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One topic that’s seen a great amount of debate in recent years is the subject of gender differences in sport. Do boys and girls differ in their athletic ability? Can girls keep up with boys in their respective sport? Is it good for boys and girls to be competing against one another? Should transgender children be allowed to compete in a category that’s opposite of their biological sex? This information will shed further light on these contentious topics, helping you distinguish fact from fiction.

Boys versus girls in sports: Are there gender differences in a child’s athletic ability?

The answer to this question depends on a child’s age. “Prior to puberty, male and female children have few major structural differences aside from the general appearance of the external genitalia,” notes professor Kent Van De Graaf (2000, p. 759). Because girls grow and mature faster than boys, girls may even have a slight competitive advantage prior to puberty.

Thus, as David Epstein notes, “Before puberty, there is no physiological reason to separate boys and girls in competition. At age 9, the fastest boys and girls in the world reach similar speeds.” (Epstein, 2019) They also have comparable strength, and so for things like soccer, baseball, football, or track and field, there’s no reason at all to have separate leagues for boys and girls.

The situation is very different after puberty, when obvious physical differences emerge between males and females. “You see the divergence immediately as the testosterone surges into the boys,” says Dr. Michael Joyner. “There are dramatic differences in performances.” (Powell, 2022)

Differences in athletic ability emerge after puberty for two main reasons:

1. Humans are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning males are consistently larger than females. On average, males are 10% taller than females, 20% heavier, and 30% stronger, especially in the upper body. (Ehrenreich, 1999, p. 2)

2) Testosterone plays a key role in both building muscle mass and improved physical performance, and boys simply have more of it. A healthy man in the low-testosterone range will still have several hundred percent more testosterone circulating throughout their system than the range for healthy females. “There is a large performance gap between healthy normal populations of males and females, and that is driven by testosterone,” says Dr. Carol Hooven. (Powell, 2022)

Thus “by the age of 14,” writes Epstein, “the fastest high school boys are beating women’s world records. At the elite level, there is a performance difference between the best male and female runners of about 10%, no matter the distance; in jumping events it is nearly twice that.” For swimming events, males average 10-12% faster times, and this holds up even after testosterone suppression. This gender advantage “is so pronounced that anyone who cares about women’s sport recognizes the need for separate competitions by sex.”

H2: Boys & girls competing against one another

So back to the question that’s on many parents’ minds: Is it okay for boys and girls to compete against one another? My personal opinion is that not only is it okay, but we should be actively encouraging it. I’d like to see more intersex sports teams, especially at the pre-teen level. There is way too much gender segregation in our society, and co-ed sports teams allow boys and girls to play with and against one another, encouraging cooperation, respect, and working to erode gender stereotypes. There are even girls who compete against boys on wrestling teams or in full-contact martial arts or boxing competitions, and many hold their own.

As just stated, at the pre-pubescent level there’s no need for any gender segregation. Even as teens it’s certainly not something we should discourage. Girls are at a slightly elevated risk of injury when competing against boys in contact sports, but what they get out of it may more than make up for this increased risk.

In elite competitions, the genders need to be segregated post-puberty in order to give the girls a fair shot. But in less-competitive arenas where the goal is to have fun and challenge oneself to grow, there’s no reason girls can’t compete with the boys (or vice versa), even as teens.

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