The question is often raised about the difference between Men and Women playing the same sport at the elite level.
While the debate has many aspects, the bottom line is that in some sports it does boil down to physiological differences in the style of play which dictate a mismatch when men’s and women’s teams compete against each other - but that does not preclude the skill level or the calibre of performance.
The recent practice game between the Matildas and an Under-15s boys side raised many eyebrows when the women went down to the teenagers to the tune of 7-0 which then lead to a boisterous debate in the media about the validity of such a contest and what it says about the actual standard in women’s sport.
As Matildas coach Alen Stajcic so readily pointed out in the aftermath, they were not playing for sheep stations, it was an exercise in testing strengths, weaknesses, team structures and the development of new talent.
Football is not the only sport to measure the progress of its elite women’s teams up against boys’ sides instead of the equivalent representative men’s teams.
The Australian Women’s hockey team – the Hockeyroos – will often play against a male team but it isn’t the Kookaburras, despite the fact that both teams train alongside each other and have the same training programs at the Hockey Australia base in Perth.
According to Women’s coach Adam Commens the reasoning is simple – the difference in power, not skill, is far too great.
“We play our practice games against U18 boys teams. The Men are just too big and strong and fast – it’s a massive differentiation.”
“It’s just the physicality. Some of the world’s best women players have the same skill levels as the very best men’s players, but they just don’t have that same power,” said Commens.
“U18s is a really good level and that’s the State teams - so our national side will play against the Western Australia U16 or U18 team and it’s a pretty even contest. But I think what the girls have is a much smarter tactical game compared to boys of that age; but in terms of speed and work on the ball the boys are just that little bit stronger,” he said.
Women’s hockey is still a very physical contact sport but Commens makes the analogy to sports such as rugby.
“If you compared women’s rugby to men’s rugby, they both play full contact but I think if you put the two teams against each other it would be different and that’s just to do with the males being bigger and stronger.”
A recent comment on the SBS Zela site likened it to boxing. While two boxers can be world champions, they will be in different weight divisions – that does not mean one is better at the art of boxing than the other, but you would never put them in a ring together to contest a bout.
While the men hit the ball harder and travel across the pitch more quickly, the difference in endurance – very much a key factor in the fast paced game of hockey - is much less.
“There is a difference but not as significant. Aerobically the women are on par with U18 boys but their ability to run at capacity – so the time they spend above 90 per cent heart rate - I find for the women is very similar to the men,” said Commens.
The tactical approach to the game by the female players is also different to the men according to Commens.
“The difference I find is that women are very literal, very eager to please, have a great work ethic and a great attitude towards being professional and doing everything to the letter.”
“Whereas I’ve found the men take an idea and run with that idea; put their own interpretation on it rather than being as literal as what the women are. The women say ‘give me a solution, I’ll remember that solution and put it into practice’. The men will take a solution and say ‘okay give me the solution and I might be able to do this, this or this and make it better or I might be able to put my own slant on it’ - which is sometimes a bit of a nightmare because you might have the entire team putting their own slant on a message rather than just trying to achieve the message the coach has sent out,” Commens said with a laugh.
“So that’s one of the great things about coaching female teams is their ability to work together and have them all on the same page.”
The trick Commens reveals is getting the best of both approaches. The unity and cohesion of the women mixed with the adaptability to new situations out on the pitch which the men tend to do.
“What you need from any successful team is a team that can find solutions out on the pitch for any problem that comes their way. That’s something that we’re trying to work with all the time with our athletes and that’s the challenge that we have,” he said.
Commens agrees though that ultimately what it boils down to is leadership.
“The leadership is very important. Something we work very hard with our group is in trying to develop leaders – ones that can develop those decision making skills and be able to adapt to what’s going on out on the pitch,” said Commens.
While debate will always rage about the difference between women’s and men’s sport, the inevitable conclusion is that coaches and players do whatever it takes in employing the best development strategies for the team – even if that means having the unlikely matchup of male youth teams being used as training tools for elite women’s teams.
Hockeyroo defender, Anna Flanagan is a guest editor for a special edition of Zela articles. Anna has written, commissioned and created content for readers around her love of sport and broader interests.