Playing with the Big Boys

Women who compete on coed teams

Maybe if Dori Carlson were a guy, she would have slid into second base instead of trotting in, head up. Maybe if Rich Reid were a woman, he wouldn't have thrown the ball so hard, or maybe he wouldn't even have tried making the double play. Maybe then Reid's hard throw wouldn't have connected with Carlson's face with that sickening crack.

Or maybe if Rich were female he'd have done the same thing. Maybe if Dori were a guy she'd have frozen in fear. Maybe not. That's the thing about trying to understand coed sports— it's all about the interpretations.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of adults play recreational coed athletics every year in New York City. They do it for fun, for exercise, to hang out casually with the opposite sex, to meet folks of the opposite sex. For some the coed game is the most intense kind imaginable. For others it's a walk in the park compared to their same-sex teams. Women speak of well-organized coed teams building their confidence, and poorly done ones tearing it down.

Mixing it up: going up for a rebound at a regular coed pickup game
Andrew Goldberg
Mixing it up: going up for a rebound at a regular coed pickup game

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There are as many takes on what works and doesn't work in the coed game as there are players. But this is what almost all of them seem to agree on: The issues that arise in coed sports— who gets to touch the ball, who gets playing time, what a team's priorities are going to be— are fundamentally more about skill level and experience than gender. They're issues that could arise, and do arise, on same-sex teams. But throw in a healthy dose of gender socialization, and some mutual suspicion and stereotyping, and those issues can wreak particular havoc on a coed team— or give a leg up to those players willing to acknowledge them.

When Lisa Heydet first joined her coed softball team, she relished the opportunity to squash stereotypes. "I used to get up to bat and pretend I didn't know what I was doing," she says. "They'd bring the outfielders all the way in and then I'd line it over their heads." Now, says Heydet, the men on opposing teams know that she's a solid line-drive hitter.

In recreational sports, "You're always going to have tremendous variations in skill levels," says Donna Lopiano, the president of the Women's Sports Foundation. "The trick is recognizing that." Lopiano says that successful coed college leagues therefore often make significant rules changes. In coed flag football, she points out, a player can only throw or lateral to a teammate of the opposite sex. Because men often seem to want to score touchdowns, Lopiano says, you have "a whole generation of female quarterbacks."

When there aren't official rule changes, it's up to the individual players to create the atmosphere. And that, women say, is tricky, depending on the values and emphases of teammates.

"I'm competitive," says Carolyn Yang, one of the organizers of WUPASS, a local coed Ultimate Frisbee team. "And there have been times when I've yelled things on the field. But I never felt like I was doing anything to break someone down." Yang remembers incidents in which a few of her male teammates did things differently. "We had a few games where we had men who kind of lost it. The bad thing is they were yelling at the women who didn't take it very well. I had three different women crying, and I was trying to get them psyched up to play. They were lost."

But with the exception of the occasional aggressively competitive male, Yang is happy to be playing coed. "My favorite thing is that if I want to make a deep cut, if I just want to bust it and run long, that if I see that a guy's gotten the disc, he can probably get it to me," she says, noting she takes particular pleasure in pushing her physical game.

Some women, like coed basketball teammates Rachel Elkind and Lisa Michurski, say they find themselves responding in kind to the more physical, faster play of men. They play Sundays in a regular coed pickup game, and they love it.

Michurski, who says she was "very self-conscious" when she first began competing with men, now thinks her game has improved as a result of it. "I became a much more physical player when I started playing with men," she says. "I play harder now."

So does Elkind, who says she's had teammates from her women's team point out that her game seems much more on when she's playing with the guys. "I feel a certain sense of challenge that's stronger when I'm playing with the guys than I do with the women," Elkind says. "Like there's a certain feeling I have— when I'm guarding a man, I don't want him to get the ball. And if he gets the ball I don't want him to be able to shoot, and I'm going to shut him down."

The folks that Elkind and Michurski play with were once an organized coed team, the Exterminating Angels, which was designed in part to challenge the same-sex team structure of the New York Urban Professionals Athletic League. The demise of that team, with its progressive goals, was painful. Danya Reich, one of the team's original female players, remembers being upset at the time.

"The guys decided that they wanted to be more competitive," she says. "And that meant they were deciding to be all men."

Passionate about the game she discovered as an adult, Reich had played with men since day one. "I was like, 'I don't get to play with you because I'm a woman?' " Reich recalls. "It was literally the first time I was faced with that. And I was shocked. "

Todd Muller, a male member of the Exterminating Angels, remembers that time too— but a bit differently. "The interesting thing came when a number of the women on the team wanted to form their own team because they wanted to win, and they wanted to play in an all women's league," he says. "So then the men formed our own team."

Nothing, apparently, is necessarily simple about coed teams— not understanding how they work or why they sometimes don't. But athletes like Reich and Muller say they're worth the effort. Affection for, and belief in, coed play remains strong for both.

Reich is happily ensconced on a women's team now, and still plays that weekly coed pickup game with Muller and others. It's a good balance. In the now less intense atmosphere of the gym, she and her coed teammates can emphasize passing and execution and total participation.

The payoffs are many. "Being really aggressive and really physical with men in a totally nonsexual way was so liberating for me," says Reich. "I love that."

Dori Carlson had insights of her own when she joined a coed softball team. She, like many other women, talks about discovering abilities and confidences she didn't know she had. "It was all these revelations," she says.

But when Rich Reid's attempt at an unassisted double play sent her to the hospital, some of her peers were quick to question coed play. "That's the problem with them," friends told Carlson. "You wouldn't have been hit as hard if it had been a woman."

"Honestly, till that point I didn't really think of it as being a coed league," says Reid. "I just thought of it as playing softball. When that happened it kind of made me say, 'Oh my God, should I be playing this hard?' "

Almost a year after the accident, Carlson still doesn't know if the vision in her injured eye will ever be the same. But she knows she doesn't regret joining the coed team that summer. She proved that she could do it, and gained a healthy dose of confidence in herself along the way. "Things happen," she says. "That's part of the nature of sports."

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