Spring!!! As soon as I see the first patch of grass, I’m itching to get out and play… soccer, basketball, ultimate, football, I’m up for whatever. These past few summers, I’ve been playing pick-up soccer with a meetup group… They’re awesome, super well organized, they meet three times a week, and there’s usually a pretty good turnout. But, despite my eagerness to get out and kick a ball around (finally!), there’s also a part of me that’s hesitant to head out and play. And, really, if I’m going to be honest, a big part of what’s keeping me away is the worry that by the end of the game, I’ll feel upset. There’s a bitterness that tends to well up in me when I’m playing co-ed team sports; a sort of dense multi-layered sludge that keeps on giving, even once the game is over.
Here’s how it goes: I show up and notice how few women there are, if any. We start playing, and I quickly pick-up on this pattern where I’m often not covered and still rarely get the ball. It’s like I don’t exist. And when they do interact with me, the guys feel like they can coach me, like give me “helpful” hints. I get this feeling like my calling for the ball (“I’M WIDE OPEN!!”) is just seen as obnoxious, especially if I get at all insistent, after the fifth missed opportunity. Then, when I finally get the ball, I feel like I have something to prove. And, I might make a good play, which is nice, or, I might mess up, which is less nice, and leads to the confirmation that I’m not a reliable player, even though everyone messes up now and then. “All this because I’m a woman”, I privately fume.
But, then, this immediate sort of frustration gets processed through self-doubt and self-reflection: Am I really getting the ball less often than I would if I were a man? Maybe, the other players have just played together for a while and have a good rapport… Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am… Maybe they’re just not that good and aren’t aware of good passing opportunities… I’m probably just being oversensitive… And, if playing co-ed sports makes me so upset, why do I insist on participating and putting myself through these unpleasant feelings, and possibly even making the game less fun for the others… Why can’t I just get over it and have fun?
As a counter to this self-doubt comes the dredging up of the past. While, it may be that I am being over-sensitive in this particular case, I have reasons for being watchful for cases of differential treatment. Ever since I can remember, I have been treated differently in team sports. Early on, boys (uncensored, as kids will be) voiced their prejudices about not wanting girls to play, or not accepting that girls could be better than them. It often took adult intervention for them to take me seriously, such as a coach telling the boys to pass the ball to me because I was a good player. And, in my grown up years, I’ve experienced the more obvious type of discrimination in leagues that require teams to have a certain number of women on the field. The gameplay can sometimes become centered around the men, and the women become human pylons.
Finally, there comes the meta-frustration, or, anger at “the system”. I consistently get the message that women and men are not on equal footing when it comes to team sports. For one, when I’m paying attention, I notice a near absence of women in pickup sports. Also, women can be given conditions that make a sport “easier” (if not easier, just different) for them, such as a smaller ball in basketball, lower volleyball nets, shorter matches in tennis, no tackle football games… or, remember girls’ push-ups in high school? And, truth be told, I know that even I perceive women and men differently on the field. All this just leaves me in a funk, thinking about how pervasive and entrenched these systematic divisions are.
But, then this weird thing happens, where I remember that, sure, sometimes I end up feeling pretty down after playing co-ed team sports, but, still, there are other times, where I meet awesome people who both play hard and encourage each other. And there’s this added bonus where I get to be a woman playing pick-up sports, which changes things just a bit. So, this weekend, I’m going to play soccer with the meetup group, and, damn it, I will have fun running my guts out, trying to set up good plays, and generally just letting my aggressive and competitive spirit run loose.
Jeanne-Marie just got her MA in philosophy at Tufts University, and is now giving computer science a go. She loves team sports (all of them), biking, swimming, and has not yet learned to love running.