters to push more--legally, of course. Life, after all, can be a contact sport.