What’s the key to success in mixed sport?

Mixed Hockey

As part of my semi-professional match schedule as a county and university hockey umpire, I was asked last week to officiate the semi-finals and finals of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate cup. This was seven matches, two days, and a real eye-opener.

Many of the players were already familiar to me from umpiring British Universities competitive matches featuring both Cambridge universities (including the one which feels a need to remind people through signs at the station that it exists). The gameplay was competitive and lively, if polite.

What was new to me as an umpire was seeing these very competitive young people playing as part of a mixed team, as they did for two of the semis. Much as they socialise as a club, and know one another quite well as a result (inevitably, given the initiation rituals at many universities – more on this in future), they only play together for mixed cup matches.

When players form a team, and compete in a league, they come to know and expect certain things from one another. This is usually a strength, and helps them to intuitively know where they’ll find their teammates, where to pass to, and when to support one another. However, in these mixed games there had been far less of an opportunity to form these teammate connections, so sometimes individual skills or basic assumptions came to the fore.

It was very rapidly apparent to both me and my colleague what determined the success of each mixed team. There were very talented players on each team, and moments of brilliance from individuals, but unsurprisingly the best mixed teams were the ones which used all eleven players on the pitch, rather than only trusting established teammates or other people within the same sporting gender. Revolutionary idea, I know, using a whole team, rather than playing 6 v 11 and 5 v 11 on the same pitch…

One team, for instance, had several highly talented male players. They passed almost exclusively to one another, made some mazy dribbles, and created lots of chances. Yet they were constantly held at bay by the combined sticks of male and female defenders from their opposition. The latter team, when attacking, passed to the players in the best positions or open space, regardless of gender. Sure, some plays didn’t come off. Yet the overall pattern of play was far more effective and led to greater opportunities, ultimately winning them the match.

On balance, I was very encouraged to see how putting faith in all players on the team, irrespective of gender, created a more harmonious and successful experience. I frequently advocate for more mixed team sports, and it’s always heartening to see this work out in positive and rewarding ways, not just with younger children, but into adolescence and beyond.

Questions arising from this week – what experiences of mixed sport have you had? How has playing with people of different genders changed your experience of a game?

Image is from the Norwich Dragons HC website


The 401 Challenge

One of my readers recently linked me to the website of Ben Smith, who is running 401 marathons in 401 days in aid of Stonewall and Kidscape. Ben experienced bullying as a child in part because of his sexuality, and this is a very positive way to combat that prejudice and help young people today. Please do have a look at what he is up to.

When authority figures proclaim their prejudice

Although some people have contended that his words were taken out of context, it would still be remiss of me not to discuss Bernie Ecclestone’s comments about female F1 drivers, stated at a conference earlier this week. Ecclestone contended that women in the sport would “not be taken seriously” and were “not physically” capable of driving a car under the conditions required.

Even if we believe that any discrepancy in raw strength is a factor in choosing the elite drivers of this sport – which is dubious given the technologies involved – this is outright ruling out and discouraging an entire gender from participation. In addressing the former point, accomplished British racing driver Pippa Mann stated on her Twitter account that: “Perhaps someone should remind him that IndyCar doesn’t have power steering, and we’re strong enough to drive those.”

As for discouragement, this is probably the single biggest factor behind the lack of female participation in elite sport. When a sport fails to put forward role models for young people to aspire to, when there is a lack of prominent visible figures of differing gender presentations, it is hard for anyone to envisage achieving that success unless they match the seemingly ‘requisite’ appearance. This inevitably leads to a smaller pool of potential elite sportswomen, and further compounds any existing biological disparities (although, as already mentioned, assisting technologies such as power steering mean that these are minimal at most).

The fact that F1 has had any female drivers at all is a testament to the fact that this is entirely logistically possible. That the last of these was in 1992 shows a worryingly backwards trend in this prestigious sport. Ecclestone’s statement will do nothing to help this.

Comments such as this one occur far too frequently in sports. It was recently reported that the chairman of a regional leagues football team was overheard criticising the female official refereeing his team. The terms he used to criticise this official were particularly telling: “he was overheard saying Harmer was not fit enough to referee a women’s match, let alone a men’s game.” In a later post I will address the prejudice against women’s sport and its quality at greater length.

At least in this particular case the person involved was fined and banned by the league authorities, a recognition that this comment was unwarranted and unhelpful. No doubt Ecclestone will escape such censure, as he has for previous unwise comments, thereby further institutionalising the prejudice. It is problems such as these that make for such a glacial rate of change in attitude.


Questions arising from this week: how do we challenge the prejudices of major figures and policymakers in organised sport? Should we try to enforce change through gender quotas or by trying to establish an equally prominent female F1 racing competition?

The toxic effects of the patriarchy on men

In light of some of the comments about my last post, where I was challenged on whether the everyday sexism depicted really mattered and told I was downplaying the effect of gendered language on male psychies, I thought it would be helpful to share this article on the Guardian, which deals with the negative effects of gendering on people assigned male at birth. I can certainly empathise with large parts of the author’s lived experience.

Everyday sexism in Boots

I was discussing the launch of this blog with a group of friends this evening, and one of them offered to show me something he found in Boots recently. He promised I would find it frustrating. He was right:


This is the backing card f0r a set of hairbands he purchased today for his long ponytail.

First problem: this packaging is gendered in an utterly unnecessary way, given people of all sorts of genders can have long hair and use these products. Boots has already been the subject of various petitions because of their unfair price discrepancies between products marketed “for men” and “for women”.

Second problem: either this packaging is assuming only female children will need hairbands (highly unlikely), or it is grouping female people of all ages under the bracket of ‘girls’, which is patronising and unhelpful. Even assuming only female people use this product, they could use a better term.

There is plenty more to say about unfairly gendered products and marketing issues, but we will tackle these in future posts (or people are welcome to comment with their thoughts!).

Gendered phrases in sport

The incident discussed last week served to remind me of the frequent and casual nature of homophobic comments in general and in school communities more widely. Many Games teachers traditionally include the phrases ‘man up’, ‘don’t be such a girl’ and ‘stop being such a pansy’ in their vocabulary, though thankfully this practice is rapidly on the decline.

I have encountered an Outdoor Pursuits department where the phrase ‘scout up’ has come into common practice as an alternative to ‘man up’, for when people need to grit their teeth and push on through hardship. My favourite alternative to this one is ‘fortify!’, which has the beautiful combination of being both eccentric and non-gendered.

Equally, in pastoral care for schools, few gendered or sexualised insults would be tolerated if reported by parents on behalf of the affected children. Yet these comments and phrases remain common among children in the playground and online. This is just one example of language codifying prejudice and gender inequality, and must be discouraged whenever encountered, especially among young people, in order for it to die out of use.

One somewhat more tricky aspect of this codified language is phrases used commonly on the playing field featuring gender but without the same inherent prejudice. It is very usual for the teammates of a player about to be tackled by an opposition player to shout ‘man on’ to alert them to this fact. This happens regardless of the gender of the persons being tackled or tackling, and it is difficult to envision a quicker phrase given the need for quick communication: ‘person on’, ‘player on’, or ‘woman on’ are all an extra syllable in length.

In a lot of sporting terminology, there are easy alternatives; for instance, in cricket, the term ‘batsman’ is fairly easy to replace with ‘batter’, an equally short phrase which can apply to people of any gender. With a phrase like ‘man on’, time is of the essence and there are precious few alternatives to use in the same context. New language can come into play, but takes time to reach recognition, let alone common usage.

Questions arising from this week – which phrases are commonly used in your sporting circles that you find problematic or outright offensive? How do you tackle this, either in actuality or in theory?

Short-legged troops

Though this brief anecdote I heard this week from an eccentric History teacher doesn’t strictly cover any gender or sexuality questions, it does have rather a charm to it and is about cricket, so I’m going to share it with you.

Much of the weirdness and wonderfully rich language of cricket stems from its field placement names, as in the names for the locations on the pitch where you might place people to stop, catch and throw in the ball. Terms like Silly Mid On, Cow Corner and Fly Slip mystify the casual observer and produce complex discussion between experienced cricketers.

Much to my delight, then, my colleague told me that during World War Two British military Comms teams, trying to find alternative ways to communicate directional messaging to the standard clock face method (as in ‘plane at three o’clock’ meaning directly to the right) started to use fielding placements instead. I wish I could have seen the German code breakers struggling over phrases like ‘machine gun at silly point’ or ‘support coming, approaching third man’…

Next main post coming in two days (Saturday)!

(Image from http://www.bookshopsdriveinsandjive.com/)

This Girl Can

It’s not quite a guest post, and there could be some argument about the use of the word ‘Girl’ in the name of this campaign, but there are some good personal accounts of increased participation in sport from women on the This Girl Can website, such as this local hockey story passed on by my club recently. Enjoy! It’s quite heartwarming.

My Bi Card

One of the first experiences of homophobia/biphobia which I encountered as a sportsperson was at the hockey astroturf of a private school in Cambridge. I had been officiating a match there earlier in the day, and had discovered on reaching a subsequent match (because, mad person that I am, I often do multiple matches on any given day) that I had lost one of my cards. I returned to the ground to discover that the pitch was taken up with a practice session for the school’s students.

Not wanting to be impolite, I approached the member of Games staff in charge of the session and explained the situation to him. His students were in close attendance and within earshot of our conversation. Much to my surprise, after a pleasant exchange until then, his subsequent comment betrayed an underlying casual prejudice: ‘I hope it isn’t your gay card you’ve lost’.

My initial response, stunned by the flippant nature of his comment, was to mutter a thanks and go for a wander around the pitch, looking for the card. It didn’t take long to find it, even though my mind was spinning with ideas for how to raise the topic with the coach once again, not wanting to leave the matter unchallenged.

I was extremely pleased that at this point, the group of students being coached, who had heard the exchange between us, approached me and apologised on behalf of their coach. They insisted he wasn’t a bad person, despite his comment, and probably only meant it as a joke. I thanked them for their words, and expressed hope that he didn’t mistreat them as their teacher in any context.

Emboldened and heartened by the students’ awareness of the inappropriate nature of the coach’s comments, I approached him before I left. I thanked him for letting me search the pitch, and then also commented that he need not worry about my gay card, as it was a bi card anyway and it had remained firmly in my wallet the whole time. The coach looked very uncomfortable and embarrassed at this, and his students seemed amused.

Questions arising from this week – what examples of homophobia/biphobia have you encountered in organised sports sessions?