Players weigh in on the ongoing conversation happening within the division about how to become more gender equitable.
April 17, 2020 by Jenna Weiner in Analysis with 0 comments
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The mixed division at 2019 Club Nationals saw some of the biggest upsets of the tournament on Day One, only for chalk to relatively reassert itself as Philadelphia AMP repeated as champions. Along the way, teams such as no.16 seed Asheville Superlame and no.9 seed Fort Collins shame. outperformed expectations with runs to T7th place and T3rd place, respectively. Meanwhile, the no.4 and no.5 seeded teams for Boston — Wild Card and Slow White — were out after prequarters. As they do most years, these topsy-turvy results as compared to seedings prompted the same question: what makes tournament performance so much harder to predict in the mixed division?
While there’s clearly no simple answer, one hypothesis was the way different teams utilized their players of different genders affected their success or failure. The mixed division has the unique challenge of accounting for players of different genders in line-calling, offensive and defensive strategies, and on- and off-field roles. This added complexity compared to the split-gender divisions leads to variations in how teams game plan, which can be a significant factor in how well they perform.
Gender equity, the idea that intentional efforts have to be made to support and include women1 in order to achieve gender equality, then plays an important role in mixed ultimate. Teams that buy into a goal of gender equity more than others may intentionally try to feature women in their on-field strategy and leadership, while other teams may play without as much consideration of gender equity, which can lead to more reliance on their male players.
While the volatile results at Nationals were the initial impetus for this piece, broadcast commentator Tony Leonardo brought gender equity squarely into the spotlight when he questioned a Durham Toro decision to feature women during the windy part of a game. The comment ignited a live discussion about gender equity during the tournament and elicited strong reactions from players in San Diego and watching at home.
The results and the commentary made for a fascinating weekend in mixed around gender equity, and so I sought out players, captains, and coaches from around the division to gather their observations. The picture they painted is one of a division making progress toward gender equity, but not consistently across all teams, leaving us with arguably more questions than answers. Some of these questions we can start to try to answer with statistics, which can help inform how the mixed division approaches gender equity going forward. The state of gender equity in mixed ultimate, though, is and has been complicated, and will continue to evolve as we start this next decade.
Gender Equity Wins Out?
In the 2019 mixed final, defending champions Philadelphia AMP faced off against San Francisco Mischief, who were so far undefeated in the tournament. Both teams were led by strong women who have been visible stars in the division for years. Raha Mozaffari and Player Of The Year Anna Thompson were on-field focal points for AMP, while Gina Schumacher and POTY runner-up Lexi Zalk were often the primary cutting pair for Mischief’s offense.
On the stats sheet, women on both sides stood out, even if their measurable statistics didn’t always outpace the men. Five of AMP’s women topped the playing time list in the final as Thompson threw the opening and winning assists. Zalk led San Francisco in goals over the course of the tournament, with O-line running mates Schumacher and Mia Bladin second and fourth in goals on the team, respectively, as well.
AMP and Mischief’s perceived equitable play stood out in the eyes of their opposition.
“I would say playing AMP, they have really great women,” said Boston Snake Country’s Kirstin Lundquist. “Getting to play teams like AMP where they will elect to go four women a bunch and will run a lot primarily through their women is really fun.”
Montana MOONDOG had the (mis)fortune of playing both AMP and Mischief in pool play, and spirit captain Sam Hines noted that both excelled in utilizing their women.
“I think Mischief probably, they were the most equitable — their women are great. Of all [the teams] we played, I would say Mischief,” said Hines, following up with, “AMP, like Mischief, also did a great job utilizing their women. It was cool watching them in the semifinal to continue to use their women in high-pressure situations, not just throughout the course of the game.”
The finalists were not the only successful teams to stand out for the balance of their play. Overall no.1 seed and semifinalists Minneapolis Drag’n Thrust also drew praise from opposing teams.
“I think Drag’n Thrust is very good about their gender equity stuff when we played against them,” said Boston Slow White’s Ryan Turner. Lundquist likewise mentioned the Minneapolis squad. “Drag’n has really good women too, and they play very good mixed ultimate so it’s a team that’s fun to root for,” she said.
In talking with Drag’n Thrust’s Sarah Meckstroth, she recognized how teams like her own, AMP, and Mischief succeeded in part because of how they used their women. “The teams that don’t particularly use their women didn’t necessarily make it as far as those that at least were perceived to. So AMP and Mischief and the longer-standing programs that do use their women, it’s really nice to see them bubble up to the top throughout the tournament,” she observed.
Outside the top four finishers, there were other teams that stood out to opponents on gender equity, including Washington D.C. Space Heater.
Last year, Space Heater made a semifinal appearance in their first season, largely on the efforts of outstanding women: Jenny Fey, Georgia Bosscher, Claire Desmond, and Sandy Jorgensen. This year, without Desmond and Jorgensen, they couldn’t quite put the same kind of run together. Still, the play of Fey, Bosscher, and the rest of the DC women stood out to their opponents, including those from Toro and San Francisco Polar Bears.
“Space Heater does a really good job working through their women,” said Toro captain Heather Zimmerman. “Their women are very, very talented, and I think their offense flows through both genders very well. So props to them, they have some really good women and they work through them.”
“We played Space Heater and they have some really elite-level women who did a lot of work for them, and they crushed it,” remarked San Francisco Polar Bears’ Matt Jaffe. His teammate Sam Applegate added, “We just know going in, like ‘cool this is a very equally stacked team and everyone can do anything.’”
Applegate and Jaffe also mentioned surprise Nationals attendees Dallas Public Enemy and Montana MOONDOG as notably using their women well when Polar Bears faced them.
Talking with MOONDOG’s Shaela Wallen, she recognized Wild Card as effectively utilizing their women as part of a broader observation about how gender equity might be perceived by women in the mixed division.
“The [Wild Card] women that I played against were [well] utilized in our game,” she said. “I feel like it’s easier to recognize teams that utilize their women more than teams that play dude-ball, because us women are guarding women, and so we know when women are getting the disc.”
Despite the numerous teams that were highlighted as gender-equitable, some of the women I spoke to expressed frustration about other teams still not playing equitably.
“I think that in general a lot of mixed teams do play a lot of dude-ball, and it can be frustrating to me to watch and to play,” said MOONDOG’s Lucy Williams.
Drawing a comparison between Drag’n Thrust and other teams, Meckstroth responded similarly. “It’s really frustrating especially for our team who really puts a lot of value on our women, to play teams that don’t,” she said. “It just feels like it’s a discredit to the entire division because it feels like teams just come to play open in the mixed division sometimes.”
The contrast between teams being acclaimed for gender equity and simultaneous feelings that other teams may not use their women as much contributed to the negative experiences of some women in the division. That dichotomy highlights the nuanced state of gender equity in mixed on and off the field.
Additionally, although AMP, Mischief, and Drag’n Thrust demonstrated how gender equity can translate into on-field success, other teams that were perceived as equitable like MOONDOG, Public Enemy, and Wild Card were all out after day one. While there may be an inclination to try and tie gender equity to on-field success, that correspondence does not show up clearly in the data.
Taking simply the percent of touches by men and women on teams that attended Nationals based on an analysis done by Charlie Enders, no team had better than a 58% to 42% ratio of touches by men vs touches by women. The best team by that measure was MOONDOG, followed by Space Heater, and then Drag’n Thrust, AMP, and Mischief, while on the other end Wild Card, and shame., and Snake Country were the least balanced.
The case of Wild Card in particular is notable because of the discrepancy between how they were perceived by the MOONDOG women and the statistical reality. Over three filmed games, Wild Card was statistically the most unbalanced team at the tournament in terms of touches, yet in at least one game the opposition’s women felt Wild Card’s women were well involved. Which is more right, the stats or the on-field perception? Given the rudimentary nature of the data collected, the answer likely falls somewhere in the middle, which speaks to the need to consider both the “eye test” and statistics together to gain a more clear understanding of whether teams are being gender equitable or not.
With the variation in on-field results between similarly gender equitable teams, both in perception and in the statistics, the question of whether gender equity matters to a team’s success is still unanswered. But should gender equity matter to a team’s success? That’s a whole ‘nother question.
However gender equity and on-field success are related, though, off the field there are still questions about how to talk about how teams are utilizing their women. This is a topic not only for those of us who write about the mixed division, but also those who commentate on it — as one brief remark at Nationals made abundantly evident.
In the third round of pool play, Washington DC Space Heater took on Durham Toro on the USA Ultimate streaming field. The wind had started to pick up earlier in the day, forcing teams and players to react to it in their strategy and line calling.
Tied 7-7 going into the last point before half, Toro came out on offense after a timeout. As the teams walked to the line, play-by-play commentator Erin Mirocha noted “Toro is gonna go four women here.” Color commentator Tony Leonardo responded, “Wow! Upwind?”
It was a brief, almost throwaway comment, and yet it caught the ire of some people who were watching the livestream.
“Hey male commentator, tell me how you really feel about women in mixed ultimate,” read another post in the Womxn in Club Ultimate Facebook group.
Those comments and others sparked a brief firestorm of controversy that eventually got back to Leonardo. He addressed it during the next game he commentated.
“Part of where we get to with the question of the Toro game yesterday, where I expressed surprise that they had run a four-women upwind set, was because Toro told us that they tend to run dude-ball and that they were trying to stop that,” he said. “So I was a little surprised for them to pull it out right at that moment when we hadn’t seen it all game on either side really.”
While Leonardo’s reaction is slightly more understandable if that were the case, there seemed to be a bit of miscommunication going on since Toro’s Mary Rippe had a different perspective on the situation.
“To clarify, Toro — specifically me, in an email to the commentators before the tournament — mentioned to the commentators that Toro used to run dude-ball, but this season have made team-wide efforts to play more equitably, with much success,” she commented on one of the Facebook threads. “So I’m not sure why he’d be shocked based on what we said.”
As the exact circumstances and reasoning behind the remark were not entirely clear during Nationals, I talked to the folks in charge of that four-women line decision, Toro captains Tristan Green and Heather Zimmerman. I asked for their perspectives on Toro’s gender equity, both in past seasons and in 2019.
“I think in the last few years we had a lot of [roster] turnover women-wise, in particular because we had been playing a lot of guy-ball. So that’s something that we specifically worked to address as a team, to set up an offense where we could get men and women involved because we have a lot of really good men and a lot of really good women,” said Zimmerman.
Green similarly described Toro’s intention to improve on gender equity this year, especially in how they practiced and set up on the field. “We knew that it was something in the past we hadn’t done as well on,” he acknowledged. “Like making sure we’re including females in our offensive structures and making sure we’re, even just in a particular practice, specifically and intentionally talking and working on cross-gender throwing and those kind of things.”
Toro, to me, did seem to improve this year in regard to gender equity.2 I even emailed them a question before Nationals about how their women appeared to be the engine of their offense. And while Zimmerman did note that Toro felt they were more gender equitable than in past years, there was still progress to be made.
“I definitely think there’s a ways to go,” she said during our conversation. “I still think in high-stall count situations, oftentimes hucks are going up to our guys. And really I don’t need things to be perfect even as a team, but I just want everyone to feel involved, and I want it to be successful for the team that we’re working against.”
“I think we’ve gotten better,” Zimmerman continued. She said that the team will still revert to playing through their men on offense when they’re panicked, but that the effort they’ve put in to openly address disparities and biases has helped. “I can tell you it’s a lot better than in the years past — we’ve really worked to address it this year, our offense, even throughout the season.”
Despite the improvement, Toro still came into that pool play game against Space Heater carrying some reputation for playing through their men, and so their strategic decision to go four women seemed out of the ordinary, at least to Leonardo. However, both Green and Zimmerman made it clear that going four women made sense in that game and in that moment.
“I think that was something we did talk about before the game. We talked about Space Heater having some strong female matches, but I think in any given point there’s kind of different strategies you’re going to use,” Green said. “I think going four women can create different spaces and they can put people in different kinds of opportunities and positions to succeed.”
As the offensive line captain, Zimmerman made the decision to have four women on the field that point. She explained her decision as simultaneously considering gender while also not making it the primary consideration.
“I guess my thought on the situation was…it was a little upwind-downwind, it was a little gusty,” she recalled. “We have Tyler [Smith] who plays on our team and she’s really good in the wind, she’s a great thrower, and [Space Heater] were coming a lot of junk and they were also trying to bracket a lot, so we thought four women keeps one of the women down there and that we could work really effectively through it. And to me gender didn’t even come into the situation. I was just looking to put our best throwers on the line and Tyler is one of our best throwers.”
Zimmerman’s thought process in that moment spotlights the role that gender does and does not play in strategic decision making. The decision to have four women on the line was a clear strategic choice in reaction to Space Heater’s bracketing, and was expressly related to specific gender matchups. At the same time, the decision to put four of Toro’s best throwers on the field wasn’t directly related to gender equity even though it had the effect of putting four women on the field.
This duality of implicit and explicit considerations of gender in team strategies complicates the picture of what gender equity looks like across the board. Does gender equity look the same for every team, as might be the case if simply having four women on the line is gender equitable, or does it take different shapes for different teams? Adding clarity could help create definitions for teams pursuing equitable play, which in turn might help commentators better inform audiences.
What Gender Equity Looks Like On The Field
Let’s start with the shape that gender equity takes on the field. A number of players highlighted the role that making space had in their teams’ efforts to be gender equitable.
“I think that AMP’s goal is to provide every teammate with the opportunity to be most successful on the field. So we’re constantly clearing space and making sure that everyone has a chance to make a hard cut out or in,” said Philadelphia’s Linda Morse.
Toro captain Green also emphasized the necessity of making space for any player to work in. “We’re making kind of strategic decisions based on what we think we can do to succeed,” he said. “And a lot of the time gender can explicitly be part of that, whether it’s just kind of saying that we’re creating this space so this person, no matter what the gender, can have a good matchup.”
Some teams notably focused on isolating either their women cutters or their women handlers, with Polar Bears prominently featuring their strong women cutters.
“I think that we on offense a lot of times see our biggest mismatches with our women cutters, just giving them lots of space to work with,” said San Francisco’s Matt Jaffe. “We had so many completed hucks to women that it was so awesome to watch the O-line converting those.”
Green also noticed the strength of Polar Bears’ women cutters when playing against them, and specifically recognized San Francisco’s strategy of often playing with only one male cutter.
“PBR only ever runs one male cutter downfield but they have Jesse [Buchsbaum] as a 6’8” just really incredible player, but they also have ‘Radar’ [Margot Stert] and [Lisa] Couper who are really good cutters as well.”
While Polar Bears’ women cutters were especially strong, other teams relied on their women handlers to be the focal points of the offense, with MOONDOG, Mischief, and Space Heater among those discussed.
MOONDOG’s Shaela Wallen shouted out some of her women handler teammates as she talked about how they helped make the mixed division’s surprise qualifiers perhaps the most gender-equitable squad in San Diego.
“I think we’re equitable in how heavily we rely on our women handlers,” Wallen began. “We have a lot of strong women handlers — we have Kari Shelkey, Lucy Williams, we have Kyla Crisp, and we rely on the three of those women handlers more than I feel like a lot of other handlers on our line even. There’s always a woman in the back on a handler line, and I feel like we rely on the handlers.”
For Mischief, while they had dynamos Zalk and Schumacher downfield, their possessions often started in the hands of one of their women handlers.
“On our team, we usually center to Caitlin Rugg who’s a female handler, a very strong player,” said Zalk. “And we’re looking to usually have strings that are either both women or a man to a woman.”
As for Space Heater, the aforementioned Fey and Bosscher led their excellent women from the handler spots, and their formidability forced teams to respond on the defensive side of the disc.
“Space Heater was the only team that we did not actively poach women off to help male matchups because of their power throwing excellence,” said Polar Bears’ coach Andrew Gallagher.
Space Heater, Mischief, and MOONDOG all relied on star women center handlers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, also came in as three of the statistically most balanced teams in terms of touches. Similarly, Drag’n Thrust and AMP, with Erica Baken and Anna Thompson as central handlers respectively, also were among the most equitable teams in their distribution of touches. Putting women in central roles on the field, then, seems to play a key role in how gender equitable a team is, at least in terms of touches.
However, while on-field strategy can be structured to be gender equitable, those structures may break down and become less balanced in tight situations — or be set-up in non-gender equitable ways in the first place.
During the second and third rounds of pool play, the wind picked up significantly, and Snake Country’s Lundquist observed how the conditions might supersede equitable decision-making and play styles.
“I think the one thing that still can be difficult is in the wind,” she offered. “Windy games tend to sink more into dude-ball just because women are generally smaller targets.”
This echoed the different perspectives offered by Leonardo and Zimmerman that underscore the nuances of defining gender equity in mixed ultimate. While Leonardo may have been considering the size of the receiving targets in gustier conditions, Zimmerman was focused on throwing talent. Captains and coaches have many reasons for making line calls and personnel adjustments as field conditions change, and calling that decision-making into question belies the complexity of the situation.
Outside of windy conditions, some teams may still structure their offensive strategies in ways that are arguably not gender equitable, something that Meckstroth notably brought up.
“It definitely feels like when we play some of those more male-centered teams that they do like a German or an isolation of one woman or two women off of a pull play, but then if you get half field or later it seems like they just really, really lock down, like their end zone is exclusively with men, most of the time.”
She continued, “[The women] are in the backline or on the sideline as soon as they cross that halfway point, and especially if they get it into the red zone, it’s just a dominator with guys a lot of times.”
This demonstrates the difficulty in trying to identify gender equitable play, since the gender ratio of players on the field doesn’t always translate to a corresponding ratio of touches between genders or structures that balance contributions. In some cases, putting women cutters in dead space could even be seen as a tactic to take an opponent’s talented women defenders out of the play. The themes of creating space and intentionally structuring offenses around women make it clear, though, that there are on-field strategies that lean into gender equity.
Developing Gender Equitable Teams Off The Field
Off the field, strategies to work on gender equity within teams are even less clear, but players noted how their teams had discussions about gender equity throughout the season.
Polar Bears captain Orion Edwards acknowledged that while they did have some meetings on gender equity during the season, there was still progress to be made.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions about gender equity through the year, we’ve had a couple at least as a whole team. I think there’s a long way to go for sure but I think we’ve met some of our goals there, and we’re striving to utilize everyone on our team effectively, and I think this tournament we did a pretty good job of running things equitably.”
For Mischief, gender equity off the field meant focusing on how to empower players and being upfront in talking about it.
“You just have to talk about it and acknowledge that it’s something that you want to focus on,” said Mischief captain Cody Kirkland. “It’s not going to happen by itself, so if you’re going to be upfront about it with your team and upfront about it throughout the season that’s the only way to really grow in that regard.”
Zalk added, “We’ve had a lot of conversations around gender equity and empowering both genders to do things that they feel comfortable doing. A lot of our conversations in the last month or so have been around how to empower people to grow as players, and that both involves people having more of a voice on the field as well as a role on the field.”
Another component that can inform how teams develop gender equitable teams off the field is the use of on-field data and statistics. Using data from film analysis or taking statistics during games can help track how touches, points, and other stats are distributed by gender and role.
Touches is arguably the fundamental offensive counting statistic in ultimate, marking which players are most involved in a team’s offense. In considering how gender equitable teams are, then, we can look at the ratio of touches by men to those of women. As mentioned earlier, even the most balanced Nationals team only achieved a 58:42 percent ratio of men touches to women touches, respectively — no others were better than a 60:40 split.
The analysis performed by Enders, though, dives more deeply into how touches are distributed, including how often a team threw cross-gender (men-women or women-men) and same-gender (men-men or women-women). He also breaks out the percent of points in which women touches equaled or exceeded men touches and, notably, no Nationals team broke 50 percent.3
Goals, assists, and blocks are some of the classic counting statistics, and while Mischief’s Zalk led the mixed division in goals at Nationals, Space Heater’s Jenny Fey was the only woman to crack the Top 10 in assists. Blocks are generally more difficult to keep track of, but overall men had more recorded blocks at Nationals than women did.
While these statistics paint a stark picture of a still fairly inequitable mixed division, they also offer promise for developing more gender equitable teams. By tracking and breaking down statistics like touches by gender, teams can better understand how they use their players of different genders. Then they can start to think about how to make changes to be more gender equitable.
There are other ways that teams can work off the field to be more gender equitable, including in how team leadership positions are distributed. Specifically, I looked at whether teams at Nationals had more men or women as captains and found that most teams either had more men as captains than women or had a balanced gender ratio of captains. Whether in captainships or in other team leadership roles, including coaching, teams that are trying to be more equitable can work to intentionally have women in visible leadership positions.
The conversations that teams have off the field lay the foundation for gender equitable play on the field, and the use of statistics can help teams track their progress. These and other considerations, such as how team leadership positions are distributed, are ways teams can work to grow and develop their gender equity strategies off the field, now and in the future.
Gender Equity in the 2020s
Mixed ultimate has only grown since its inception, and, in tandem, questions about gender equity have come to the forefront. After a volatile mixed Club Nationals, I took stock of the state of gender equity in mixed and found a remarkable blend of answers.
The top teams in the division, including finalists AMP and Mischief and semifinalists Drag’n Thrust, all stood out as leaders in gender equity — both in perception and in statistical reality. At the same time, though, teams like Space Heater, MOONDOG, and Public Enemy all struggled to make lasting impressions on the tournament despite being hailed as gender equitable, prompting a question of whether gender equity can be correlated with on-field success or not.
Statistical analysis shows that the answer is still unclear, as teams with very different on-field results had similar balances of touches between their men and their women. But the stats collected this season are just a baseline. Going forward, using similar statistics can help teams better understand how gender equitable they are and what changes they could make to lean more into gender equity going forward.
Along with the uncertain answers from statistical analysis, teams’ perceived gender equity also falls on a background in which numerous women expressed frustration and disappointment with how other teams involved their women.
The problem of gender equity is clearly not solved, and needs significant work in the coming years to make more of a division-wide impact. What will this work look like in the 2020s? Well, the examples of what teams are already doing give us some guidance.
On the field, intentionally making space for women and putting women in the center of the offense are clear places to start. Whether it’s with cutters, as with the Polar Bears and Mischief, or with handlers, as with MOONDOG and Space Heater, gender equitable offensive strategies are already readily used.
On the defensive side of the game, Polar Bears’ women poaches seemed to be one way to be gender equitable and force other teams to utilize their women more. MOONDOG also employed a similar strategy, demonstrating that defensive innovations around gender equity could give teams an edge against those that play more through their men.
These strategic aspects are all part of what gender equity might look like, but it also extends off the field to team discussions and cultural goals. Teams can get started by simply talking about gender equity and acknowledging what they do and don’t do to build it. We also now have stats for every team that appeared in an Ultiworld-filmed game this season, which can provide baseline comparison points for teams that film their own games or that want to set gender equity goals for the future.
In my reporting, I only spoke with elite teams, but beginning constructive discussions across all competition levels is perhaps the most important action going forward. More conversations will help familiarize and normalize gender equity, a key step in making progress.
We started with a question of why the mixed division was so topsy-turvy at Club Nationals this year, and while we may have some idea of the answer it’s still not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that gender equitable play the mixed division is still a work in progress. With many teams hard at work trying to recognize and incorporate gender equity, though, it’s an exciting and dynamic time to be a part of the conversation.
I recognize that gender equity is not limited to women and includes transgender and non-binary people, but for the scope of this piece gender equity is considered to be binary and focused on the role of women in mixed ultimate ↩
Toro fell right in the middle of the pack of Nationals teams in terms of equitable touches — 9th out of 16 — somewhat bearing out this perception in the stats. ↩
In fact, only one team in the division did per Enders’ analysis, Seattle Birdfruit. It should be noted that this status is based on a single filmed game and other teams may have achieved this balance but were not included in this data. ↩