I know I had said no more posts about the new women’s chill soccer league I’ve been following this year. But recently in our playoffs I was a part of some not-winning fun that I want to tell you about it.
It was nearly time for my team’s final game of the season, and we were waiting to play while the top two teams finished a shootout after their tie game. Many people looked on as players from each team alternately kicked the ball at the goal while the opposing team’s goalkeeper defended. Watching players remarked around me that shootouts are exciting but stressful. I agreed!
Both teams did a great job, and after the shootout the winning team stayed out in the field to take pictures with a trophy while the other team did not.
Then it was our turn to play. One of our teammates joined our opposition because they were short extra players, so both teams had two substitutions. At the end of our evenly matched game we were tied, just like the game before us.
Players from both teams were out on the pitch after the buzzer went, when someone asked, “Can we just end in a tie and not do the shootout?”
Did we have to go through the stress of a shootout to determine a winner and a loser? What did the team captains have to say? Both captains were okay with it, so then when we asked the ref he said needed to check first. As he trotted over to the other field to consult with the head ref, someone from our team said, “If we just all left the field now, what could they do?”
But we did wait, and it was fine. We two teams left the field at the same time, without a final game shootout, to get our drinks and celebrate a great season together.
What it meant to me
In considering what makes a non-aggressive rec women’s soccer league this past season, I also observed players trying to have more say in the type of game they wanted to play. Change was sometimes hard to make because of established regulations, different expectations, and traditions of past seasons.
I developed much admiration for the league organizer (Cindy) who involved players in some key decisions, the team captains who discussed issues that sometime arose during the season, and the officiants who adjusted their calls for our level of play, even when there were differing views about what aggressive play looked like.
In the end, our teams’ choice not to compete in a shootout embodied what I think this league was meant to be about. It’s will sound corny, but I think it’s still true: when we players decided to leave our final game as a tie, we all ended up winning.
See how the league developed in my post series:
Part 1: A new “chill” women’s rec soccer league league?
I sat down with Kayla Marcoux–a skilled soccer player, coach, and referee–who has officiated some of our Sunday “chill” rec soccer games. Kayla agreed to discuss her views on aggressive soccer and her experience as an officiant in our league.Note that we discussed our own views, which are not those of the BMO Center, Ontario Soccer, EMSA Referee, or Canada Soccer.
EP: Can you tell me a bit about your soccer career?
KM: I’ve played for 25 or 26 years now. I have played as striker, and I currently play as goalie. I am super passionate about soccer. I’ve also coached for 15 years.
After playing and coaching I figured the next thing to do was start reffing. I knew there weren’t a lot of female refs, and that didn’t sit well with me. Now, my friend and I and maybe one other are the only women refs who officiate in leagues at the BMO Centre.
EP: Can you describe simply–what is aggression in soccer? When I think about what is aggression in soccer, I notice that sometimes more and less skilled players may see the other as being aggressive, for different reasons.
KM: It’s not a simple definition. For me, aggression is done with intent and has a lack of regard for the safety of themselves or the other player(s). It makes perfect sense to me that if players from different levels of skill play together, that the player who has less skill or experience could interpret a higher skilled or experienced player as making an aggressive play or challenge occasionally.
Since we cannot determine someone’s “intent,” we must consider their actions: are they trying to “run through people” or are they using their body to shield the ball and gain possession? Running through someone, kicking at their ankles or shins wildly trying to get the ball are examples of what I consider to be “aggressive.” Shielding a ball or going shoulder to shoulder chasing a ball down to me would constitute normal soccer play and not be deemed aggressive. Just because I see it that way, it doesn’t mean someone with less experience than me will see it that way. Opinions will differ for everyone which is why I find this hard to define.
EP: In a poll of the team captains in our “chill” league, some felt like there were too many calls on rough play. How do you call aggression in our league?
KM: Yeah, that’s interesting. It depends on the league. Every league has different calls. It can be a challenge to adapt to varying degrees and levels of play, especially in a league like yours.
Our role as officiants is to watch the temperature of the game but let play happen. Contact is a grey area, one opinion vs another. We normally watch for 50/50, but because there are so many variables we have to try to abide by the rules.
EP: I am afraid I need you to explain to me what you mean by “50/50.”
KM: 50/50 is two players from opposite teams who each have an equal chance of obtaining possession of the ball. But it’s not easy to judge what is equal because players may be of different speeds, sizes, and skill levels when they challenge or defend their possession.
EP: So you are reffing our games with that 50/50 idea in mind?
KM: Yes, but that balance of power can change to 60/40 at any time. And that’s what we are looking for. If a player is defending very well, it might seem like a shift in power but really it’s just skilled play. They know how to move their bodies to their advantage. If a player is getting really frustrated, and their frustration builds up, it can also change how they play. They can start with elbows out or throw their body in the way, and that can lead to a collision. That becomes a safety issue. Body types can affect 50/50 challenges, but skill level and emotions can too. I’m not sure if that answers your question because it’s delicate. There are a lot of variables we are watching out for.
When I was asked to referee for your league for the first time, I was told that your players were really just out to get exercise and have fun, and that you didn’t want competitiveness and aggressive ball challenges. We were told this league was no contact at all.
And then I reffed several more games, and I found that the teams were all kind of different. We don’t want there to be complaints for players not following the rules, but there should be some flexibility.
EP: Would you play in our “chill” rec league?
KM: No. Players should be classified appropriately for the leagues they play in. Me, I play in Second Division. I know that I don’t have the ability to bring it down. I would be considered an aggressive player in your league. So I’m better off to find people that are playing similar to me.
You can’t control what other players do. The onus is on the player to say to themselves, “Do I belong in this league or not?” If people aren’t getting what they want, there are many other leagues available at the BMO Centre that can allow players to find the level of play they are looking for & comfortable with.
But I did tell my mom about this league. “They are actually chill and very calm,” I told her, “and they’re here just to exercise and have fun.” If she were interested in playing soccer, she should come out to this league to play!
EP: What do you think of reffing in our league?
KM: I’ve only reffed a handful of games so far. Everyone seems to be having a really good time. I’m on the field, laughing with everyone. I enjoy the games because there’s so much fun. I haven’t really seen any issues.
I like to talk to the players on the field, and have them talk to me because then I can keep an eye out for what they see as too much aggression. Of course, humans are going to make mistakes, but we as referees can respond to requests, so talk to us.
EP: What can refs do to support fun rec leagues like ours?
KM: Keep up with training. Stay on top of the IFAB rules and not become complacent. The rules change every year. Put player safety above all else. It’s our number one job.
Bring in referees that are like-minded and that want to officiate games at this level. Give them examples of situations that have happened, explaining what is okay and what is not okay. This can help us help you and your league.
It’s also a good idea to bring the officiants into the conversation. If you tell me what to look for, I’ll adjust my position to make sure I have a better view, and if I have to call something your team isn’t okay with, I’ll call it, no problem. For the most part, we’re all really easy to talk to.
EP: What can our league do to ensure its continued success in future seasons, in your opinion?
KM: A good conversation is easily had before it starts to get a sense of the team’s level of comfort with contact and what contact means to them. Identify what you are not comfortable with, and then bring it to the attention of the referee. If two teams are comfortable with a certain level of contact, then explain it. We want players to have a fun and safe environment but also be heard and feel like the officiant cares. Conversations can bring aggressiveness and animosity down. Even if teams don’t initially agree, they can come to a better understanding if we all talk and share our perspectives.
Maybe as well as make sure everyone else is signed on. Everyone signs something at the beginning of the season that says, this is what we all agree on.
EP: [Joking] Is it this complicated to be a referee for male soccer players in their leagues?
KM: In my experience, women are respectful and appreciative of having a female ref. I’ve had no grief or cattiness in this league at all or in any others.
In my opinion, women are superior players because we just go out and play and get the job done. When I officiate, most of the time everyone is respectful, but if I do get grief it is usually from the men. [Smiles]
We are midway through the season of a new +40 rec soccer league that over 100 women joined because they wanted less aggressive play. As I’ve reported in previous posts, there was an expectation that play would be less rough, but a series of decisions and limitations made it unclear (to me) what mechanisms would actually make that happen.
Has the league met expectations and achieved its goals? I asked the team captains their thoughts in a Facebook group chat they share.
Yes, Less Aggressive Play
Of the eight team captains who were polled, all agreed that the league was either a little or a lot less aggressive than other rec leagues they have played in (Poll 1):
According to most team leaders, what has been different from other leagues is the higher frequency of penalty calls (Poll 2).
Some team captains also said they perceived more efforts of teams to be friendly. One or two captains said their teams talk with each other and the opposing teams about aggressive play.
I think that team members talking before or during the game about their expectations (rather than just complaining after the game) shows goodwill and is more likely to improve league morale. Because aggressiveness is subjective, it can only help to have a more shared understanding of what aggressive play looks and feels like for each team.
A few captains added in the chat that their teams felt the league was fun. One captain said,
I think it’s going well, not as crazy aggressive as the other groups and no pressure we are just having fun and being active :)
Interestingly, no one said their own teams admit when they have been too aggressive. I didn’t ask whether it is because they genuinely don’t feel or notice when their play is too rough, or if it’s just not a good strategy for games.
Concerns and Reflections
Apparently rough play has not been fully eliminated: over the last few months, folks have brought forward concerns about a few aggressive players.
As league organizer, Cindy usually addresses concerns with team captains, who in turn speak with their own players. So, the process for dealing with the perception of over-aggressive play seems non-confrontational and a shared responsibility. As Cindy said, “Everyone is contributing to its success. It shows great community!”
While I expected Cindy to deal with these league issues kindly, I did not expect that over half of the captains would say “the refs also call out play that our team does not consider aggressive.” In other words, some feel that refs are making too many calls on aggressive play in this “chill” league.
Why might this be a concern for some teams? It can be difficult to avoid accidental contact on an indoor field. As well, some would say that defending space and moving into the opponent’s space is a normal part of soccer. And, every time a play gets stopped for a penalty, it’s less time to play soccer.
This idea that refs are calling aggression that players don’t agree to made me reflect on my own assumptions. A “rec league” suggests it will be social and fun, but for some women fun means competitive play. Have I been assuming that the only way to have a chill and fun league is to reduce aggression to the point of low or no contact?
I have noted in past posts that aggression is in part in the eye of the beholder. Those with less experience may see those with more soccer experience as aggressive, but the reverse can be true as well. At least the refs seem to be calling roughness due to unchecked skill and roughness due to lack of control.
ReDefining a League
This new rec league was organized by the criteria of age and intolerance for aggressive play, but there may be other ways to ensure safety but also give players what they want to have fun. One captain suggested to me that, instead of aggression level, league divisions could be based on experience or skill level. A beginner league for adult women of all ages could teach about safe play and what is appropriate contact. In such a league, frequent stops for penalties and game explanations might be more welcome.
At the same time, an adult beginner league begs the question of when someone is and no longer is a “beginner.” Sometimes experienced soccer players recruit their friends, and of course they want to play together despite skill level differences. (I’ve gotten better mostly by playing with friends more skilled than me.) It’s tough to make everyone happy.
If the “chill” league continues in another season, the norm for play might stay at low- or no-contact. In this case, how the game is played might need to change—and teams who plan to register in this league will have to be ready for that.
The beauty of sports is that they are what we make of them. According to most team captains, right now most members of this “chill” league seem relatively happy with the game that they have made together.
Given that the league, the rules, and the teams were going to stay the same, I was a bit doubtful that a truly “chill” rec soccer game would happen. However, it’s been a few months into the season, and I have noticed three differences from seasons past.
Shared effort to support friendly play
The FB “+40 Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Soccer,” posts are public to members. This means transparency: players have seen most of what had gone on in terms of planning the league. Group members were encouraged to self-organize: find others with a similar “chill” mindset, assign themselves to teams, volunteer as captains, and make other decisions. Consequently, there has been a shared investment in the building of the league.
As I described in Part 1 and Part 2, the entire FB group was polled a few times during set up time, giving everyone say about what was important to them. For instance, folks were given a choice about whether they wanted control over their team rosters OR game times to play.
The majority of the group selected roster control over time and team number limits. This democratic and transparent approach allowed players to feel that their choices mattered.
Now during the season, teams have also gone back to saying good game after the match is over, a tradition of goodwill that has finally resumed after COVID.
Leadership and communication
The building/league manager has vocalized his support of this group. Just before the season began, a league meeting was held for all players—not just captains—to remind everyone about the rules that penalize rough play. The FB group was used to communicate these messages and invites.
Cindy and the team captains have had their own private FB communication channel. Competitors off the field, yet social on social media while off the field. I am told this additional communication among the team leaders has helped to reinforce the goodwill expected from players and teams.
As well, the FB group members had advocated for more women officiants for the games, and now we have a female referee who I have been told makes many calls during the game. So, the league has listened and responded to some communicated requests.
Accountability and commitment to “chill”
When the league was eventually finalized at the end of the summer, with 7 full teams, it truly felt like a group effort. And it was cause for celebration.
At the same time, Cindy, the group and chill league’s originator, encouraged everyone to continue to be be vigilant and accountable in regards to aggressive behaviour on the pitch. For example, she has encouraged us to take immediate action if play seems too rough:
So far, I have seen some apologizing for rough play when it occasionally happens. Refusing to play is probably a tough decision for a team to make in the middle of the game, and something I haven’t seen so far.
What’s next for the chill league
I admit I was in the minority on the polls, as I assumed that the game itself needed to change to reduce aggression. But maybe a soccer community borne of a shared “will to chill” is enough for us. I hope that fun and friendliness is what continues throughout our season.
I want to leave the last words of this post series to Cindy, who started it all:
“The only thing I wanted to gain from this was to bring women together again, in a sport that so many of us love, but have felt threatened by those that think there is something to gain from being overly aggressive at the age of 40+. I have been injured, and I know others who have been injured too. I was going to stop playing, but really didn't want to. I love the community that is being created in the group, even just by the teams all having a chance to speak with one another, off the pitch.”
What does it mean to play aggressively? It might be described as specific behaviours, such as offensive charging and defensive tackling. Or, aggressive play might also be described more broadly to include any violent, reckless, or dangerous actions that increase—or are perceived to increase—the chances of injury.
What aspects of the game contributes to making soccer aggressive? It may be scores and league-tabling, but it’s also the division or level of play. Those who have been trained for competitive divisions may play more aggressively, especially if it is encouraged. According to the Barcelona Premiere Soccer Club,
“Aggressive Soccer is important for competitive players. It helps them play the game with more accountability and responsibility. Playing soccer requires a lot of hard work and determination.”
Some may play aggressively due to their prior competitive training. Conversely, players without prior training may also appear aggressive if they lack the skills to avoid collisions or strikes.
Then there are “old feuds” between players on opposing teams, which can easily spark tensions and aggressive play. Some folks may seem to be playing aggressively based on their reputations alone.
How to manage aggression in soccer that is part game structure, part skill level, and part perception? League organizers provide divisions to create play at different levels of competition levels. Rec divisions—the least competitive—would also presume to have the least aggressive play. Leagues also enact safety policies, rules, penalties, and paid referees in order to keep gameplay in all divisions fair and safe for everyone.
But judging by the number of women who joined Cindy’s FB soccer group, it seemed that typical measures were not enough. By attempting to self-organize, the group could perhaps find new ways to minimize competitive and aggressive play.
So, it was interesting to me that when Cindy asked what folks wanted, the vast majority of FB members voted in favour of keeping “typical league” with scores, statistics, and teams.
Judging by the result, the group seemed to think that the source of aggressive play was the players, not teams or scores. They still wanted competition, just not the aggression competition can bring. Rather than change the game, perhaps the league could enact measures to prevent aggressive players from playing or playing the way they tend to do.
But when approached with requests to prevent players or teams with a reputation for aggression, the league manager explained that the group could not form a private “chill” league so long as actual scored games were being played (which the women voted they wanted). The provincial association overseeing all rec leagues (Ontario Soccer) puts no restrictions on barring skilled players from joining non-competitive divisions. Anyone could join this new “chill” division, even if they weren’t part of Cindy’s FB group.
As well, the league wouldn’t implement stricter penalties in just one division. As I understand it, the league manager was supportive of the idea of a non-aggressive league but wasn’t prepared (or perhaps resourced) to enforce unique rules that could lead to multiple complaints or challenges to rulings.
So, neither the players, the league manager, nor the governing professional association were willing to make systemic changes to the division or the game to avoid or minimize aggression. The “problem” of managing aggressive play still seemed to reside at the level of individual players.
Meanwhile, by the time all the information started to surface, it was late in the summer and the FB group had over 100 people in it—everyone still wanted to play in a non-aggressive league.
Could a group of women wanting “chill” soccer address aggressive play if everything about the division and the game stayed the same? Find out in Part 3!
There are a few typical ways to deal with an aggressive player in women’s recreational league soccer games: 1. confront the player (not very common), 2. avoid the player (somewhat common), or 3. complain about the player after the game (very common).
This summer, Cindy found a new way to address rough soccer play. She started an open Facebook (FB) group called “Womens’ 40+ Just Wanna Have Fun, BMO Soccer.” The call for the fall season made this group’s raisond’être clear:
“We need at least 60 women so we can create a CHILL soccer league. One where we are not out to kill each other. We will have very little person-to-person contact. If you are an aggressive player WE DO NOT WANT YOU.”
I was intrigued by this group because in the past I found it hard to distinguish normal from aggressive play. When I first started playing a few years ago, I mistakenly equated aggressiveness with skillfulness. But Cindy emphasized in the group that seasoned players can also be “chill”:
“Most of us have been playing for a number of years, but are tired of the players that seem to be out to kill. We want to just have a chance to get away from our daily routine, get some exercise, and socialize with others.”
If the regular rec divisional structure and rules weren’t sufficiently discouraging aggressive play, and the typical ways of players dealing with each other weren’t working to minimize it, then why not self-organize a new division to eliminate rough play altogether?
The initial proposed plan involved not only having a shared understanding that the entire division would be “chill” but also enforcing a zero tolerance for aggression policy and thus stricter rules of play:
“You will be benched if you are deemed playing aggressively. You will be warned once, and then kicked out of the league without any fees being refunded. We do know the difference between skilled and aggression.”
Another idea surfaced in the FB group to reduce aggression: eliminate scoring and statistics. Without wins and losses, there would be no league-tabling and therefore less competitiveness. A third suggestion was made for the division to do away with season-long teams altogether. No “us vs them” mentality, no fuel for aggressive play.
Cindy gave the choice to the then 60+ group members through a poll vote:
“Option 1. I want to play in a non-aggressive league without scores, stats, etc.
Option 2. I want to play in a typical league, just not with anyone aggressive.”
Which option would the rec women’s soccer FB group choose for a “chill” soccer league? Stay tuned for Part 2!
In the second half of my rec women’s soccer game, I rolled my ankle. As I tried to stand, it hurt. The game kept going on around me, and I heard someone yell at me, Go down on your knee. Go down! So I did.
That was the first of a series of supports and advice my teammates gave to help me to manage my ankle. Two teammates immediately put my arms around their necks and cinched my sides closely to hoist me up and walk me back to the bench. (I was surprised how easily the arrangement of our bodies helped me to get off the field quickly and with minimal weight on my foot.) A third teammate got me a bag of ice. Everyone checked in with me while the game continued and the lines were readjusted in my absence. After the game, from my teammates I got more compress and elevation ideas, Tylenol, and a drink.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am a relative newbie to soccer, and that apparently includes soccer injuries. So, in the midst of my own self-inflicted discomfort, I noticed the swift dispensing of just the right amount of knowledge, care, and support from my team.
No one on the team made me feel as if I were putting them out. No one judged, minimized, or questioned my “injury” (which quickly became clear was not serious). I also wasn’t coddled or patronized, which can feel awkward. Instead, I got everything I needed–physical support but also a silent assurance–that the team had my back when I was down. I know that I am not one of the stronger team players, but when I was hurt my teammates treated me like I was an MVP.
It’s easy to look at a team that is winning all the games, or playing with the best formations, and think, Wow, that’s a strong team. But that night my soccer friends showed me that perhaps an even better measure of a strong team is how it responds to moments of challenge and weakness. A team that is strong together doesn’t just bring out the best in its players: it willingly brings back and brings up its players, especially when they are feeling at their worst.
In Apple TV’s Emmy-winning show, Ted Lasso (TL), the titular character is a goofy, Kansas-born football coach who must adjust to a very different life as head coach of a pro football (North American soccer) team in England.
But you don’t need to be a football fan to participate in the lively conversation. TL fans love to ask and answer questions about all aspects of the show (many have watched both seasons multiple times). So I asked folks to share what they’ve noticed so far about any representations of exercise and fitness.
[WARNING: Modest show spoilers]
Exercise Made Fun(ny)
Coaches have to find the right words to inspire their teams during practice. Here are a few of Ted’s choice expressions to get his team in action (crowdsourced enthusiastically by the FB group fans):
“Your body is like day-old rice. If it ain’t warmed up properly, something real bad could happen.”
“Touch your toes. Now touch each other’s toes! Your feet fingers!”
“Making quicker transitions from offense to defense. Y’all gotta start making your hellos your goodbyes.”
“We all know speed is important. But being able to stop and change directions quickly? Well, that’s like Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. It don’t get nearly enough credit.”
“We’re gonna call this drill ‘The Exorcist’ ’cause it’s all about controlling possession.”
Ted doesn’t use the traditional language of training and exercise; rather, he makes quirky comparisons and memorable pop culture references to get his team moving.
What Fitness Looks Like
All the players on the fictional AFC Richmond team appear physically fit. In the locker room scenes, outfit changes reveal lean, muscular, ready-to-run bodies. A few times we see players using the treadmill and free weights, but there aren’t a ton of game, practice, or training scenes that highlight the pro players’ peak athleticism.
Instead, as one TL fan noticed, in the S2 finale it is the rival football team that is shown doing physically intense calisthenics (while Nate, recently defected from AFC, looks on). By comparison, Ted has his team on the pitch practicing a choreographed dance routine to N’Sync’s 90s hit song, “Bye Bye Bye.”
Other fitness activities portrayed relate to characters’ hobbies and social lives. The sports psychologist loves cycling. The gruff former star player-turned-coach shares a weekly yoga practice with retired women (then drinks rose wine with them afterwards). Ted is a crackerjack darts player, and he walks to work with his Assistant, Coach Beard. There are some pre- and post- sex scenes. So mostly, it’s regularpeople fitness.
Nutrition and Food
Representations of food and eating in TL do not follow sports nutrition myths, fads, and stereotypes. The players scarf fast food kabobs, drink beer in the locker room and out at the bar, and share potluck dishes they bring to a holiday meal. There is no excess of supplements, restrictive eating regimes, or protein shakes.
Coach Ted is as sweet as the food he shares and enjoys. He brings club owner Rebecca Welton home-made biscuits (sugar cookies) everyday. On the topic of sugar, Ted says, “I’ve never met someone who doesn’t eat sugar. Only heard about ’em, and they all live in this godless place called Santa Monica.” And on his favourite dessert, he says, “Ice cream’s the best. It’s kinda like seeing Billy Joel live. Never disappoints.”
The Fitness of Teams
In this sports dramedy, characters manage the stress not of the daily grind of elite level fitness training but of various personal issues and relationships. Although they come from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds, the team players chat, bicker, and support each other as a team. As one TL Facebook group fan responded, “I love how fitness is not the centre of the story. Football and exercise are their job, but community and relationships are the centre.”
This LA Times article interviewed pro soccer coaches and players who are also TL fans because of the way the show features the interpersonal and psychological aspects of team play. The article quotes one American men’s national team coach who says that the strength of TL is not football itself but rather everything around football: “I don’t watch the show for what I see on the field. That’s not the point […]. But I think, in any sport, a lot of team success is what happens in the locker room. And they get that absolutely right.”
So, with the help of the fan group, I have discerned that TL is not, ultimately, a show about the fitness of professional football. However, there’s much more to say on how TL represents team dynamics, psychological health, and gender in sports. But I’ll have get back to you on those topics—after consulting further with my 22K fan friends.
Have you played scrimmage, shinny, or pick up? Until this past summer, I had not (as for many years I lacked a team sport to play, as I guest blog about elsewhere). Friends, let me tell you that I think scrimmage is AWESOME. I didn’t realize how awesome until after the end of our short “season” these past few months.
If you already know scrimmage or pick up is awesome, this post will not be news to you. But still, read on to re-affirm what you and I now know together.
No Refs = Self-Regulation
In regular team games, a referee is there to make calls so no one else has to. But when you are self-reffing, everyone has to monitor their own potentially illegal moves. Obviously, this leads to more individual accountability during gameplay, but it got players talking to each other about the calls. One time I saw players stop to discuss what might have been a hand ball, and compare what they knew about the rules about hand balls, but then play happily resumed.
In reffed games you always want rulings in your team’s favour, but without refs everyone seems to take more responsibility to play fairly, and the talking creates both game understanding and player camaraderie.
Slower Pacing = Safer Play
When you’re in a traditional team game, everyone wants to hurry up and score. But in scrimmage everyone takes their time, sets up, passes more. One striker with a killer goal shot deliberately eased up when she came in to shoot (which was fortunate for me when I was in goal). The result of slower play seemed to be that everyone got more chances to touch the ball, yet folks didn’t get tired out.
Also, no injuries. In the half dozen games I played in, I think I was the only one to get a minor injury—because I overextend myself. Once I took cues from others about pacing, I eased up and could play the whole game without getting myself hurt.
Friends on Both Sides = No Losers
In regular games, things are pretty fixed: everyone on your team has their positions, sub rotations are often pre-set, and the point is to win the game. In scrimmage, there is much more fluidity and choice. People felt free to take a water break whenever they needed, even if their team was short-handed for a minute. Most everyone took turns in goal, unless someone was nursing an injury and wanted to play there longer. I spent a little time as a forward, where I learned that “give and go” passing is not a skill that is totally beyond me. I even scored a goal! 🙂
When friends are on both sides, the stakes were lower. Goals were scored (or not), efforts were congratulated—but no one kept score. Maybe there were no winners each week, but no one walked off the pitch on the losing side either.
Is Scrimmage for Everyone?
As someone trained to look at stuff through the lens of feminist theory, I see many overlaps between the values for which many feminists strive and the kind of play that scrimmage affords. Why aren’t we playing more scrimmage? If feminism is for everyone, and certain aspects of scrimmage reflect the values of some feminisms, then is scrimmage for everyone too?
Three reasons why not all of us are playing more scrimmage:
Logistically, scrimmage only works up to a certain numbers limit, and someone has to volunteer to take the added responsibility to be a convenor. (One of our wonderful friends put the extra work in to make ours happen.)
Usually the fields, courts, and ices are perhaps usually spoken for by organized sports associations, so it’s only in these strange pandemic times that these spaces may be more available than usual.
There are probably plenty of skilled and competitive types for which scrimmage/pick up is not speedy or challenging enough. Some people thrive most when there is structure and competition.
So, maybe scrimmage isn’t for everyone all the time. But for me, as a late-to-the-sport rec soccer player, the less structure the better. Whether you get to play for fun each week with a long-time bestie or a sister, or make some new friends (as I have), scrimmage is WHERE IT’S AT.
This week I’ve shared a post with my online teaching community, The Activist Classroom, about Sarah DeLappe’s amazing 2016 play, The Wolves. The play follows nine powerful young women, 16- and 17-year-olds, through their indoor soccer season; in it I find a different kind of future to the one that Elizabeth Warren imagines when she fears, in her primary concession speech on 5 March, that we might need to wait four more years for an American woman to come into real power.
If you’re wondering how to inspire your teenage daughter – OR your teenage son, or young people of all genders around you… and maybe yourself too! – this post is for you.
Last night, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to duke it out for a shot at Agent Orange in November. She was the last of a remarkably diverse group of contenders, ground-breaking numbers of whom were women. I read, crestfallen, all the commentary on the “fall” of Warren last night and this morning, as it tried to remind me that, in the end, being smart, experienced, level-headed, and a powerfully galvanizing public speaker was not enough, is never enough, for a women to overcome the “electability” factor.
Sitting at lunch yesterday with a feminist friend and colleague from the states, we commiserated; “I don’t think we will see a female president in our lifetime,” she said.
As she reached the final stages of this primary race, Warren stood unabashedly for every smart and capable woman who has ever been asked to stand down, implicitly or explicitly, because of her gender. She was a warrior on the stage, calling out privilege and hypocrisy. In one of my favourite moments from the primary race, she asked an Iowa debate crowd to look around them: “Collectively,” she said, the men on stage with her “have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in, are the women, Amy and me.”
True to this fighting form, Warren’s concession speech last night spoke directly to the pedagogical consequences of her departure. “One of the hardest parts of this,” she said as she conceded the competition, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”
Given America’s penchant for supporting diversity in theory, and then choosing male, White supremacism in practice, I’m not sure four more years (as my friend and colleague noted) is going to do it. And the US is hardly alone here; Canada has had but one female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and she was the “fall guy” who took the political hit after the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s neoliberal Tories in the early 1990s. There are lots of other examples I could cite from the political landscapes of the so-called “developed West” (Julia Gillard, anyone?), but I’m getting tired just thinking about it.
(Thank heavens for, and long live the reign of, Jacinda Ardern, and shout out to the amazing women fighting for political justice in so many other countries around the world.)
So: let’s turn away from politics for a bit, and let’s think about that charge of four more, long years.
What can, and will, our young women learn in those four years about their strength and their power, as well as about the consequences of that old patriarchal saw, “likability”? How might we foreground – give space and light and air and time to – the former, and use them to challenge the misogynist perniciousness of the latter? What tools are already in place for us to share different kinds of lessons about our collective feminist capability, about young women’s overwhelming strength?
It so happens, this week of all weeks, that I spent part of Monday reading a terrific play, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe. The Wolves follows the eponymous team of indoor soccer players, nine 16- and 17-year old young women, through the winter bowels of their season. They warm up, play, and warm down again; get sick and get better; discuss the difficult material they are learning in school (the show opens with a volley about the ethical complexities of the Khmer Rouge!); talk frankly about both their bodies (pads or tampons?) and about their creepy coach (who once asked them to warm up in their sports bras… He never appears on stage; he’s plainly not a factor in their incredible on-field success.). Finally, they weather a terrible accident together.
Contrasting shots of the same moment, Still Life with Orange Slices: off Broadway, left, and at Streetcar Crowsnest, right.
Across five scenes we watch them be, variously, athletes, students of the world, and complex individuals, together; there are tougher girls and quieter girls, the brainy girl and the new girl, but nobody is a stereotype – no-one is just one thing. They are a group, finding their (incredible, near-unbeatable!) strength together, coordinating their play together, growing into their power together. They are vulnerable but they are also a team of winners – and they know it.
I’m currently writing about The Wolves for a collection of essays about sports and performance; I was invited to contribute by colleagues who know I have a side-line in feminist sports writing. (If you’re reading this on Fit is a Feminist Issue, please check out The Activist Classroom, my other online home!) I gamely said yes to this invitation because the topic interested me, but I didn’t suggest The Wolves as my focus; the editors handed it to me, and until this week I hadn’t realized what a remarkable piece of teaching – let alone what a great piece of drama – it is.
Lots of young women have poor memories of grade-school gym class, and conflicted, if not difficult, memories of playing on sports teams as adolescents or teenagers. My own memories of childhood softball and floor hockey, high school track (VERY briefly), and university rowing (ditto) are of a reproduction of failure: I was larger than the average girl, I felt awkward in my body, my hand-eye coordination was a bit crap, and I received the kind of feedback from coaches (as opposed to, say, actual coaching from coaches…) that reaffirmed my cementing view of myself (fat/uncoordinated/not a good enough girl on-field or off). Eventually, even when I think (now) I could have succeeded brilliantly (track; rowing), I gave up, because I couldn’t overcome that inner sense of failure – not just failure as an athlete, but failure as a woman.
(Side note: none of the coaches I worked with helped, not women nor men. Amazing how well we reproduce patriarchy on the sports field, when we aren’t thoughtful about our words and actions! I can empathize fully with the Wolves; I’d have left my coach in the stands too, if I could have.)
The Wolves ends with the kind of plot twist you might expect in a lesser piece of work, but as in its handling of young women athletes, here it defies expectations. Nothing gets wrapped up. Fights are not resolved; they are just sidelined while the team holds space for one another, with imperfect generosity. The young women warm up, move their bodies together, and talk. Then, all of a sudden, one of the team’s moms appears.
She is the only “adult” in the show, and she’s onstage only for about five minutes. But this is long enough for her to interrupt this young women’s space, this circle of astroturf and passing games and honest, difficult girl talk. She seizes the space, not aware at all of how she’s usurped it. The teammates sit and listen, stunned but unfailingly kind. Eventually, she leaves, and they elect to chant their battle cry. Huddled together, faces away from us, their song builds, their bodies bounce, then jump, then fly: WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES. WE! ARE! THE! WOLVES!
I wonder, this morning, whether Elizabeth Warren is maybe that soccer mom at the end of the play. Whether she has perhaps underestimated the circle of women around her, misread the signs. Do we need to wait four more years to put a woman into “real” power, to overcome the ridiculous bullshit that is the “electability” factor? Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps we need to look away from the old messaging, and perhaps we also need to look toward new spaces to locate the women’s power that we can’t yet fully see. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg started skipping school, sat down in front of a government building, and started a global movement. On their suburban astroturf in the dead of winter, The Wolves sounded their battle cry, and changed the shape of “girl plays” forever.
Let’s listen to these powerful young voices, honour them in the spaces they have adopted as their seats of power, and encourage them to re-conceive what power means – over the course of these next four years, and beyond.