Since the 1990s, youth sports have become sex-segregated, expensive, and specialized at earlier ages. As more parents and coaches look to sports life after COVID, could mixed-gender teams increase participation and level the playing field?
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The volleyball team at Woodland Park Middle School in San Marcos, California has the things you would expect: a regulation-height net, abundant knee pads, and boisterous cheering. It also has a more unexpected feature—the team is made up of tweens of different genders, playing cohesively on a single team.

Four years ago, when a handful of boys started to express interest in playing with their peers, Woodland Park adapted. It sought to expand access to more students who might want to play varsity volleyball in high school, but had few opportunities to learn the sport at an earlier age.

Jared Carter, a Woodland Park parent, watched his daughter Brooklyn play for the co-ed Woodland Park team for three years. Now, Carter's son Brody, 13, is following in his sister's footsteps. Youngest brother, Bronson, 10, already is looking forward to joining the team in a couple of years.

Each new season, Carter meets a few parents who start out a little nervous about boys and girls playing together. Once the season gets going, the anxieties melt. "You find that the girls and boys compete really well with each other," says Carter. "By the end of the season, all the parents are super happy."

And the kids are happy, too. Brody says he's enjoying learning the game and is making new friends. Brooklyn says the team spirit is infectious. "It's just a great community where we can all support each other," she says.

In an uncertain future for youth sports in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, mixed-gender competition—like the team at Woodland Park—is emerging as a possible answer to a range of questions about the future of equity and participation.

An illustration of a group of child soccer players in a huddle.
Credit: Emma Darvick.

There's Benefit to All Kids Playing Together

Across the United States, from pee-wee to adult rec leagues, mixed-gender sports contests aren't hard to come by. But the conversation around gender as a dividing line in competition has grown more complex and fraught. On one hand, you have the popular expansion of mixed-gender events at the Olympics in Tokyo where 18 sports including archery, shooting, swimming, and tennis were mixed-gender. On the other, there is a rise of painful debates about the inclusion of intersex and transgender athletes at all levels.

When it is welcoming, engaging, and available, any sport can catch the attention of any kid, and any kid can reap the benefits. In a recent survey of LGBTQ youth, nearly one-third reported playing a sport. Many who do not play were interested in sports but felt deterred by bias or fear of harassment. And transgender youth, in particular transgender girls, have found themselves fighting to stay in the game, as eight states implemented laws banning transgender young people from participating in 2021 alone. These bans disproportionately harm transgender kids in rural communities, research warns. Even with gains in participation, cisgender girls are still less likely to have ever played or to be currently playing a sport compared to male peers.

This means that, in a sense, all kids are missing out. Developmental psychology has uncovered substantial benefits of inter-group play and interaction in childhood. Studies show a diversity of experiences and interactions, including by gender, can lead to positive behavioral outcomes: less victimization, aggression, and biases, and more flexibility and adaptability overall.

"The more we give our kids opportunities to interact with a diverse array of individuals, the more opportunity they have to then develop a range of skills and be comfortable interacting with a variety of different people," says Laura Hanish, a professor at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University.

Gender-integrated sports is one way to encourage and allow children to form relationships with people who are different and learn from them, says Hanish. "It's also a way for children who don't see themselves in the gender binary to be a part of that. It creates more opportunities for all children to participate."

Leveling the Playing Field

Creating more opportunities for children to play is one of the aims of DiscNW, an ultimate frisbee association in Seattle. Jude LaRene, interim executive director of DiscNW, came to "ultimate" as an adult and says the sport, which has historically offered more gender integration than most, has a different vibe than other organized sports.

"Sport for me growing up was very much outcome-oriented. It was hyper-masculine for people my age," says LaRene. Both LaRene and his teenage daughter Mira, play on mixed-gender ultimate teams. Gender-inclusive teams are just a first step, however, says LaRene. Leveling the playing field for young athletes takes active coaching and open dialogue.

For example, if he notices boys are initiating play more frequently, he'll institute a practice rule to ensure girls play a more active role—or he trains girls in certain drills first, to give them a level of expertise on the team that breeds confidence. Those players can then be resources for the boys later on.

"Those things become built-in little lessons in changing gender dynamics," says LaRene.

Now Is the Time to Make Sports Gender-Inclusive

While many sports have returned to play since the pause of 2020, it remains to be seen how attitudes and habits changed by quarantine will affect youth sports participation. Even before the pandemic's outbreak, the Department of Health and Human Services had raised the alarm about a downward trend in overall participation and set a target to increase future participation.

Largely to blame has been a decades-long shift from local, low-cost, and accessible programs run by cities or schools, to increasingly specialized, gender-segregated, and expensive travel and club teams. The drive to compete at an elite level, and potentially earn a college athletic scholarship, has captured the imagination of both parents and kids alike, leading to an increase in what scientists call early sport specialization. These changes have reshaped the experience of youth sports for all participants, not just those gunning for Division-I slots.

"It has siphoned away bodies from the rec and town leagues," says Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Mixed-gender teams could be an important part of the solution, says Farrey. "If you keep it sex-segregated, you impair the long-term viability of the leagues, and that impacts the kids who can't afford $3,000 a year checks for soccer club, the kid who doesn't have the second parent available to drive them two states away."

And ultimately, fewer than 2 percent of high school student-athletes will be awarded any collegiate athletic scholarship, and very few of those are full-tuition scholarships.

While all young athletes were impacted by pandemic shutdowns, demographic differences that existed before COVID are in danger of deepening. Travel leagues returned more quickly and more completely than school or recreational leagues, many of which closed, merged, or returned with limited capacity, according to a 2021 survey by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University. Though some had projected that rural kids, who have more abundant access to open spaces, might be more active than their urban peers, kids in cities are back playing more than kids in rural communities.

In San Marcos, Brooklyn Carter is now playing on her high school girls' varsity team, and plans to play volleyball through high school and hopefully into college. While getting a college scholarship would be great, dad Jared Carter said, he feels that's almost beside the point. Like many parents of young athletes, he believes in a broader purpose to the game, one that transcends individual achievement. A purpose that is valuable for kids of all genders.

"My goal for my kids in playing sports is to foster camaraderie as a teammate, to build self-confidence, to be able to take criticism, and make yourself better—for yourself and for those around you."