Girls are girly and they don’t play aggressive and explosive sports like football. They might throw like a girl or hit like a girl. They might be a big girl’s blouse and they might cry but they don’t gain kudos from being sporty. These commonly held beliefs are increasingly being challenged and yet many of our common sense views, when challenged, are nonsensical. They need to be rewritten and yet they go unchallenged and remain to provide unnecessary obstacles to participation.


Volume 2.13 (Blog 108):

Barker, D., Barker-Ruchti, N., Gerber, M., & Pühse (2014). Maria: Italian, female, and pursuing dreams of elite soccer success in Switzerland. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 171-183). London: Routledge.



Unlike many girls her age (14) Maria spends her Saturdays halfway up the football terraces listening to the local fans chanting for their team. She’d love to able to watch, she’d like nothing more in fact, but she is selling ice creams and cold drinks and has her back to the game. As an avid and devoted football fan she doesn’t think there’s a better place to be but she’s not doing this for the sake of fandom but because the money she earns will go to her own football club.

When she leaves the ground she takes the bus back to the apartment she shares with her mother and three siblings. Her father, separated from Maria’s mother (but not his family) lives in a small one-bedroom apartment nearby. As Marie walks in to the house she notices that the figure on the TV is speaking Italian; which is stark contrast to the Swiss that the football fans had been chanting in. Her mother misses Sicily and likes to be remained of her Italian roots on a daily basis.

Two days later Maria heads to school. She’d like to be wearing her tracksuit but the teachers don’t like the children to dress for recreation. Her first lesson is maths and she doesn’t feel she’s very good at it. She knows she needs to work hard but it makes “her tired, numb even”. Her mind wanders to Cristiano Ronaldo and his goal against Milan on Saturday and then to her recent trip back to Sicily and the games of football she played with the local boys. They hadn’t ever seen a girl play football before but they let her play anyway.

Later the same day Maria is in her French lesson and has just finished top in the vocabulary test. She feels good but that might be because she is now heading to football training. It doesn’t start for a couple of hours and she stops to see her cousin and talk football – what else? They talk about her game at the weekend and Maria tells Mario that she scored both the goals in her team’s 2-1 victory and then saw a guy talking to her coach and asking about her age. He thought (the guy who turned out to be a scout) that Marie could get into the national squad but also said it would help if she got a Swiss passport as soon as possible.

Maria heads for training. She’s forty minutes early but uses the time to do more training. After all the “more training she does the better player she will be and the more valuable she will be to her team”. Her friend Valentia arrives and while they train the girls reminisce about the days when they used to play with the boys and agree that they would learn more if they were still playing with the boys. They practice with the ball Valentia has in her bag and as Maria performs a skilful turn she realise that, for first time today, she feels alive and free.


The Pedagogical Case

Looking through the lenses of critical ethnicity, gender, and acculturation psychology/self-determination theory Barker and colleagues build their pedagogical case. Their aim is to help teachers and coaches better understand how they might support a girl like Maria who wants to “re-formulate the acceptable stories” that girls tell of sport.

The literature in critical ethnicity is increasingly exploring race and ethnicity as they relate to and impact on sport and pedagogy (e.g. through studies of racism, inclusion and exclusion, and identity construction). Drawing on the work of Bourdieu and the idea of cultural capital, Barker and colleagues argue that “individuals with migration backgrounds sometimes have less cultural capital in sport settings (knowledge about training and competition, dress, work ethic and so forth) and therefore they navigate these environments less successfully that others”. On the surface it appears that Maria doesn’t lack cultural capital. She dresses “right” and eschews make-up, she knows how to be a fan, is committed to training and is clearly skilful.

At the same time she is lacking in another form of capital. She doesn’t know the right people and isn’t connected. In terms of scouting she lacks a network of teachers, parents, managers and regional coaches to talk her up. This would be a significant advantage but people with migration backgrounds rarely have these. She doesn’t have a member of the family who played for the national team or a father who is friendly with the U19s national coach and she is dependant on her own coach to “facilitate her movement in to the networks that exist in higher levels of the sport”. It is important to note that “ethnic difference should not be equated with problems” but some have argued that individuals can be caught between cultures. One, in case of Maria, that discourages female sport participation and another that is more open to it.

Changing focus and exploring social theory Barker and colleagues argue that “gender is seen as socially constructed and performed” through, for example, media representations of athletes, sporting organisations, women coaches and athletes’ sporting experiences. In many ways Maria is challenging and seeking to re-construct these masculine and feminine ideals. In both Italy and Switzerland “national gender stereotypes shape women’s soccer”. The women’s game is on the margins and is treated with stark inequity. As a consequence many women face opposition regarding their choice of sports. Maria hasn’t and perhaps her exceptional story has “the potential to re-construct traditional gender ideologies”. She challenges the assumption that women are not suited to play sports traditional played by men and by engaging in “aggressive tackling” and “explosive shooting” she redefines corporal ideas but she may face negative reactions from members of other communities – for example the Lesbian prejudices that have been attached to women soccer players.

Maria’s conversation with her friend about boys’ football and her game with the boys in Sicily both go someway to reinforcing traditional ideals of femininity. They (the girls) would be better if they still played with the boys. This suggests that not only do boys play a different but also a better game. In this way she demonstrates a deficit-approach to her performance by voicing her belief that women can’t play as well as men.

“What a person values, what a person eats and drinks, what language a person uses, and in what environment a person feels most comfortable” all impact on that individuals attitudes (preferences) and behaviours (actual practices). From an acculturation psychology perspective this can result in one of four “protypical acculturation strategies”: Biculturalism, Separation, Assimilation, or Marginalisation. Maria seems willing to adopt an integrative (bicultural) approach inasmuch as she values her Italian heritage but choose a sport that is rarely played by girls in Sicily. However, developing a bicultural identity is not automatic but is instead an active process. It needs motivation from both the immigrant and the members of the host society. In Maria’s case she feels valued and endorsed through her football and isn’t being punished by her parents for developing intercultural contact.

Football helps – from a self-determination perspective – to develop her autonomy. It gives her “life meaning” and “helps her to deal with school pressures”. She talks freely about football and has been left to decide her future career as a football player. She is respected and the prospect of playing in the Swiss national team is further incentive to become more integrated in Swiss society.

Viewed as whole, and through a pedagogical lens, Maria’s coaches and teachers can start to look at how they acknowledge or disrupt the expectation that players should know how to dress, act, talk etc. and thus be “naturals”. Should they teach players “how things are done” or should they promote “the value of performance behaviours such as work ethic, tactical thinking and motoric excellence”? In doing so, and in thinking differently, we help athletes to develop identities outside of sport. In Maria’s case this would be an identity as someone who can do Maths because the same ethics are applied there as they are in sport.

Such a step, and others like it, help us to reflect on the “kinds of taken for granted assumptions that predominate” in physical education and sport. Particularly, in this case, “how particular common sense assumptions define what it means to be an athletic, female, and/or have a particular cultural heritage”. This allows us to change narratives and allows girls like Maria to so something unusual. It allows her to “reformulate acceptable stories” about women’s sport, which includes passivity. As a consequence of a need to “be seen” to do the right thing or (in Maria’s case just be seen by a scout) athletes can adopt submissive or passive relationships with their coaches where they do what they are told to do. By rewriting this expectation athletes gain a sense of control over their participation and feel that their need for autonomy, competence and relatedness are being meet.

Only by recognising, criticising and rewriting our common sense beliefs can meaningful and enduring changes be made. Maria, and thousands of girls and women like her and from many different walks of life, are challenging the stories that we tell. Isn’t it time we started to really listen?

What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.