Here’s a tip for any coach who wants their girl players to be better with the ball: Have them give their ball a name.

One of our favorite family soccer balls is a red and black Nike that one of my daughters calls “Pepperoni” for its resemblance to the pizza topping. We’ve spent also productive seasons working with “Leo,” and “Eddie." The newest family member is “Eagle,” a US-themed size 4 Copa America ball.

In the Beautiful instructional DVD, legendary female players like Sydney Leroux and Cat Whitehill talk about how crucial it is for girls to build strong relationships to support their soccer development, including their relationships with their coaches and their relationships with their teammates.

But why not a relationship with the ball? There will be times when the ball will frustrate you. It will also bring you and your teammates great joy. There will be times when it will do exactly what you want it to and times when it will do the opposite. There will even be times when it will hurt you.

Sounds like a relationship to me.

The idea behind giving a name is to developing the bond between the soccer ball and the girl, a comfort and confidence level leading to a stronger bond between the girl and the game. These days many people probably think the whole ball vs doll thing is a gender cliche, but there’s even scientific evidence supporting the notion that girls can really benefit from getting a little extra help building a good rapport with the ball.

A few years ago, Texas A&M University researchers were trying to find out if gender preferences for so-called boys toys and girls toys were the result of socialization or whether the connection went deeper. Through experiments with very young children and monkeys, they found that kids are literally wired for toys that match their hormones. The higher the testosterone level in 4-month-old boy, for example, the more time he spent looking at boy toys like trucks and balls. Infant girls and female monkeys, meanwhile, spent more time looking at dolls and other toys stereotypically associated with relationships and nurturing.

Why does that matter? Well, the National Association for the Education of Young Children conducted another study, this time to see what toys were best for optimal physical, cognitive and artistic development. They found that children who tended to play with strongly gender-associated toys - like soldiers, guns and vehicles for boys, and dolls, costumes and jewelry for girls - lagged developmentally behind children who played with mostly gender-neutral or moderately masculine toys.

One of the best gender neutral/slightly masculine toys? A soccer ball.

And that’s why having a young girl name her soccer ball works: It gives her the right toy for optimal development, while also addressing her hard-wired desire to build relationships. Try it, I bet you’ll get results.

Of course there is a down side. When a “relationship” ball gets lost, it can be a big deal. Remember when Tom Hanks lost Wilson in “Cast Away?” So try and make sure the ball comes home after every practice.

 

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