PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright & Former New Zealand Women’s Head Coach Tony Readings, discussing the positives and potential pitfalls for girls in mixed soccer.

Is it better for female soccer players to play in boys’ teams? Playing mixed soccer can provide both technical benefits and social challenges. As coaches, we must strike a balance that pushes our players without hindering their development or enjoyment of the game.

Whether it’s best for a girl to play on boys’ teams depends upon a variety of factors that differ from one individual to another. Here, we take a look at the things coaches should consider before introducing girls to boys’ soccer.

*Please note: We had some minor technical issues with the connection on Tony’s side, we apologise for the slight delay.

In this article

Is mixed soccer good for girls’ development? The factors coaches should consider

Why do they play soccer?

When determining the best environment for any player, we should first consider their motivations for playing soccer. Are they playing the game because they want to have fun and/or wish to play with their friends? Or do they have ambitions to progress further in the game?

If a player’s motivation is simply to enjoy the game or spend time with their social group, taking them out of their comfort zone in order to challenge them might not be the best approach; but if their priority is to develop as much as possible, that challenge could be exactly what they need.

How old are they?

Another important factor is the player’s age. With young kids, the job of coaches and parents is to introduce them to the game and help them fall in love with it. Whether they’re a boy or a girl, the aim is to get them playing, encourage life-long participation, and help them enjoy the game of soccer.

Nick Levett, Head of Talent and Performance at UK Sport, emphasises the importance of getting players to enjoy soccer first and foremost, even if the ultimate goal is the professional game. “The benefits of informal play have been well documented as a key part of player development” he explains in an analysis of the development pathways of members of England’s Under-21 squad. “All the players highlighted their love of football and the desire to play at any opportunity they could.”

The focus of those initial years should be participation and enjoyment; who they’re playing with is less important. 

Girls’ first opportunity to decide whether to play mixed or girls-only soccer normally arises around the age of nine. And this, according to former New Zealand Women’s coach Tony Readings, is when it’s time to consider their motivation: “If it’s to participate and be with their friends, maybe girls-only football is the best route. If it is to progress and be the best player they can be, then playing in a boys’ environment might be something that they do.”

Every player is different

Even when considering factors like age and motivation, we should always take an individual approach to player development. What could be good for one girl might not be great for another, even if they have the same aspirations.

Take the example of a 13-year-old player wanting to further her development by playing boys’ football: we must consider whether she can cope physically in an age-group where boys are typically bigger, faster, and more powerful. But we also need to remember the social aspect; is she going to enjoy playing football with boys, and will she still feel comfortable interacting with her teammates?

In some cases, Women’s Football could offer an alternative. In his time with the New Zealand Women’s Team, PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright coached a 13-year-old Katie Bowen (now professional with the Utah Royals and a senior New Zealand international) in a group that contained women up to 33-years-old. Citing this example, he suggests that “if a player’s showing ability at that age, then perhaps going and playing against women and adults is really good for them – but we still need to be mindful of the social implications.”

But similar social and physical considerations remain. Will the 13-year-old feel comfortable playing and interacting with adults? Is an environment replete with adult language suitable for her?

The answers to these questions are different for every child, and deciding whether girls should be allowed to play in boys’ or women’s teams should always be done on a case-by-case basis. Therefore it’s essential that we individualise any decisions to move kids to different playing environments. 

It helps to keep the Four Corners of player development in mind: can a player still socialise in that environment? Tactically, are they able to make appropriate decisions? And can they cope technically and physically? After all, we want to challenge our players, but we also want them to have some success.

In his article on individualising the process of player development, Dave Wright explains how in his time working at Fulham FC, academy players had “individual learning plans based around four key criteria and an overall definition of success for that player at that time.” We should not only apply these types of approaches to developing our players, but to determining the best or most appropriate environment for them to undergo their development. 

Constant review and reflection are also essential. Things change quickly in this age-range, and what’s beneficial for a player one season might not work the next. It’s vital that we consider all of the options available to our players, and then closely monitor their progress to ensure they’re in an environment that works for them, and where they can play and learn with freedom.

The benefits of playing sports with boys

Tony Readings estimates that the majority of senior international women’s players he’s worked with have played with boys at some stage of their development, whether formally or with friends and family members, and benefit from it.

“I think, at a certain age, boys become faster, bigger, stronger, and more powerful, which does provide the extra technical challenge… Your touch has to be tidier, your control needs to be better, you have to protect the ball better… Decision-making time is reduced, which means people have to make better decisions quickly.”

In a PDP Q&A on the different approaches when working with female players, Readings adds that it’s imperative female players are able to play as regularly and are challenged at the same level as their male counterparts if they’re to realise their potential, noting that some don’t accumulate as many training hours during these crucial years of development.

It’s also worth remembering that it’s possible to compromise. For example, a player might represent an all-girls team in school and a mixed team at their club, or play matches for a mixed team while also training with an all-girls team. We can use a combination of playing opportunities to provide the right balance of sporting challenge and social fulfillment.

The potential pitfalls of playing in a mixed team

Sometimes, female players in boys’ teams encounter obstacles that can hinder their development rather than assist it. As coaches, it’s our job to identify these obstacles and help our players overcome them.

In some cases, cliques may form whereby boys exclude girls — perhaps socially, or even by not passing to them. In others, you may find that boys take it easy on female players; we might have them train together because we want the girl(s) to develop their touch or the physical side of their game but the boys don’t feel they can tackle them properly.

Noticing these occurrences and managing them is an important part of coaching. We shouldn’t leave all of the responsibility for fixing a challenging social dynamic to our players – as coaches we can support with issues that may arise. Instead, we must strive to foster an environment that’s inclusive and ensure that all of our players are proactively involved. 

Another potential pitfall for girls playing in mixed teams is that they start to neglect their strengths. For instance, you may have a female player who’s excellent at dribbling the ball but stops dribbling in games because her male counterparts are stronger or faster; a huge asset when she plays with other girls, or when she plays Women’s Football in the future, could be lost because a lack of success means she teaches herself not to do it. 

In these instances, coaches must ensure that players experience some success applying their strengths, or encourage them to play to those strengths anyway. This is another area where constantly reviewing a player’s situation and monitoring how they’re coping and progressing is essential.

The key to identifying and overcoming these problems is knowing our players individually as people. By taking an interest in all aspects of their development and knowing how to communicate with them, we can create an environment that benefits all of our players and maximises their enjoyment of the game.

The key points: Girls should be allowed to play mixed sports, but every player’s needs are different

  • Know your players’ motivation. Why someone plays the game has a big influence on where’s right for them.
  • For young players, enjoyment of the game is paramount.
  • Every player is different — what works for one girl may not work for another. Remember to consider the social and psychological implications of where they play, not just the technical and tactical challenges.
  • Many female players benefit from the physical, technical, and tactical challenges of boys’ football. But it’s important to constantly monitor their progress to ensure the setting is right for them. What benefits a player one season might hinder them the next.
  • Playing in a combination of mixed and girls-only teams can provide an excellent balance of developmental challenge and social fulfillment.
  • There can also be downsides to playing mixed soccer, particularly if the environment isn’t right. As coaches, we must foster a culture of inclusivity within our teams and ensure that all players participate proactively.

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