The Danger of Yellow Lights

The case for outright canceling events instead of indefinitely postponing them in the age of coronavirus.

Photo: Jolie J Lang --
Photo: Jolie J Lang —

This article was written by guest author Jen Pashley, the Director of Youth Programs for Bay Area Disc and a head coach of BADA’s U20 Girls YCC team.

Two weeks ago, USAU announced that the Youth Club Championships, like other national events, would be postponed until further notice. In an email to all of the organizers, USAU staff mentioned they were “currently looking at several options for hosting a national youth tournament later this fall in conjunction with an adult Club or College event, or several regional events if a national event is not feasible.” While discussing this news with another coach, we came up with a phrase to describe this type of decision: a yellow light. While the tournament isn’t happening as scheduled, it’s not officially canceled either. Instead, there is an abstract hope that something may be possible in the future; that the light will turn green.

Yellow-light decisions keep us tethered to this false sense of hope that maybe, possibly there will be a time in the undefinable future when we can hold an event that will elicit the same feelings of excitement, competition, and camaraderie that we have always expected from these events. We are dragging parents, players, and coaches alongside this hope with no idea of if, or when, we’re stopping.

It is understandable why organizers like USAU are doing this. My organization is doing it too. They don’t want to let their community down. There are bills to pay. If there is any possibility that an event could still happen, why deny the ultimate community that chance? But there are reasons why trying to reschedule an event as large as YCC for sometime later this year is like trying to smash a wet puzzle piece into the wrong spot. There are so many logistical questions — not to mention addressing the health and safety risks this virus still poses. Questions like: will players be granted an eligibility extension? How will coaches balance playing their adult club season with coaching an extended youth season? Will newly graduated high schoolers play for their YCC team or college team in a theoretical combined event? How will school teams grow their local programs when large numbers of their players are still practicing on their summer club team? There are so many unknowns, and few answers to give because we’re dealing with an ever-evolving new reality.

While I’ve been trying to embrace this idea of the unknown, I have to admit I am failing miserably at it. I like to be neat and organized and I get upset by surprises, even good ones. I once burst into tears because my parents surprised me with a car (much to their dismay). The idea of not knowing what’s going to happen is stressful, even overwhelming at times. But that’s what happens to humans when faced with an excess of ambiguity and uncertainty: we get stressed.

I see this stress on our coaches who are grappling with organizing a season that no longer has a definitive timeline or even endpoint. I see this stress on our players, who are exhausted from all this false hope; players who are normally some of the most bought-in to our program no longer attend workouts or want to pick up a disc. I see this stress on our parents, who fear that if a tournament does happen in the fall they may have to tell their child they can’t go because of potentially getting infected and spreading the virus to high-risk family members.

Every time we get another yellow light decision it doesn’t quell our anxieties, it amplifies them. We’re keeping each other in a state of tension because we all think we need something to happen this year. But if we have to change everything about ultimate in order to feel safe, are we still playing the same sport we all fell in love with?

It’s fair to say that all of this is exhausting. Things continue to be messy and confusing and that’s difficult to sit with. What we need now more than ever is to make that light change — we can’t keep it yellow forever. Yet the struggle may not be the act of changing the light itself, but rather coming to terms with what the light must be changed to. If we turn that light red, it means we have to stop. Stop planning, stop adjusting, stop hoping. And stopping is heartbreaking. Stopping means we have to deal with the grief that we’ve been shoving to the side throughout this period of uncertainty.

Red lights also mean change, which we all fear to a certain degree. Our schedules will change; our relationships will change; our sense of identity and self will change. That’s a terrifying reality to try to embrace, but why does it have to be a bad thing? Why can’t we take a step back and try new things we would have never attempted when every weekend was filled with tournaments or practices? Why can’t we forge a new type of relationship with our teammates when we stop talking about which teams we want to beat this year or how to perfect our forehand hucks? Why can’t we sit with the discomfort of not knowing who we are without ultimate and dig through the slop to find out? We may even find new layers to ourselves that we wouldn’t have found if we stayed staring at a yellow light, all the while keeping our fingers crossed that it will turn green.

Instead, let’s start changing these lights red ourselves. It’s easy enough; we just have to have the courage to do it.

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