How Should We Think About Mixed? Teaching Skill Development Alongside Coed Ultimate

Goucher ultimate.Editor’s note: Simon wrote this column months ago, but we’ve been waiting for the right time to publish it. Given the discussion started in yesterday’s Mailbag, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share a more nuanced and thoughtful look at the Mixed Division, from the perspective of a college player and coach.

The huck should have never gone up, but it looked like she had a chance.

Our girl was tall, agile, and knew how to cut. Even with the trajectory placing her catch near the back of the endzone, it was going to come down to the last second. Then out of nowhere, her boyfriend (playing for the other team) launched himself over her outstretched hands, cleanly macked the disc out of the end zone, and trucked his better half in the process.

No one was hurt, but our alumni sideline erupted in the usual heckling boos while the college kids burst into cheers.

In the sports I played growing up (soccer, basketball, lacrosse), my teams were almost exclusively gendered. In the few cases where leagues were coed, we still had referees running amongst us with an objective viewpoint. It wasn’t until I found ultimate (in a more unbridled form) at Goucher College, that I found myself competing without separate officials, with women both on my team and many opposing teams.

To many of us, the coed team was exciting and new. The presence of women on and off the field had a profound effect on team culture and attitude. Gender lines blurred in some cases, and became clearer in others. We adjusted to pregame agreements on following the gender ratio rules, and struggled to see each other on the field in equal light. For me at least, learning to play with the women on my college team meant a lot more than throwing differently — it meant developing trust in ways that I couldn’t have fathomed at a younger age.

At Goucher, we had team history as a guide. All of the fun happened in the fall. Rookies bonded with veterans at Halloween tournaments, in naked points, at bonfires deep in campus woods, and through endless games of Wah! and Miniature Tanks. If it hadn’t been for the men and women I met through Ultimate that first semester, I may not have survived my tense long-distance relationship, tolerated my drug-dealing and deeply disturbed first semester roommate, or managed to pass all my classes. Suffice it to say, the camaraderie I found through Ultimate set the tone for the rest of my college career.

In the spring, everything changed. I was too new to the sport to sense anything other than an added sense of intensity at my first sectionals, where the Goucher men were handily dispatched by all of our opponents, all of whom were better, taller, and had more players. Open was different, a bit more nerve-racking, and felt much more serious than my experiences in the fall[5]. When all was said and done, nothing felt more satisfying than hosting Goucher’s first spring tournament, where we returned to our chosen mixed format and everything felt right again.

It wasn’t until a few seasons later, when my rather large rookie class had held the reins of our club and improved a ton on the field, that I began to really take notice of the disparity[6]. No matter how you looked at it, men were usually taller and almost always heavier than women on the field. In most cases, they jumped higher and threw further.

As we grew in the sport, we grew differently. Simply by nature of the relaxed college format (5/2 or 4/3), men dominated the field in number. Many teams struggled to find enough women to play, and newer female players often found themselves banished to parts of the field team leaders had less control over[7]. In many cases, men took it upon themselves to change the outcome of games, often through aggressive plays.

Looking back, this leaves me with some serious questions about the nature of Mixed and how it can hurt or help all players. How many young men are learning at critical points in their growth in Ultimate that aggressive plays involving women will get them booed?[8] How many young women are learning to back off a deep cut and let a male teammate haul it in?[9]

Are women playing mixed really being taught to play as hard within the rule set as they can? Are men aware that our mere presence or intensity is shaping the way women learn how to react on the field?

Finally, I want to question my entire experience playing mixed in college: Will women playing in 5/2 or 6/1 situations ever learn how to compete to the best of their ability?

Part 2

Mixed may very well be Ultimate’s ticket to greater visibility. To watch an elite mixed team is to see a group of people take on the inherent difference in male and female athletic abilities and adapt them into winning competitive strategies. All players must adjust to different cutting styles, player height, and throwing ability. Coaches face the additional challenge of gender ratio. It’s a beautiful thing.

Conventional channels that lead to Ultimate, however, do not come through coed youth sports[10]. Ultimate captains and coaches are always searching for new athletically gifted kids to join their team. We poach them from Soccer, Track, Basketball, and many other high school varsity sports. We poach, because as Ultimate has increased in speed and explosiveness, those of us teaching in the sport want to spend a lot less time teaching basic athletic movement, and a lot more time teaching pull plays to already experienced athletes. Poaching makes sense, and no one criticizes us for doing it[11].

When we build these teams out of hyper-competitive athletes from other sports at the high school level, we end up with young men and women that are conditioned to compete without each other. What’s more, when we find these great athletes, we want to incorporate them onto the team to help us win -but do they know how to win when they play win the opposite sex?

We learn fundamentals to other sports in coed settings[12], but we learn how to win on traveling and varsity teams. Coaches pursue the elusive focus and team cohesion that results in winning, but almost always on gendered teams outside of Ultimate. When we convince these athletes to join us, does anyone spend time addressing the issue of competing to win across those lines of convention?

Part 3: 4/3 5/2, Offense Dictates

My last question in Part 1 poses perhaps the greatest challenge to mixed ultimate at any developmental level after athletes have been shaped by competitive gendered teams. Will women learn how to play to the best of their abilities at mixed tournaments where the ratio is simply “5/2 or 4/3 offense dictates”? Difference in physical abilities may compromise game play from time to time, but will we see women making tough, critical movements off the disc if they aren’t thrown to?

A loose ratio doesn’t suggest favoritism explicitly, but it implies in on the field. Without an established female handler dictating movement of the disc on offense, or an experienced female defender making big plays to get noticed, newer male players shaped by other sports just won’t see their female teammates.

Limited mathematics will also demonstrate that it is statistically less likely for male players to see their women open on the field in a loose ratio situation. A male player with the disc in a 5/2 situation is twice as likely to see another male teammate open than he is a female teammate. In a 6/1 format, he’s five times as likely to see another male teammate than he is a female. There are less opportunities to throw to a woman in addition to a male athlete already being conditioned to look for other male players.[13] As a result, women in a developmental setting are going to be seen less, get fewer touches create an entirely different field sense as a result[14].

***

I took on a new role of influence back at Goucher this year: my roommate MC and I are co-coaching the women’s team[15]. Our initial goal was to take our combined experience and bring it to one practice a week plus tournaments. We’d take almost all the strategic and technical burden off of our captains, and leave them as emotional leaders and team organizers. In our first tournament since a very disappointing showing at Regionals last spring, the women won two games on Sunday and showing great improvements.

We make many of our choices based on the experiences MC and I had as Goucher players. Between the two of us, we’re able to combine perspectives on both sides of this issue: I had trouble seeing new female players and may have unintentionally marginalized their development, and she faced that challenge with most new male throwers we brought onto the mixed team. Speaking for myself, the last wish I’d have for any of our players would be for them to hate mixed. Rather, I want to give them a chance to learn and play as hard as they can in a balanced environment, one where the ratio doesn’t add to the confusion of absorbing an entirely new sport.

Through performing normal coaching duties and allowing our captains to handle team culture and development[16], I hope to create with MC a crop of Goucher players that will compete well, know the rules, and be ready to play in any environment -mixed or split. What’s changed? I believe fully that given the circumstances, Mixed ultimate isn’t a place for women to develop their fundamentals. As a male player, I feel I may have inadvertently contributed to some growth-stunting.

Conclusion

I don’t want to attribute my reasons for leaving the dream of competitive mixed ultimate behind[17] to guilt. On the contrary, I want to finish these thoughts by proposing two questions to the Ultimate community at large:

With our systems of athletic development for youth and college players arranged how they are, will mixed ever be a good place to grow our new players? Should men and women be practicing their fundamentals separately and then bring a balanced and working knowledge of the game to the added challenge of playing with the opposite sex?

I’m left at the bottom of this column wondering more than ever about the conventions around athletic development and how we teach competition. Is it okay that sidelines all over the world boo male players for skying females? As we grow in culture and begin to ask questions about how our sport should be seen in the light of ESPN, what is it about Mixed Ultimate that we should be changing, if anything?

***

I learned more than I can explain to anyone from my college Ultimate career. Those early mornings and wild nights all over the eastern seaboard taught me a lot about who I was, how I played, and who I could be -but I came away without some major skills in Ultimate, some that I’ve only now developed after a few partial and one full year at the club level. If I could do it all over again, would I do it the same way? I just can’t say for sure.


[1] Oh, the glory days of YMCA basketball!

[2] Landsharks.

[3] Nothing more awkward than breaking up with a handler and dating a cutter.

[4] At Goucher, we played Buck Buck, a game rather poorly adapted from Bill Cosby’s 1975 albumRevenge. Without going into great detail, this game should only be played at the end of your tournament weekend.

[5] Ok fine, I was 5’6”, chubby, and a little bit scared.

[6] Humor me. Disparity is literally the opposite of parity, which is a state of equality. I’m not suggesting that the presence of women takes away from the parity of a game -the disparity is created by different physical attitudes and styles of play.

[7] As we learned Zone, we almost always put our women on the wings because we were yet to understand how each position was to function, on both O and D. In the DIII game, where we spent most of our time trying to learn how to move the disc through the focal points of offensive sets, little merit was offered for the wing position -it was the furthest away from the action our minds, and thus, where we stuck the people we didn’t trust to catch and throw. This unfortunately ended up being women with less experience.

[8] Guys, you’ve been there. Anyone decide they disliked Mixed a result?

[9] Ladies, I’m not knocking you for this. If you’re less sure you can make a play, and there’s a taller, stronger player on your team gunning for the same position, is there anything wrong with slowing up?

[10] Except for YMCA ball! Those were the days.

[11] Except the other varsity sports. Oops, sorry Coach.

[12] Sports day camps in the summer: hot, intense, and riddled with pre-teen angst -that was just the bus ride.

[13] If she’s the dominant handler or high profile defender we talked about, it would skew the statistics. Then again, how often do we see those players in the world of developmental mixed ultimate?

[14] There’s nothing inherently wrong with women wanting to start out playing mixed, the same way that there isn’t anything wrong with mixed in general. The critical point here is that players are developing without a strict fairness enforced by a more favorable gender ratio.

[15] When you don’t have money to give back to your alma mater, give time.

[16] Other DIII programs can attest to how critical development and retention of new players is to the existence of small school teams.

[17]There’s always Fool’s Fest and the beach.

  1. Simon Pollock
    Simon Pollock

    Simon Pollock is a Contributing Editor at Ultiworld. He lives in Seattle and started writing for the site in 2014 while living in Baltimore, MD. Email him: simon@ultiworld.com or tweet at him: @_simonpollock_ .

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