With the fall sports season here, parents have been getting their kicks asking me questions about girls and boys playing sports together. They want to know when coed competition is and is not recommended, particularly in contact sports.  Well let me see if I can touch down on this topic.

When is it safe for coed sports?

If a child has not reached puberty, there is no harm in boys and girls playing a sport or being on an athletic team together. This is especially true if a girl wants to play a sport where a girls’ team does not exist or vice versa. In fact, several thousand girls are playing football every year on teams with boys.

Creating the teams

It is more important to create teams of similar abilities and skills.  During early school age years, simply separating by biological sex is not the best way to do this. Having boys and girls on the same team with similar skills enhances the competition. This reduces the chance of children feeling less qualified to play relative to others. It also helps get rid of biases and gender stereotypes that girls can’t play a sport like baseball, soccer or football or a boy can’t play volleyball or do gymnastics, dance, or figure skating.

Sometimes, there aren’t enough all girls or all boys to make a team. By bringing both boys and girls together, you enable children to play a sport they might not otherwise be able to play.

Opposite gender teams

Of course, not every girl is comfortable playing sports with boys. However, if a girl has the physical ability, confidence, and desire to do so, she should have that opportunity.  Playing with boys may help a girl improve in that sport. This might make her stronger and faster and more powerful. So, when puberty hits and she plays that sport only with girls, she may be an even better, more confident athlete as a result.

If a girl does play on a boys’ team or vice versa, coaches need to be welcoming and ensure playing opportunities for the minority gender on that team.

When is it not safe for coed sports?

Once puberty starts, boys do become taller, heavier, faster, stronger, and bigger with their surge in testosterone. This means they are more powerful than most girls. This does a couple things. It places girls at a greater risk for injury. Additionally, it puts boys at an unfair advantage to do better in most sports. This is why by age 12, boys and girls are usually separated in contact and collision sports.

However, if no team for girls exists, girls with the skills and ability to compete on that team should still be allowed to try out for a spot on a boys’ team. Coaches also need to evaluate those abilities independent of gender.

Hopefully, tips like these will allow you to reach your goal of understanding when and when not to encourage your child or pre-teen to consider playing a sport on a coed team.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.  

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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