Just as they always have, Seattle Mixtape are carving their own path to success.
October 16, 2017 by Colin Clauset in Profile with 0 comments
Seattle Mixtape has been one of the top mixed teams in the country since their breakout 2014 Nationals performance, and this season may be their best yet. Winning both the U.S. Open and the TCT Pro Championships, Mixtape has captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown and cemented their place as the team to beat this year, earning the top seed at Nationals in the process.
And yet, for all the national attention and success over the past few seasons, the character of the Seattle team is mostly unchanged from their humble beginnings nearly a decade ago. Still a team that plays with a chip on their shoulder, they bring an attitude and swagger that stands out in the division and ride a fine line between fun and intense like few teams can. It’s a personality that seems at time at odds with itself and an unlikely recipe for sustained success.
The Edibles Incident from 2014 — which landed two players in the hospital on the eve of a national title game — is still one of the primary associations some outside observers have with this team. But anyone who has seen them fight tooth and nail for a win would hardly question their commitment to or passion for competing. A quick read through their Twitter feed reveals a team that loves to call out their own players for boneheaded moves and jokingly get into it with other teams about the best non-ultimate sports the team could play. At the same time, they will staunchly defend mixed’s place in the competitive ultimate community and try to reign in team members who take their online personas too far or provide opponents with bulletin board material.
While that identity may seem incongruous to those on the outside, Mixtape hasn’t seemed to notice. Speaking with Bert Abbott and Evan Klein, two of the captains of Mixtape this year, they described the history of the team leading up to that inaugural Nationals experience, what they have done in successive years to keep the team moving forward, and how they’ve maintained their culture, even as they’ve trained their sights on ever higher ambitions.
“People understand how to ride the balance of fun and not a little bit better now,” Abbott says. “I think the culture of ultimate is still to not take yourselves too seriously, but still try really hard when you’re out there. I think that’s a lot of where our culture comes from. Don’t take yourselves, or your teammates, too seriously!”
Rewind To 2014
2014 was a watershed year for Seattle Mixtape. Still sporting their original moniker of Ghetto Birds going into that season, the team had progressed from pickup, to regular league appearances around Seattle, to discovering there was a Club Series to play in, to deciding to practice regularly and make a push for Nationals.
The core of that Ghetto Birds team, around ten or so players who had been there since the team’s formation in 2008, was still in place in 2014, but many new pieces came in at the beginning of the year who would provide some structure and strategy to the freewheeling style. The team picked up both Abbott and Klein, as well as standouts like Drew Johnson, Khalif El-Salaam, Mark Burton, and Lucy Williams (now with Seattle Riot). Those players had years of competitive ultimate experience under their belts, and most had previously competed at Club Nationals. Many of the new male players were pulled from the emerging semi-pro scene in Seattle and a strong push to bring some of the top female talent in the city into the fold resulted in a very different team from years past, but one that kept true to the team’s philosophy of trusting players to win their individual matchups.
“I’d played with D’Oh before and I remember making the decision between the two teams. I’ve noticed that [Mixtape] plays with four women a lot, and noticed we had a lot of success with women throwing to one another [as opposed to on other teams],” said Abbott. “That essence of trusting anyone to win their matchup is something that is core to the team. If they think you’re athletic and you can win your matchup, you’re getting the disc.”
Looking back on that 2014 Mixtape team, blindly trusting the athleticism of their teammates was a hallmark of the squad, and that kind of trust has been in place ever since. “For a long time, there was trust in individuals to do certain things, like ‘We need someone to catch a skyball, we trust Khalif to do it,’” said Klein.
One of the key differences starting in 2014, though, was an element of structure and intention.
Structure was an unfamiliar concept to the Mixtape core. To that point, the team had eschewed focused practices, warm-ups, or any kind of specific offensive or defensive sets; as the Ghetto Birds, mini or a scrimmage were as organized as it got. Both Abbott and Klein pointed out a lot of initial resistance from the team to do the things needed to accomplish that goal of getting to Nationals. Having new teammates who had been there before — and keeping that final goal in mind — was what helped push Mixtape to adopt structure and focus on the things they needed, despite many of the core players not having any elite-tier experience whatsoever.
But while that focus helped them achieve their goal of earning a spot at Nationals, Mixtape weren’t making any drastic changes to their off-field culture or their affinity for highlight-reel play. They rampaged through the tournament putting on a showcase of big-plays — seemingly without even noticing the stage or their opponents — while just having fun with their friends playing ultimate. As Ultiworld noted in our recap of Mixtape’s1 upset semifinal victory over Wild Card:
It only took a few minutes for Seattle Mixed to go from celebrating their upset victory over a team that had been killing it all weekend to resuming their game of mini. If a random person walking by didn’t know what had just happened, they probably would have assumed the shirtless youth laughing and joking around had just won some kind of consolation game and were still excited about making it to Nationals.
It was in this atmosphere that the infamous edibles incident occurred. But even as the team reckoned with polarized external feedback in the aftermath of that event, they were quick to point out that the decision of some teammates to engage in mid-tournament drug use didn’t mean they don’t take their team or the game seriously.
While the fun-loving party culture is alive and well with Mixtape — Klein joked that “We closed down the Curling Club in Minnesota [at the U.S. Open]!”, and Cam Bailey reminisced about it being Mark Burton’s birthday the first day of Nationals in 2014 and closing down the Olive Garden buying rounds of shots — the team understands more how to ride the balance of having fun and not going overboard.
“At tournaments, it’s difficult wrangling people; the mentality is still that we’re all doing this to have fun,” Klein remarked. “Everyone still wants to stay up late, everyone wants to hang out, get a beer after games. It’s a matter of allowing people the space to be themselves, and ride the balance.”
Fast-Forward To 2017
But a funny thing happens when you start achieving success on the national level: outside expectations often begin to be thrust upon you. As your success and failures become ever more public and prominent, it can be tough to stay focused on and true to yourself.
In talking to Mixtape’s leadership now about how they’ve grown over the past few seasons in the spotlight, trust and intention were mentioned over and over again by both captains, and the two themes go hand in hand.
“I think there’s been a lot more intention behind how we BUILD trust. It’s always been about believing in ourselves and our athleticism, but I think it’s also about putting systems around it, naming things, and talking to each other when there are miscommunications to help elevate ourselves,” according to Abbott.
Since their breakout season, the focus has been mostly on refining and reinforcing existing on-field concepts, all while maintaining that same sense of trust in teammates. This season emphasized systems, particularly on offense, and putting trust in those systems to help them out of rough spots as much as brilliant individual highlights. Watching the team during the Pro Championships, it was remarkable to see the team’s willingness to work on several different sets throughout their games, regardless of how much they were ahead or behind.
When talking about previous seasons, Klein admitted that Mixtape “felt like our D-line could get multiple breaks, but we would HAVE to do that to win a game. In the past, we’ve been quicker to throw our D-line out there if the O-line gets broken a few times.”
During this season, however, the team was intentional about emphasizing other changes to help get back into a game. Whether that be changing the gender ratio, changing the offensive set, or working through a different pull play, the team shifted from moving away from a specific set of people and instead worked on providing teammates second opportunities and supporting them through any miscues that may have happened the previous points. That support may come in many different forms, as Mixtape does not force a specific kind of interaction among teammates. But don’t get carried away believing this has turned the team in a more mature, sedated version of their previous selves.
“If you stand on the sidelines for one of our scrimmages, you’d probably hear three or so different groups yelling at each other, profanity included, and then afterwards everyone is still high-fiving,” Abbott comments.
The team gives each individual the opportunity to find what style works best for them to break through communication barriers, with an emphasis now on communicating in the moment instead of putting off the conversation. According to Abbott, “There’s more willingness to back up and present perspective after being frustrated. There is a lot of adrenaline flying around, and it can get heated, so we do have a few people who act as mediators, but others we give the space to let them sort it out.”
“The team is also very good at being self-deprecating. Someone will usually interject with a joke or rag on somebody. Everyone has a story that they can use to make fun of themselves or redirect. For the most part, everyone takes shit pretty well,” said Klein.
Mixtape’s focus on letting individuals be themselves, and having that supported within the team, helps them stand out in a sport that tends towards each team conforming to a single state of being. The team had never held open tryouts prior to this year, and has never cut a returning player in their history.
In a crowded Seattle ultimate scene, the team’s culture helped separate themselves from the crowd. Several of their new pickups had been actively trying out for multiple teams, on the fence between a single-gender team and Mixtape. Giving those players the space to express themselves and let a conversation get heated in the moment, while knowing everyone will come together when they step onto the field, is a rare quality for many elite teams. In the eyes of Abbott and Klein, it is a quality that helped them bring in the players they did.
“I think a lot of us getting the players we did this year has a lot to do with us having a bit of swagger and playing with a chip on our shoulder, and letting individuals be themselves,” said Abbott.
Mixtape has come a long way from that first breakout season, though as Klein quipped, “We’re just one bad batch of brownies from where we started!”
These days, many of the top mixed teams in the country seem intent on pushing the division forward and away from being perceived as the throwaway younger-sibling version of the single-gender divisions. But despite their position at the forefront of the season’s storylines, Mixtape doesn’t necessarily see themselves as standard-bearers for the division. The team remains focused on themselves, committed to pushing the limit of playing hard while also partying hard.
“We decided at the beginning of this year that yes, we were going to try our hardest to win a championship, but that we wouldn’t let that be at the expense of our personal well-being,” elaborated Abbott. “And for most of us, tournaments are the only vacations we can afford, so hell yes, we’re going to enjoy ourselves while we’re there, in whatever form that may take.”
“We have a cool opportunity to push the cusp of the division while showing that the division and sport can still be incredibly fun and lighthearted!” Klein brags.
To that end, they will continue to be outspoken about whatever they happen to be into, whether it be why the value of mixed in the elite ultimate community or comparing various teammates to characters from “The Wire.” While they would be happy to see other teams attempt to emulate their style, changing outside perceptions has never been an explicit goal of theirs.
They are still a team that thrives on energy, leaning on a few players to provide a relentless positivity and belief that they can overcome any obstacle, and a group that enjoys themselves both on and off the field. But this season, more so than any other, they have found the right balance. Trusting their players, their systems, and having intent behind how they play and how they interact has paid off handsomely this year, and we can expect the team to continue pursuing on-field excellence and celebrating their success just as emphatically off-field.
Already boasting some impressive tournament wins this season, Seattle Mixtape seems primed for another shot at the top.