Sports violence: girls behaving badly?

New Mexico Lobos soccer player Elizabeth Lambert's actions led to her suspension.
New Mexico Lobos soccer player Elizabeth Lambert's actions led to her suspension.

The media’s attention has been captured by recent incidents of violence in girls’ and women’s sports, including a bench clearing brawl during a high school soccer game in Providence, and the suspension of  New Mexico Lobos soccer player Elizabeth Lambert for unsportsmanlike conduct. David Mooney, MD, MPH, director of the Trauma Program at Children’s Hospital Boston and girls soccer coach, addresses issues raised by this recent media coverage.

Passion for the game is one of the central tenets of sports. Without passion, you might as well just watch the highlight tape.

Soccer is one of many physical contact sports. Having played organized soccer for more than 30 years and coached for a dozen, I have seen, and been involved with, lots of physical contact on the field. I have coached kids who have shown no passion and those who have shown too much. I’ve seen players suffer minor injuries from opposing teams’ “dirty players” and there have been times I’ve had to remove one of my players from the match to allow their passion to fall back into control.

Girls have always taken their sports as seriously as boys do, and have become increasingly assertive and aggressive.  Boys have always been injured more frequently than girls, but that gap is narrowing. I suspect that gap is closing in sports related violence as well. There’s certainly no shortage of female players pulling shirts, pushing and elbowing other players. I doubt that there are any more dirty players than in the past, but videotaping and viral internet distribution would make it seem so. Video is everywhere. Anyone who has a phone with a camera (99 percent of young adults) is ready to video an event without any planning.

Now that children’s sports have become performances for their parents’ benefit, children are under increased pressure to respond with wins. Parents, overstating the importance of the event and not wanting to witness their children suffer a loss, are all too quick to demonize whoever they perceive would do this: the other team, the referee, or their own coach.

Part of being a coach is providing sometimes unwanted guidance into what actions are fair and no coach should ever ignore when an individual or the team have gotten out of hand. Referees are responsible for controlling the game, despite the crowd’s pleas to “Let em play!” If the referee isn’t aware of the situation or isn’t willing to intervene the responsibility falls to the coach. Coaches commit a tremendous amount of personal time to a team and are also susceptible to getting caught up in the moment, sometimes more so than the players.

Fortunately, I have never coached a truly “dirty player” who would dispassionately attempt to harm another player, and most players commit fouls while responding to perceived slights or hoping to gain an advantage by riding the edge of what’s allowed. Elizabeth Lambert’s behavior is so out of range that it’s easier for most media outlets to make a joke out of it than confront the reality that a normal-looking young woman could be such a dirty player. It comes down to reinforcement, positive and negative. If the players I coach ask me about this, I’ll focus on the negative; how embarrassed she must be by her suspension. I might even turn a joke into a teaching point and tell the kids not to “pull a Lambert”.

At the end of the day, it’s up to each player to control their passions and channel that energy toward the game, not toward the other players. Each sport has rules that govern the amount of contact that players are allowed and what will happen if too much contact occurs. Players routinely know these rules and know when they are violating them. They have to receive positive and negative feedback to ensure that they follow the rules of the game.

Everyone has a limit and some level of civilized behavior that is maintained despite the passions of the moment. While that limit is adjusted by the player at every moment that she is on the field, it’s strongly influenced by her coach, peers and parents. We cannot realistically expect our children to behave better than we behave ourselves.

In the New York Times, Lambert takes full responsiblity for her actions in her first interview since the suspension.  She also talks about the fallout that has come in the wake of the incident.