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Making #HERstory: Girls Who Play on Boys Teams

By Sport Information Resource Centre, 10/13/22, 10:00AM EDT


What Coaches can do to support the 'lone girl' in sport

Photo Credit: Heather Pollock Photography

Head to your local rink and chances are you'll find the 'lone girl' - the one girl playing on a team full of boys. While they all wear the same jersey, there can be challenges that aren't always forward-facing to make sure every member of the team feels equal and included.

As we create a welcoming environment for all participants, the article below features ideas and strategies for Coaches to ensure that all players on the team are included, especially in a 'lone girl' situation.

The article is written by Jennifer Coletti, Queen’s University that was published by the Sport Information Resource Centre.

by Jennifer Coletti, Queen’s University via the Sport Information Resource Centre
Originally published October 20, 2021

On October 7, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) kicked off its 2021-2022 season. After having a season cut short and another cancelled altogether, this season looks different for the OHL. And it isn’t because of the COVID‑19 pandemic.

In June, Taya Currie became the first female athlete drafted to the OHL. Selected in the 14th round by the Sarnia Sting, the 16-year-old goaltender from Parkhill, Ontario, joins the Sting’s 2021-2022 roster. Currie will compete as the only girl in the league.

Undoubtably, Currie’s selection by the Sting is a massive advancement for the league, the sport of ice hockey, and girls and women in sport generally. Although a first for the OHL, girls and women competing exclusively with boys and men isn’t new to hockey. Currie is following the likes of Manon Rhéaume, the first and only woman to play in the NHL, and Shannon Szabados, the first woman to play in the Western Hockey League.

At the youth level, girls competing in boys’ leagues happens often and across numerous sports. In fact, for the past 7 years (and for much of her hockey career), Currie had been playing with the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, a triple-A boys’ hockey team. Whether it be hockey, soccer, baseball, football or basketball, many youths compete as the only girl on their sports team.

The term ”lone girl” has been used to describe this exact scenario in analyses of children’s sport fiction books. Girls in sport are often perceived as outsiders because they’re participating in an environment historically dominated by boys. Being a lone girl further amplifies this outsider status.

For my master’s thesis, I explored the experiences of lone girls in team sports. I interviewed 14 individuals who had participated in sport as a lone girl and asked them about their experiences. In this blog, I share my findings and propose ways that coaches and organizations can enhance the sport environment for lone girls.

What we know about the lone girl

If you type “lone girls in sport” into Google, you’ll find several newspaper articles and social media posts about girls creating #HERstory competing alongside boys. But on the academic front, there are few studies focused on girls who play in boys’ leagues, and none exploring the lone girl.

The limited research that has explored girls’ experiences playing on boys’ teams has shown the lone girl often results from limited access to a girls’ team or league. In my research, I also found that stereotypes surrounding girls sport and the lack of a clear pathway to professional sport can deter girls from competing in girls’ leagues. For example, girls reported joining a boys’ team because their parents thought the girls’ team wasn’t competitive enough. Or, because the girls themselves believed they would have more opportunities for skill development and access to better resources by playing on boys’ teams.

Regardless of their motives for competing, lone girls expressed unique challenges to their sport participation. These challenges spanned physical and social spaces, leaving many girls to feel both left out and singled out because of their gender. Lone girls also described feeling pressure to perform, despite facing limited opportunities for advancement in sport.

Left out: The physical space

Features of the physical setting created barriers for lone girls to experience quality relations with teammates. For example, having to change in a separate dressing room was isolating and limited opportunities to connect. Girls described missing out on pre- and post-game talks and often processed wins and losses alone. Sometimes, the team would enter the playing field without them, leaving them to enter alone and drawing increased attention to their otherness.

What coaches can do:

  • If the sport requires a changing room, make sure the changing room key is ready or easily accessible for the lone girl upon her arrival to the playing field. Ensure there’s a safe and equitable place to change (in other words, not a janitor’s closet).
  • Consider having the lone girl enter the team change room once everyone is appropriately dressed.
  • Enter the playing field as a team; wait until everyone is ready and leave no one behind.

Singled out: The social space

Girls struggled to develop connections with their teammates because of physical barriers, but also social barriers. Girls expressed having to tolerate gendered “locker room” talk and behaviours. They also frequently experienced interactions like opposing players letting them have the ball or puck, asking for their phone number, players’ parents discussing their desire for her to be cut from the team, and spectator surprise (“You’re good for a girl!”). Such interactions contributed to a social environment that made them feel uncomfortable and that their abilities and gender couldn’t be mutually exclusive.

What coaches can do:

  • Integrate purposeful activities that are inclusive of all members. Design activities to connect the lone girl and her teammates on a deeper level by focusing on shared values and attitudes.
  • Create experiences for team bonding that require teammates to work or play together. Rather than team dinners, try doing an escape room with your team.
  • Consider participating in educational courses with your organization to enhance and encourage diversity, inclusivity and understanding.

Pressure to Perform

Girls often felt pressure to perform when they competed. They described feeling like they were representing more than themselves, but all girl athletes. Therefore, they felt they had to put in extra work to not reinforce stereotypes. Engaging in more structured practice to prove themselves often led to burnout, injury, and decreased enjoyment in their sport. Despite this, they were denied opportunities to advance in their sport or earn leadership roles because of their gender. They also described missing out on university scholarship opportunities because being in a boys’ league hid them from scouts.

What coaches can do:

  • Coaches and parents or guardians need to support girls in their participation by holding them to the same expectations as any other team member.
  • Provide lone girls with opportunities to advance in sport. For example, consider inviting women’s varsity coaches and scouts to games.
  • Consider how you can provide lone girls with more leadership roles or connect them with role models and mentors in sport. Role models help promote participation, connection and leadership for girls in sport.

"Enter the playing field as a team; wait until everyone is ready and leave no one behind."

Making #HERstory the norm

While these tips may help to improve sport outcomes for lone girls, it’s easy to see that many of the challenges reported by lone girls stem from old-fashioned stereotypes and expectations of girls and women.

Modifying the environment to improve lone girls’ experiences is certainly a start, but clearly bigger change is needed. That is, people of every gender should be given the same opportunities and resources to be able to participate, enjoy and succeed in sport.

Ultimately, we want girls to make #HERstory not because they’ve overcome barriers, but because the barriers have been removed entirely.


Jennifer Coletti, M.Sc., recently completed her Master’s degree in the field of sport psychology. Her love of sport and aspiration to provide positive sport experiences for all participants stems from her personal experiences as a competitive soccer player. As of fall 2021, she’s continuing to pursue her love of learning and sport by beginning her PhD at Queen’s University’s Performance Lab for the Advancement of Youth in Sport.

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