The New Normal: Mixed Gender Teams In Sports

Pro Sport Development’s Community Sports Program recently organized a mixed-gender netball tournament for children. The tournament had all the hallmarks of any good sports competition – it was competitive, emotional, and enjoyable, for both participants and spectators. And it was gender inclusive.

Though mixed-gender teams have been around in Tennis and Badminton (and select other sports) for several years, they do not garner the same importance and fanfare given to single gender teams and players playing the same sport. This is highlighted by the pittance in prize money on offer at Wimbledon 2017 of GBP 100,000 to the mixed doubles pair winners, a mere one-fourth of the prize money of GBP 400,000 on offer for the ladies and men’s doubles winners! Moreover, the apathy towards the mixed-gendered disciplines is perpetuated by sexist statements made by professional players themselves, such as John McEnroe, stating earlier this year that “if she (Serena Williams) played the men’s circuit, she would be ranked 700th in the world.”

If sport is a tool that promotes inclusivity and equality, then why have we not witnessed many more mixed-gendered teams in history? What has stopped us from playing regularly in mixed-gender teams in playgrounds, sports leagues, weekend matches or even professional sport?

Sport, like many other activities, has been historically male-dominated and highly patriarchal in nature, and there has been a trend to promote sport only as a male activity. We see the gendered division in the dialogue around sports from advertisements for YMCA’s sports programs in the US in the early 1900’s, which focused on “keeping young men out of trouble and encouraging clean, healthy lifestyles”, along with the fact that when women participated in the modern Olympic games for the first time in 1900, they represented only 2.2% of the total athletes. Closer to home, in 2014-15 in all of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centres training young athletes across India, there were almost double the number of male athletes than female, showing the gender disparity in sports participation in India.

These historical trends have shaped the current gender stereotypes that permeate sporting culture – it is claimed that women’s bodies are not built to play sports, women are believed to be the physically weaker sex, and the masculine nature of sports is seen to threaten their femininity. These stereotypes have held true across cultures and socio-economic strata of society, discouraging girls from participating in sport.

It does not help that boys and men have been socialized to believe in these stereotypes, and further to think that women’s sports are inferior to men’s sports. This culminates in boys and men believing themselves to be superior to women, and hindering them from playing with and competing against girls and women in sports.

Widely held assumptions about spectators being interested in watching only male sports, while finding female sports too boring or not as competitive, have been shattered by recent viewership figures recorded for various global women’s sports competitions. The viewership figures for the Women’s Football World Cup 2015 broke all previous records, where the final became the most watched match in US history. Moreover, viewership figures for the Women’s Cricket World Cup 2017 grew by 300%, and the final saw more people tuning in than the average Premier League Match.

As part of the Kadam Badhate Chalo program, a joint initiative of Martha Farrell Foundation, PRIA and Pro Sport Development, sports workshops and camps in which sports-based games are played in mixed gendered teams are organized, providing an enriching experience for both genders, and for many participants a first chance to play alongside other genders. Manisha Kumari, a 20-year old youth participant in Japla, Jharkhand shared her learnings from playing mixed-gendered sport, “By playing games we all came together, we came to know each other. The games helped me to get over my hesitation (of interacting with boys).”

How can we break the shackles of these prevalent stereotypes to encourage and promote a #NewNormal – mixed-gender teams in sport? Bold steps have to be taken to break gender barriers. This could be initiatives such as those taken by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has introduced mixed-gender events in athletics, aquatics, table tennis and archery as part of the Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo in 2020. Moreover, an innovative athletics competition launched in 2017 in Australia called Nitro Athletics, featured six teams of 12 male and 12 females in each team competing in novel athletics events, many being mixed gendered. Further, bold steps need to be taken by other international, national and state level sports organisations and government departments to promote mixed-gendered sport right from the grassroots to the professional level.

More importantly, though, all of us individuals in our various roles as coaches, mentors, parents, teachers, and others, must promote the #NewNormal of playing sport and participating in physical activity through mixed-gender groups, especially when working with children and youth. This will not only promote the equal and active participation of both girls and boys together in sport, but also provide opportunities for young boys and girls to learn how to interact, communicate and work with each other, leading to better gender relations amongst them. As 15-year-old Chandra Kanta Behera realized while playing sports-based games along with girls in Bhubaneswar, during the Kadam Badhate Chalo program, “I liked playing with girls and boys together because it showed there was no difference between us.”

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