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Reasons for Gender Differences in Youth Sport

This is an excerpt from Best Practice for Youth Sport by Robin Vealey & Melissa Chase.

Average gender differences in sport and motor skills may be attributed to physical - biological differences, as well as the differential socialization of boys and girls in our society.


Physical and Biological Differences

Several physical characteristics of postpubescent males predispose them to outperform females in sports that require strength, power, and speed. Adult males tend to be taller with longer limbs. The breadth of their shoulders allows for more muscle on a larger shoulder girdle, the main contributor to postpubescent males’ advantage in upper-body strength. Adult males have more overall muscle mass and less body fat than females, even in trained samples. Male athletes average 4% to 12% body fat compared to 12% to 23% in female athletes. Males develop larger skeletal muscles, as well as larger hearts and lungs and a greater number of red blood cells (which absorb oxygen for an aerobic advantage). Without question, males and females differ on several physical characteristics that influence sport performance. But what about the gender differences that appear before puberty, when the physical differences between males and females are still very small?


Gender Stereotyping

The answer lies in how girls and boys in our culture learn about and internalize gendered beliefs, values, and practices. This is called socialization, a process in which we actively formulate ideas about who we are and how we’re supposed to act (and not act). Males and females are socialized very differently in most cultures. As a result of this socialization, stereotypes are often formed. A stereotype is a popular belief about specific types of individuals in certain categories.


Gender stereotyping is a process in which children’s biological sex determines the activities they engage in (and not engage in), as well as the manner in which they are treated in these activities. Sports are generally considered a masculine domain, and this stereotype results in boys’ perceiving greater ability and attaching greater importance to sport than girls. This contributes to the gender differences observed in sport. Following are some specific examples of gender stereotyping.

  1. Females have not been as encouraged by parents to be physically active. Parents have been shown to provide less encouragement for physical activity, offer fewer sport-related opportunities for their daughters than for their sons, and perceive their sons to have higher sport competence than their daughters (Fredricks & Eccles, 2005).

  2. Females are less apt to be taught and to engage in fundamental motor skills during sensitive periods. In chapter 5, you learned that the sensitive period for learning fundamental motor skills is between the ages of 2 and 8 years in children. This is the limited time in human development when the effects of learning experiences on the brain are particularly strong. Sensitive periods are the most fertile time to learn motor skills; and although skills may be acquired later, it is much more difficult, and typically athletes fail to reach the same levels of proficiency as those who began acquiring them during their sensitive period. On average, boys are superior to girls on most fundamental motor skills, particularly object control (throwing, catching, kicking) and body control (agility) skills.

    When females fail to develop these critical fundamental skills during their early years, they are disadvantaged later when they wish to participate in sport. It may be a lack of opportunity or instruction or peer socialization that blocks girls from participation. An example of peer socialization is boys’ derogatory remarks to girls about sport involvement. Here is a sample of comments made by boys about girls playing sports with them on the playground: "Girls are too weak," "They are girly-girls," "It’s a man’s game," and "They’re too weak, fragile, short, and they might break a nail" (Oliver & Hamzeh, 2010). Just make some simple observations at your local pool, park, or playground, and we bet you’ll notice differences in how children play and engage in fundamental motor skills. Boys’ play tends to be more active and sport related, whereas girls’ play often is more passive, physically restricted, and quiet.

  3. Gender-stereotypical toys have been emphasized throughout childhood and adolescence. See the Water Break section for a discussion of this topic.

  4. Youth are often pressured into "gender-appropriate" sports. If someone tells you that she has a child playing ice hockey and another doing figure skating, what assumption do you typically make about these kids? The gendered assumption would be that a boy plays ice hockey and a girl figure skates. Kids do gender-type sports as more or less appropriate (e.g., gymnastics for girls because they’re flexible and it’s a girls’ sport, football for boys because it is rough with lots of contact) (Hannon, Soohoo, Reel, & Ratliffe, 2009).

  5. Female athletes are constantly sexualized by the media. Sexualization occurs when people value a girl or woman primarily for her sexual appeal and view her as an object for sexual use. Male athletes are rarely depicted as sexual objects when they endorse a product or are on a magazine cover, while female athletes are most often shown in sexualized poses as opposed to a sport action photo. Sexualization of girls begins at puberty, which is a big reason their self-esteem drops during this period. Sexualization leads to depression, bodily shame, low self-esteem, and disordered eating in females. When high school and college females observed pictures of female athletes actively engaged in their sports, their feelings about their physical abilities increased and they were more motivated to be physically active (Daniels, 2009). When they viewed pictures of female athletes in sexualized poses, girls felt more negativity about their own physical appearance and body image. Media depictions of sexualized athletes directly counteract all the positive benefits that sport participation brings to young girls.

  6. Boys who are not physically skilled or good athletes experience ridicule and embarrassment, based on the rigid male stereotype that includes strength, muscularity, athleticism, and lack of empathy for other participants (Tischler & McCaughtry, 2011). Boys who are good at sports are often popular among peers, with enhanced self-esteem and self-image and positive identity. The ridicule experienced by boys who don’t fit the culturally prescribed gender role may cause them to struggle with self-esteem and social relationships. Boys who didn’t meet the prescribed masculine athlete stereotype have explained the negative effects (Tischler & McCaughtry, 2011): "Sometimes I am so nervous about the [sport] activities that I feel sick. One time I threw up because I was so nervous about doing this . . . and I’m not good at it. I did not want the other kids to see me" (p. 43). "People make fun of you . . . and if you screw up the other kids yell and scream at you and make fun of you" (p. 44).

Why Does Gender Stereotyping Occur With Kids?

Many parents explain their gender-stereotypical parenting practices as coming from a desire for their kids to fit in and be accepted in the culture. Yet, children and adolescents need to be educated about harmful gender stereotypes that have been limiting and destructive to both females and males in sport. The use of derogatory terms such as tomboy, dyke, and fag indicates that a big part of gender stereotyping is the result of homophobia, which is an irrational fear or intolerance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. However, toys that parents buy and activities they herd their children into are not going to make the difference in the child’s sexual orientation. Finally, gender stereotyping preserves the dominant social position of males and subordinate position of females in sport, which many people in society would like to continue. We think there’s room for girls in sport, boys in sport, and boys and girls together in sport, in all kinds of sports - and that our culture is enriched because of it.

Moving Beyond Gender Stereotypes

So how would you respond to the young male wrestler who refuses to wrestle against a female (described at the beginning of the chapter)? You could tell him that girls’ wrestling is one of the fastest-growing high school sports in the United States and that it is also an Olympic sport for females. You could ask him to describe the feelings and thoughts that are making the situation difficult for him, and help him move from sexualizing his opponent based on her being female to viewing her simply as another competitor.


We hope that adult leaders will not ignore tired sexist comments such as "You throw like a girl"; "Boys will be boys"; and "Bros before hos." Such statements are unacceptable and damaging to everyone. When the 3rd-grade teachers at New Roads School in Santa Monica, California, heard their students say "You throw like a girl," they presented their class with a short documentary on Mo’ne Davis. Davis was the first female pitcher to earn a win and to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series (2014), with a 70-mile-per-hour (113 kilometers per hour) fastball and a curve that froze batters in their cleats. In her team’s 4-0 victory over Nashville, she pitched six innings, struck out eight, and gave up two infield hits. She made the cover of Sports Illustrat ed and inspired young girls to go beyond rigid boundaries of gender-appropriate sports. Students from the school wrote Mo’ne about her impact, one saying, "Dear Mo’ne - I saw your video. I thought it was so cool because it gave me the feeling that I can do anything I put my mind to" (Chen, 2014, p. 152).


Invite competent females as coaches, and change the stereotypical assigning of menial duties to "team moms" to moms and dads (and change the name to "team manager"). Provide opportunities and expectations for girls to be active and part of any and all sports (and have them dress in comfortable clothes and sneakers so they can actively run and climb and jump to build fundamental motor skills). Provide support and counsel for young boys who don’t fit the male athletic stereotype, and help them find outlets through which they can remain physically active.

Learn more about Best Practice for Youth Sport.