My daughter and her two friends emerged from their first night of soccer practice tired, sweaty, and content. They played hard. They had fun. They giggled and ran and kicked the ball. Or, for some of them, they tried to kick the ball.
These three are the only girls on the team — and that team is the only one available to kids at their school, or the entire country, for that matter. (We live in Djibouti, a small country situated in the Horn of Africa, where organized sports for school kids are less common.) When I signed them all up, the coach was excited to see three girls. After all, last year there had only been one: my daughter. Even the school director was happy to see them — he remembered my daughter by name and told stories of how impressed he’d been by her presence among the boys last year.
“The boys think we play like girls,” my daughter said in the car on the drive home.
She sounded frustrated, disappointed, and a little confused. I felt almost all of those same emotions myself. I remember being in fifth grade and wanting to play soccer with the boys at recess. The rest of the girls sat on a hill and watched; but I wanted to play. So a friend and I decided to force ourselves into the games. We were mostly ignored and never got to even touch the ball. But worst of all, we were teased, and eventually quit trying.
I was frustrated that all these years later, thousands of miles away from where I grew up, the same old scene was still playing out again on soccer fields — and I was beyond disappointed to have to watch my daughter experience it. I wasn’t, however, confused. I knew what my response should be and I knew that her’s would depend hugely upon what I said or did in this exact moment. She wanted to play and I wanted her to play. She is tough and fearless.
So, I told her the truth.
“Good.” I said. “You are girls. So yeah, you play like girls. You play tough and hard and next week you’ll get out there and kick some butt. Just like you did tonight. Like girls.”
It is hard to be the only girl on a team of all boys, or one of three girls while the other 20 players are boys. These girls do struggle to keep up and aren’t as fast or as strong or as experienced. They aren’t friends with all the boys and the boys tend to pass the ball to their friends and to the other boys who are more likely to score.
My daughter is, what we say here in Djibouti, “sportive,” meaning she is active, aggressive, loves to compete, and loves to win. She isn’t afraid of skinned knees or of getting knocked down by a larger, stronger kid. We have avoided using the word “tomboy” for her because I don’t like how that labels an active, sporty girl only reference to boys. She is “all girl,” and that girly-ness is evident when she is tough, fast, strong, and competitive.
I’m thankful for how these three girls have been welcomed and encouraged by the soccer coach and by most, albeit not all, of the boys. They are part of the team. They are out there and they are unafraid and refuse to be intimidated.
And most of all, I love that I now get to watch my girl as she refuses to back down while a boy barrels towards her, kicking a ball. She thrusts her feet right into his, uses her body to stop his momentum, twirls away, and steals it. Or she blocks a kick with her face, and while I can tell it stings, she barely flinches. She giggles with delight at good moves; she plays until she collapses from exhaustion. One day she won’t be as fast anymore, or quite so strong, but she is a girl and she is a joiner, not a watcher.
Because that’s how girls play.More On