Assessing Three Key Questions About Playing Ultimate While Pregnant

The author shares what she learned from her research and first-hand experience playing ultimate during her first pregnancy.

The author, playing at 18 weeks pregnant. Photo credit: Dharanidharan Ramamurthy
The author, in white, playing at 18 weeks pregnant. Photo credit: Dharanidharan Ramamurthy

This article was written by guest author Katie Huston, a member of Cape Town’s Ghost Ultimate Club and the South African mixed masters national team.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I knew I would have to step off the South African mixed masters’ team headed to WMUC in September.1 But I didn’t want to give up playing immediately. Ultimate is something that brings me joy and makes me feel like me. As I entered a phase of life that would include a lot of changes, I wanted to hang onto this one thing as a constant.

I’d always heard that if you’re active before pregnancy, you can safely continue most of the same activities for a while. My mom played ultimate until she was five months pregnant with me.

South African Regionals would fall at 19 weeks into my pregnancy — just under halfway. That seemed like a good endpoint to plan towards, though I was willing to stop at any point if playing became medically unsafe or no longer felt good. But I needed to figure out whether, how, and for how long I could play safely. And, even after I’d done my research, I was nervous about whether I would feel supported by my community.

There was a lot of discussion on Reddit a few months back about when a pregnant woman should stop playing ultimate — or whether she should be playing at all. Is it a woman’s right to decide what she does with her body, full stop? Is it unfair to play when pregnant if it makes opponents or teammates nervous? What are the real risks of playing when pregnant, and what should pregnant women do to play safely? (This isn’t the first time it’s been debated: this July 1995 article in the UPA newsletter debriefed the question thoroughly.)

I don’t wish to suggest that the decisions I made are the right ones for everyone. Pregnancy, and how it feels to a female athlete, can vary wildly from one person (and one child) to the next. I have a specific set of ultimate experiences, and am playing in a particular context: a competitive, mixed-gender league in Cape Town, South Africa that caters to many different skill levels, from beginners to multi-campaign Worlds veterans.

But in a sport that often prides itself on pursuing gender equity and inclusion, there is space and a need for us to move beyond theoretical arguments (is it fair for one person’s rights to infringe on another’s?), generalized fears (is any contact at all dangerous to a fetus?), and anecdotes (so-and-so played until seven months and her baby was fine) to have a constructive, practical conversation about playing ultimate when pregnant.

Three key questions I think we should be asking are:

  1. What are the real risks of playing ultimate while pregnant, and how significant are those risks?
  2. What can pregnant players do to play safely?
  3. What can other players do to support the safe inclusion of pregnant players?

What are the real risks of playing ultimate while pregnant, and how significant are those risks?

When I started researching whether I could keep playing ultimate, I encountered some concern on message boards and social media that any contact could harm a fetus or lead to miscarriage.

The instinct to protect the health of an unborn baby comes from a good place. But it’s useful to think about this using accurate, ultimate-specific information about the risks the sport could pose to a developing fetus, and to what degree.

To be clear, I am not a doctor — though I would love to see a doctor write this column! When I asked doctors about this, I learned quite a lot. And what I learned made me feel safer and more confident to continue playing.

The first rule: consult your doctor or gynecologist. Every pregnancy is different, and conditions like cervical shortening or premature dilation could make playing unsafe, says Dr. Andrea Mendelsohn, MD, MPH, an American family physician based in Cape Town. If you’re having twins, you also need to take special care.

If you’re lucky enough to have a straightforward pregnancy, you probably don’t want to up the intensity of your training, but if you were playing competitively before, you should be able to continue for a while. “The general rule of pregnancy and sport is: do what you did before but don’t push it. Don’t try anything new. And stop if it hurts,” says Dr Mendelsohn.

But pregnancy is not an illness or an injury. “You don’t have a medical condition if your medical provider says you are healthy,” says Dr Cathleen O’Farrell MD MPH, a doctor based in Oregon whose daughter is a competitive ultimate player. “If your doctor says [your pregnancy is] normal, then it takes a broken bone, dehydration, or a full layout with all your weight on the baby to affect a pregnancy.”

Running in pregnancy is safe for most women, and has many benefits. In fact, Dr Mendelsohn points out, exercise during pregnancy can reduce the risk of some pregnancy complications, including instrumental delivery, gestational diabetes, and pre-eclampsia.

What about contact? “Running into or bumping another player won’t hurt the baby; it is protected by your pelvis,” says Dr O’Farrell.

Dr Mendelsohn agrees that the key thing is to avoid significant impact directly to the fetus. “You just don’t want to get punched or elbowed or hip-checked directly in the belly,” she says. The kind of contact that could be dangerous to a fetus, by and large, is the kind of significant impact that could also seriously injure a non-pregnant player.

Has this kind of a collision ever happened in the history of our sport? Of course. But choosing to lay out is within a pregnant player’s control. The likelihood of contact with another player depends on the league and level of play, but the chance of severe impact directly to the stomach is very low (and would be a significant foul). “Driving to a tournament and getting into a car accident is more likely [than hurting your baby playing ultimate],” says Dr O’Farrell.

Personally, I was comfortable that if I gave the layouts a miss, the risk of hurting my baby was exponentially lower than many other risks I accept in course of my life and pregnancy.

That’s not to say this is the right choice for everyone. Some pregnant players may feel that no amount of risk is tolerable, or might find they feel nervous regardless of what their doctor says — and there’s nothing wrong with taking a break. But it was the right choice for me.

At 17 weeks, I was receiving an up-the-line pass near our end zone when I saw a man on the other team hurtling towards me to make a bid for the D. Instinct kicked in — instead of attacking the disc, I stopped running, subconsciously clocking that impact would be less significant if I was stationary. I reached out a hand and caught the disc just as he hit my shoulder.

Contact! I thought — the thing I’d been trying to avoid. I paused for a moment as my brain whirred: Am I supposed to be concerned right now? But I’d hardly stumbled. Our contact was probably less jarring than the pounding of my cleats on the field. Almost counterintuitively, the incident made me more confident to continue playing.

What can pregnant players do to play safely?

Here, doctors’ advice again comes first. If you’re sick, don’t play. It’s important to avoid overheating or dehydration. Dr O’Farrell advises that you should hydrate until you are peeing dilute urine.

Pre-pregnancy training heart rates vary from person to person, but Dr O’Farrell says it’s wise to track your pulse with a heart monitor and keep it in the same training range you would have before you were pregnant.

Beyond that, although it would take significant contact or impact to hurt a fetus, I am not particularly eager to run into someone — and I recognise that no one wants to run into me! A question I’ve asked myself is: “What can I do to reduce or avoid contact?”

As I’ve continued playing, I’ve avoided layouts. When three people are going up for a disc, I don’t throw myself into the fray.
Making these adjustments hasn’t been hard for me; I was not an innately aggressive athlete when I started playing. For players who love putting their body on the line, it might be harder to rein it in. Seventeen weeks into her own pregnancy, one of my friends switched to tennis shoes because she knew the change in footwear would remind her to hold back a bit.

For some women, pulling back may be worse than not playing at all. Another friend stepped out after 11 weeks, because she didn’t like playing when she couldn’t play her best.

How to play safely is influenced by a player’s own playing style, and the level of competitiveness and contact expected in her team and league. But how to do so safely should be a decision she makes herself, not a decision that others make for her.

What can other players do to support the inclusion of pregnant players?

“Other players” falls into two categories: opponents and teammates.

As an opponent, the best thing you can do for a pregnant person is to respect and be supportive of her decision to play. Remember, any level of aggression or style of play that is dangerous for her would also be dangerous for any other opponent. If you’re playing safely within the rules, you don’t need to make any special accommodations for someone on the field who is pregnant.

At the same time, it’s fair if not everyone feels equally comfortable matching up against a pregnant opponent. A few years ago, my team played against a pregnant woman at a tournament. A few of my teammates were nervous about marking her, so we were intentional about choosing our matchups and called switches accordingly. This put our team more at ease while still respecting the woman’s decision to continue playing.

When it comes to how teammates can support pregnant players, I need to give a shout-out to my team, Ghost Ultimate Club. The way they approached my pregnancy offers a great example to other teams.

Once I started sharing the news at 13 weeks, I asked our female captain to lead a discussion when I was not present to see how people felt about me playing. If my teammates didn’t trust my judgment or feel comfortable with me on the field, I knew I would struggle to play hard or enjoy myself.

My teammates agreed that if I had medical approval to play, they would support me to participate for as long as I wanted to — but that my health would always come first, and I should never feel obligated to play, even if we were low on numbers. This gave me confidence that the team trusted my decisions. It also meant I could assess whether I want to play each day based on how I felt, which meant I was free to make the right decision for me and my baby.

On day one of Regionals, when the temperature soared to nearly 90 degrees, I decided it was safest to take my cleats off and support my team from the sideline for the last game and a half. I was glad I did – I would have been too nervous to play hard or have fun if I’d kept going, and the next morning I felt strong and ready to give it my all.

Another useful question is: “Are there any adjustments we can make to strategy or on-field roles to support pregnant players?” My coaches and captains checked in every few weeks around this. Four months into my pregnancy, I asked to stick to playing wing in Zone D, and to handle when we ran an offense with handler/cutter roles.

On D points, captains also gave me the first choice of who to mark. This let me avoid one-on-one matchups with new players who were still developing body control or opponents who play a particularly physical game. This is admittedly easier in my 10-team league, where many of us have played together for years and there are fewer unknowns.

Beyond that, my teammates checked in regularly to see how I was feeling, but not so often that they made me feel like they were worried. When I said, “I feel great!,” they smiled and high-fived me, and we headed to the line to chase another pull together.

By listening to my body, and with my team’s support, I made it to Regionals. I may not have been as quick or agile as if I’d been training for Worlds, but I didn’t hold back.

Playing a tournament nearly halfway through my pregnancy made me feel powerful and strong. It gave me confidence that my body is also capable of its next great physical challenge: growing and birthing a baby.

And it gave me hope that when it’s safe for all of us to play ultimate again, and when I’m ready to come back, this game I love will be here waiting for me.

  1. Or at least that was the plan while it was still scheduled. 

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