In September of 2014, a bocce club reached out to me and asked if any of our players would be interested in signing up for their annual tournament. The spokesperson for the club eloquently outlined the tournament and congratulated me on our new endeavor. The invitation felt perfectly civil until the last line:
“I also noticed that there seems to be a lot of women in your club. We recently amended our rules so women are now allowed in our tournaments as well so feel free to invite the women as well.”
I looked around. Just as many women as men. Fran and Julia were carving up the competition in a Tuesday night playoff match. Lizzie was yelling at Sean for busting out of points for her team. Alicia had just steadied our WPBC team to a 2-day marathon tournament win in Delaware. Oh and by the way, she co-founded this frickin thing. Feel free to invite the women?
Actually we won’t be inviting anybody now.
The Women Were Always Invited
I admit, when I decided to start a life of bocce ball, I didn’t do all of the proper research up front. My objectives were to find out why bocce ball wasn’t more widely accepted on a social sport level and why it had never been monetized. I heard stories of backyard players being intimidated by the old Italian guys at the city park courts. I read regional rants over which surface is proper for bocce (and if you’re not using that surface, then you’re not playing bocce!). But it wasn’t until that email that I was able to fully understand the old school embrace that limited the sport’s potential reach.
Since then, we have continued to build a community that naturally falls into equal parts man and woman. There are no co-ed softball rules here. We don’t need to keep X amount of women on our rosters. We just do.
This is hundreds of random people coming together and it just so happens to be a split between men and women.
This isn’t theory. When using the two leagues that just wrapped up in Chicago as an example, out of 164 players on rosters, 88 were men and 76 were women. So for every 9 men there are 8 women. You would be hard pressed to find any social engagement that randomly achieves such equality. This is something that we hang our hats on. A lot of organizations beg and plead to get more women at their events. Ladies get in free? Nah, we charge ‘em $10 a night just the same. The balance achieves the community feel that we set out to create every single night.
A single league night bares doctors, lawyers, busboys, and musicians all coming together for a good time. The same goes for men, women, boyfriends, girlfriends, moms, and dads. There are no boundaries in American Bocce and that just happened naturally. So how did the sport get it wrong before? Why is there a stigma that this is a man’s sport? As far as I could tell, there is no competitive advantage for a man in bocce. Height is not an advantage. Strength is not an advantage. Beards are not an advantage.
The Bad News
Maybe they’re right.
Our numbers suggest that men have a strong competitive edge over women in bocce ball. Using the same two leagues, we gathered that 35 out of the 40 most efficient players were male. The two championship teams were composed of all male players.
I didn’t want to hear this. Maybe fall is a man’s season. I dug a little deeper. Women can and do win at bocce. Eight past championship teams have had at least one female on their roster. Compared to 12 without. Our very own WPBC bocce team has won three regional championships with Alicia and I throwing side-by-side (in a much more male-dominated field). Hell, I’ve lost more money games (after the party is the afterparty) to Jamie Briglio than any other player ever. And then there is the team that Jamie is on, Joanie <3s Bocce (Ballers).
Jamie and her sister, Renee joined Joanie <3s Bocce after 5 seasons of playing as Bocce Ballers. While they have collectively won a lot more games than they’ve lost, prior to this past season that generally kept two males on their roster. With that in mind I’ve chosen to focus on Joanie <3s Bocce’s ever-present captain Vanessa Garripo and her rotating cast of ladies. It still needed to be noted that Jamie has routinely kicked my ass.
Joanie <3s Bocce has held a historically all-female roster. With the exception of about ten games from a guy named John and a random sub here and there, Joanie has trotted out 4 badass ladies game after game. There lifetime record? 45-21. For context, the Green Bay Packers are 44-21-1 over their past 66 games. Neither team has won a championship during that span as well.
Vanessa Garripo is good at everything. She wins in softball. She wins in bowling. She wins a lot at bocce but has never won a championship. Is that because she captains an all-female team? Not exactly.
So Why Then?
It must be noted that the ‘why’ here is very complicated and starts way before bocce. But this is a blog, not a research paper. There are plenty of eye-opening reads on gender in sport. I suggest googling some reports and studies on the topic, especially if you are as excited as I am by the potential American Bocce has to allow for a truly equal playing field. The shortest way I can sum that up is that media reinforces gender stereotypes way before we even have a choice. The good news is that that is getting better. Not ideal, but better.
So there’s a systematic handicap in place. Systems perpetuate trends but people overcome them all of the time. Am I just being impatient here? Will an all-female team win a championship? Of course they will. Good money is on Vanessa’s team. But I’m an impatient guy. So let’s expedite the process. I’ll write a blog about it. And like all inequality, things will not change overnight.
An unnamed male player commented that ”[men] know how to turn it on when we have to.” Knowing how to turn it on suggests something that I can almost understand but it’s still too abstract. There is no actual turning on of anything. There is no knowing in this scenario. This is a lazy metaphor like ”the heart knows what it wants”. (I hate lazy metaphors.) But again, I kind of get where he’s going with that sentence. What I think he means to say is “we have more experience being competitive.” This is a traceable theory.
The Solution is Easy
Narrow the gap. For every session that both men and women play bocce ball, the less that my three years of rec league basketball translate to winning at bocce. Direct experience is more important than transitive experience. But transitive experience trumps lack of experience.
The best chance a team has to win a championship is to field four consistently good players. In the beginning, a player could get hot at the right time and carry a team. In the middle, if you had a good player on each side you were as chalk as they come. But as the leagues have evolved, the play has gotten better and better and what it really comes down to is having four players that won’t make crucial mistakes or go on extended cold streaks.
When our unnamed and perhaps mildly chauvinistic friend talked about turning it on, he was referencing that point in competition where you draw from your experiences and become a more competitive player. Again, this isn’t a male vs. female mindset. It’s people who are used to doing this (Vanessa) vs. people who are not.
So do you want to know how to turn it on? Would you like to know what happens when I activate that secret switch resting between the my cerebellum and my beer and football lobe?
I take a deep breath. If the music is 90’s hip hop or R&B (let’s face it, when is it not?) I bob my head a little. And I just react to the game. There’s a few areas of focus that I run through when I’m playing. Even when I’m watching others play, actually. And male or female I’m happy to share it with you! Step into the light:
Play to Your Opponent’s Weaknesses – Pick up on an area of the court that your opponent isn’t comfortable with and pepper that spot.
Keep All Balls on the Board – Unless your opponent is out of balls and the pallino is near the back wall, never ever ever throw a ball that gets pulled. Bonus – it’s better on the referee’s back!
Adjust, Then Readjust – For some reason you’re throwing everything long today? Switch up your throwing style. There’s a curve in the court? Throw to the other side. Even better – study the curve and throw right at it; forcing your opponents to keep up with your mid-game adjustments.
Limit Damage – Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. If your first ball got knocked to the back and your next two were whiffs on hammers, throw a close ball in front of the pallino on your fourth. If you lose a frame, make sure it’s by two or less.
Form a Pre-shot Routine – A quick mental checklist will help avoid those hazy moments where you throw without intent or focus. Right before he releases every ball, Ben (who happens to be one of the best bocce players I’ve ever seen) says to himself, “throw it lighter than you think.” Every time!
Throw with Confidence – Any hesitation will fight against your muscle memory and form hitches or imbalance in your toss. You’ve thrown this shot 100 times. Calmly and confidently take aim and let your body do the work.
Don’t Get Too Cozy – One of the most exploitable weaknesses is a player who throws from the same spot every time. Use all eight feet to find the right angle to nestle, hammer, or kiss.
We (Mostly) Don’t Get Hung Up On Gender
Earlier I mentioned a 2-day tournament in Delaware that Alicia helped us win. With every game that we won, we experienced more heckling and jeering from the crowd of teams that we had previously knocked out. By the championship, shit was getting rude. We were the young team from Chicago that didn’t quite belong. After a frazzled couple of frames an older woman sitting amongst our new sworn enemies yelled, “I’m rooting for the girl!”
A younger woman winning a bocce tournament consisting of 90% men meant something to the seated woman. The woman acknowledging that Alicia was the only girl in that hostile environment meant something to Alicia. As the game went on the woman defiantly cheered loudly for Alicia and Alicia played her best game of the tournament.
The world of sports has always been empowering towards males and even to this day, is prejudice towards women. And while bocce certainly isn’t the manliest of sports, it’s a sport just the same. There are forces working against females in American Bocce that are beyond our control. Sometimes you notice them. Most of the time you don’t. We don’t get hung up on gender because we haven’t had to. We’re a new school of men and women who like to compete and have a good time.
No, we don’t get hung up on gender, but like the woman in Delaware, sometimes it is nice to acknowledge it.