Rethinking the Female Game
- Created: Tuesday, 30 September 2014 17:04
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a knowledgeable football mind regarding the female game. He pointed out that we keep asking females to play the men's version of the game and fail to recognize that women are different in a number of ways. From a coaching perspective, this notion is certainly not a new one. There are obviously differences between the genders both physically, mentally, and culturally. Few can argue otherwise. So it stands to reason that we should be approaching the game differently and, more importantly, approaching the development differently. That is not to say that we should lower our expectations of the female game. Certainly not. But it does require some different thinking and a recognition that we cannot simply retro fit the female game with solutions geared towards the male game.
Depending on how you classify the history of the game, soccer has been around since the laws of the game were drawn up in 1863 in London. The game has continued to evolve since that time but it has done so within the context of its participants: men. The female game, on the other hand, really began in the early 80s as a direct result of a 1972 court ruling in the United States called Title IX. The ruling mandated gender equity as it relates to federal funding of any educational program or activity. This extended to varsity sports which, in turn, infused female college sports with funding. The effect of Title IX on all female sports cannot be understated. The year before Title IX was enacted, there were approximately 300,000 girls and women playing high school and college sports in the US. Today that number is over 3.5 million. Just over a decade after the landmark ruling, the US national women soccer team played its first international game. In 1991, the first women’s World Cup took place in China. US players like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lily, and Julie Foudy were being regularly exposed to millions of girls around the world. One can argue that female soccer really began at that point in time.
Given the history, it’s clear that female soccer is still in its infancy. We cannot dismiss that notion. Just because the game itself is old does not mean that the blueprint for female soccer can be simply photocopied from the men’s version. But unfortunately, this is exactly what takes place in our soccer community. This mistaken approach is made easier by the fact that men have predominately been the stewards of female soccer since its inception.
MORE TECHNIQUE PLEASE
In terms of development, there are a number of areas in the female game that require fresh thinking. Perhaps the greatest of these is the development of technique. This is by far the biggest deficiency in the girls game. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. Girls rarely practice on their own. You can rail against this fact and try to change it but you will likely have limited success. Playing sports in one’s free time is simply not part of the gender culture. Soccer is an adult-organized, adult-supervised activity for girls. Away from the soccer field, girls are not talking about soccer, watching soccer, or playing soccer. Instead they are participating in activities supported by their gender culture. Boys, on the other hand, have little to say to one another. They communicate through physical activity. Their male relationships are often expressed through physical play.
Girls also tend to be more risk averse than boys and, as such, are reluctant to practice or apply skills that they can’t master immediately. Girls are rarely explorative as it relates to skill development. Boys are much more comfortable embracing risk. My 11 year old son takes pleasure in trying a new skill and accepting the failure that naturally accompanies the acquisition of that skill. Girls, on the other hand, are embarrassed by failure so they tend to stick to skills that come easy to them. As a result, their skill development is much more likely to stagnate.
So what does this mean from a coaching perspective? It means that we need better technical coaching on the girls side. We need instructors who can break down the components of skill acquisition. We cannot assume that girls will simply pick up these skills on their own. They will not. We need instructors who can encourage and embrace the application of these skills over and above all else - particularly above the winning of soccer games. If the primary objective is to not make mistakes and to not lose soccer games then you’re simply feeding the risk aversion that predominates the thinking on the girls side of the game. Simply put, risk aversion kills skill development.
While a boy tends to take personal ownership of his own technical development, the girl does not. She expects to acquire her technical development from her coach. All too often, the coach fails to deliver in that regard. Male coaches prefer to “teach the game” with tactics. Breaking down technique falls outside the comfort zone of too many coaches. So when you watch a skillful boys team play, often the majority of that skill development has emanated from the boys themselves, through their own dedication, exploration, and practice. When you watch a girls team, their skill development is almost always a direct result of the instruction that they have, or have not, received. The girls, in short, are a clear reflection of our coaching standards. So when someone refers to the lack of depth in girls soccer, they’re actually referring to the lack of depth in girls coaching.
HIGH PERFORMANCE LEAGUES
Over the last 5 years, there have been more and more high performance youth leagues starting up in the US and Canada. These leagues have been an attempt to professionalize the development of the youth game and consolidate the talent pool. While these efforts are, at minimum, a necessary step towards focussing on youth player development, we need to be careful about applying the same solutions to both and girls.
The high performance league in BC begins at age 12. The frequency of training increases, the coaching standards increase, and, more noticeably, the competitive volume gets turned up. For the top tier of boys, turning up the competitive volume is not necessarily a bad thing. When you watch a U13 boys team in a high performance league, the level of individual skill on the ball has evolved considerably by that point. This is not the case with girls. I would go so far to say that most girls are 5 years behind boys technically. Go and watch a U13 boys game in the BC Premier league and then watch a U13 girls game and ask yourself if this is an accurate statement. If you believe this to be so then we are essentially taking the equivalent of 7 year old boys and placing them in a high performance league. When we drape players in club colours, sing the national anthem before the game, and make important the league standings, we are assuming that this increased competitive emphasis will advance the development of our youth players. For boys, that may very well be the case since they have reached a level of skill proficiency that allows them to take things to a higher level of competitive intensity. For the girls, I would argue that it backfires completely. That level of technical proficiency has not yet been achieved. A girl with limited technical ability cannot manage an environment that has her compete against the best athletes in the age group week after week. She will struggle to develop her creativity in that environment. It’s more likely that she will simply learn how to cope. Her skill will be the victim, never given the room to breath, the room to express itself. When you add in the natural risk aversion of girls, you’ve almost guaranteed that the depth of skill will be shallow by the end of the experiment.
Now a few will figure it out. Some will be creative despite the pressures of that environment but it becomes a Darwinian approach to development. The strong survive and prosper but the vast majority of others will flatline. Essentially, it’s like putting kids on the swim team before they’ve learned how to swim. In the end, you effectively have a bunch of kids frantically doing the dog paddle trying to win a medal.
So what’s the solution? It certainly doesn’t mean we should do away with the concept entirely for girls. Having a high performance environment is a good thing for girls. But I would argue that these environments should be true development environments from ages 12-15. Don’t just call them “development” leagues. The words are cheap. Have no league standings. Don’t play games every week. Play small sided games one week and an 11 a-side game the next. Play different levels of teams. But when playing lesser teams, do not fill their net with goals. Teach them to be creative on the ball. Encourage them to be fearless, to embrace the mistakes that are a necessary part of their development. Give them some breathing room to do so. Once they reach age 15 and the skill level has risen, then turn up the competitive volume and have league standings, provincial cups, etc. It’s important to note that the development phase (age 12-15) does not abandon competitiveness. Learning to compete is also a necessary component. But we don’t need league standings, trophies, and the fear of reduced playing time to breed competitive play. Again, if girls are 5 years behind boys technically then build the appropriate structure for them. Don’t simply replicate the boys structure.
The male-centric approach to female soccer is even evident in the structure of the game itself. For example, females are shorter than men so why do we play with the same sized goals? Now obviously FIFA is not about the change the goal size for women but it does beg a simpler question, is there a particular way of playing and a particular formation that makes the most sense for females?
Now the principle of playing possession is never in question. Whether male or female, having the ability to keep the soccer ball develops technique and decision-making. That remains the same. However, how we position females around the field may necessitate some different thinking.
The more traditional formations in the men’s game are currently 4-4-2 and and 4-3-3. Most female teams replicate these formations and the players are asked to play in a similar manner as males. But there are a variety of general female characteristics that question whether this is the right approach. Now I can certainly understand that some people may accuse me of stereotyping females but that’s not my intention. I’ve been coaching girls for 15 years and there are unquestionably certain characteristics that predominate the game. As always, there are exceptions but catering to the exceptions does not help us increase the talent depth of the female game.
So here are some of the unique female characteristics that warrant consideration when devising a tactical approach to the game.
CHARACTERISTIC #1: females cannot play a ball over distance like men so do we need to maintain the same width as the men's game?
CHARACTERISTIC #2: females are more risk averse and are very reluctant to interchange positions (ie. overlap) so having only one player up front significantly diminishes ability to break in behind the opposition's back line
CHARACTERISTIC #3: females will seldom score goals from aerial balls so do we need 2 tall center backs like the men's game?
CHARACTERISTIC #4: females will often be content not involving themselves in the game so are we wasting resources in the full-back positions when they can better serve elsewhere on the field?
CHARACTERISTIC: #5: females don't necessarily have the same engine as men so can we expect full-backs to run up and down a field that's 110 yards long?
CHARACTERISTIC #6: females have difficulty passing the ball at the same speed as men so being spread apart often slows down their game.
Based on these observations, the traditional male formations of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 may not be the ideal way to position female players on the field. Our academy has recently been embracing a 3-5-2 formation for all our full-time girls teams. The changes that we’ve seen have been impossible to ignore.
For one, the speed of play increases considerably. By having 3 central midfield players and 2 strikers, there are essentially 5 players in relative proximity to one another. This creates smaller triangles and therefore a significant increase in speed of play since girls have greater difficulty playing longer passes at speed.
The amount of possession also increases. The 5 players in the middle creates more of a small-sided soccer environment. More importantly, the majority of possession shifted. In the 4-3-3, the majority of possession took place between the back 4 and the middle 3. Now the majority of possession takes place between the middle 5 and the front 2. As well, having 2 strikers makes penetration behind the opponent’s back line far more common. The number of goals scored literally doubled over night.
From a development perspective, no one can hide in a 3-5-2. Everyone must participate in the possession of the ball and everyone must defend. It’s not simply a principle, it’s a necessity. The interchange of positions takes place more in defending rather than in attack. This fits nicely into the inclination of girls to be more risk averse. They are reluctant to interchange positions going forward for fear of being caught out. However, they are far more willing to interchange positions when defending since there’s no such fear of being caught out.
Now whether one agrees with this formation or not is somewhat immaterial. The crux of the premise is that female soccer needs to be given more thought. How we develop players, structure leagues, devise tactics - it all needs to be considered within the context of its participants: females. They have unique characteristics and unique challenges due to the infancy of the women’s game. By mindlessly applying the male solution, we are doing a disservice to the advancement of the female game. This is not about lowering our expectations. On the contrary, it’s about respecting the female game and allowing it to evolve in a way that ensures greater success. It’s about helping the game to be more skillful and enjoyable - not just for those watching but, more importantly, for those playing.
Director of Girls Program