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Commentary Feb 17, 2015

A “female-friendly” soccer ball: Friend or Foe?

WendyLeBolt-HeaderWhen your child reaches 12 years of age, are they an adult? Yes, according to FIFA and youth soccer, because that’s when they “move up” to playing 11 v. 11 on the big field with a size 5 ball.

Is this really such a good idea? That thinking has some leagues and tournaments offering a smoother transition with smaller sides (8v8) on smaller fields with smaller goals. What if our kids played with a smaller ball, too?

They may have the chance. Danish youth soccer coach and lifelong soccer player Majken Gilmartin has developed a smaller “female-friendly” soccer ball called the Eir Soccer  (pronounced “air”). The name comes from the Nordic goddess of health. The Eir ball, is one to three ounces lighter and approximately an inch smaller in girth than a professional-size soccer ball.

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She developed the ball in consultation with Thomas Bull Andersen, an associate professor in the sport science department at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. He has published some work on the biomechanical differences between the genders in striking the ‘foot’ball and a paper assessing differences in player performance using size 5 vs lighter (4.5) ball during match play.

He concludes, “physiological demands were high in youth female football games, and decrements in running performance occurred towards the end of games. The players kicked faster and reported lower muscular exertion during games played with a lighter smaller ball, but locomotor activities, heart rate and overall technical-tactical game performance remained unaffected.”

+ Click here for more of their reported data

I found the report a bit untraditional and hard to follow, but Anderson seems to conclude that players are able to ‘play harder’ using the smaller ball because they don’t expend as much energy kicking the ball.

soccer strike girlThe Eir website boasts:

“Reduce knee pressure from (up to) 80% down to 2%
Reduce leg strain by up to 40%
Increase ball speed by 13%
Reduce the acceleration force from a level above to 17% below that of concussions.”

Again, a bit confusing. I’d like to see more. But Gilmartin hypothesizes that the lighter ball will be more appropriate for female mechanics because it will be easier to launch further with less effort and put less strain on hips, knees and ankles. If this is true, our girls could focus more on technique and creating chances and less on force which requires a big windup and usually leaves them off-balance, out of position and sore the next day.

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Gilmartin has sold a moderate number of Eir balls in Denmark, gotten it adopted for girls U-18 play, and recently has generated interest from a group in Toronto who piloted it with U-13 girls during the indoor season. The feedback was mostly positive, so the balls will be used by all 24 U-13 teams this summer.

Here’s Canada again, trying to change the women’s game. Only this time, they might be on to something.

I’m thinking back to my new U-12 girls whose corner kicks didn’t even come close to reaching the near post.

I’m thinking about the girls games where the ball stays stuck on one side of the field because they can’t physically (or mechanically) get it crossed or cleared.

I’m thinking about the snap of those knees as girls bend for all they’re worth to get that ball lifted or driven or bending in from the corner flag.

Girls routinely attempt to lift the ball with their bodies because they don’t have the leg strength to strike it in the same way men do. That difference, especially repeated again and again, very likely contributes to the knee, ankle and hip pain that is so prevalent in our female soccer players.Picture 6044

What would happen if girls’ teams and leagues adopted a smaller, lighter ball?

This question hasn’t been answered by the group from Copenhagen. They have looked at the physiology, but I’d like to see how it affects the game.

Perhaps play would be faster and the girls would switch the point of attack more easily and create more chances for scoring. Perhaps there would be more action, more scoring, more creativity, more fun and fewer injuries. Perhaps there would be more fans.

Brandi Chastain, who has tried the ball out, says, “It could be better for scoring goals because it would be harder for goalies to pick off. And I think most people, especially in American culture, feel that soccer needs more goals.”

So what’s the holdup? Well, we don’t like to be sexist, or accused of pandering to the weaker sex. The girls themselves, when first presented with the idea of the ball, are miffed. Of course they are. We have raised our young women to see themselves as equal with their male peers. Don’t call me weak or meek or second rate. Anything he can do, I can do, right?

But as a group, women are smaller and less physically powerful. Acknowledging this, women professionals play basketball with a smaller ball to better match their smaller hands. They play tennis with lighter racquets and softball with lighter bats. Female golfers play with the same size ball but with differently weighted clubs and customized pliable shafts, and they play from women’s distanced tees. In games that both women and men play, it’s typical to use different equipment.

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Why wouldn’t soccer consider a smaller ball for women?

Well, one reason is the professional ranks. Here, I am remembering when Jenn Grubb, then a fixture in the back line for the Washington Freedom, guest-played at a practice with our U-15 girls. She struck the ball with what seemed like no effort at all to launch it from inside her own goal box nearly to the other goalkeeper.

Very few women can do this, but some can. With sufficient size and strength and proper mechanics, women can certainly impart force equal to men, but what about the rest of us? What about the vast majority of us? What about the kids?

Gilmartin has gotten interest from Scotland, Sweden, Norway and Germany, and is in conversation with FIFA. U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer, it’s reported, have said leagues can adopt the lighter ball if every team in the league agrees to its use. Well, we know how long change like that can take. Who’s gonna make the first move? And would switching back and forth actually do more harm than good? Look how much trouble has been created by the turf wars!

Change is hard. It’s always easier to stick with what you have been doing, unless it’s clear that change will be beneficial. I’m going to be watching the Toronto experiment this summer. If the lighter ball is reasonable and shows the potential to reduce injuries, rather than weakening the women’s game, it just may be equalizing it.

I’m thinking the Eir may be up to something. Nike may want to take a look. It’s just a vowel change.