This season I had the great joy and occasional exasperation of coaching the Monstars Division 1 Mixed team for AMUC. Ash McInnes, one of our gender equity reps for the season wrote an excellent article before nationals about how our team was promoting gender equity.
Initially, I was going to add a strategic perspective. I quickly realised how stupid this was a few weeks before the competition, so decided to write a postmortem instead. We’ve learned a lot this season, both as a club and individuals. Here are five things we’re taking away (also yes all our strategy, you’re welcome).
Gender equitable mixed is good strategy
First of all, let’s look at what is good about mixed. I think it’s uniquely exciting and dynamic because women and men play differently, both in style (women generally work tighter angles and throwing windows, men cover space quickly and use lots of it for cutting and throwing) and overall height and speed.
So, what’s good mixed? Most people agree that good mixed is about using every player, male and female, to their full capacity on-field. It makes sense; a team of 7 performs better than a team of 3 or 4. Wild. We took that a step further, and started exploring what genuine opportunities were available to a mixed team beyond just allowing women to be dominant and do their thing on-field.
So what did we do?
We used women in atypical positions in a zone. We’re used to playing mixed with a male mark, women in a cup or on the wing, and a male deep so playing differently allowed us to disrupt the offence
We used cross gender matches on defence, which allowed us to massively load height and speed mismatches
We used people’s sexism shamelessly against them. We had a repeat scenario of putting a female defender on their most dominant male handler, who then got his ego all tangled up in things and demanded every second pass. The outcome was often frustration because our defenders were good, and messy offence because he was getting over involved in the play.
Confirmation bias is one of the biggest barriers to gender equity in ultimate
Confirmation bias is the thing all humans do where we hold a belief and then try and interpret all new information to fit this. If someone believes that women are not as good as men at sport, they will tend to ignore the evidence of women being boss athletes and incredibly effective in cross gender matches on-field, and mentally inflate the times they got beaten to the disc or skied. Even personally I found it a constant battle to stick to our playing values at the tournament, because our strategy challenged a lot of assumptions I’ve been taught over years about women in sport and ultimate. It was also new strategic territory for all of us, and there were definitely times it didn’t work out. We pushed through.
Screaming “mismatch” from the sideline when a woman marks your male player makes you look like an idiot
First of all, literally every time I’ve matched up a woman on a man in a game she’s been effective in some regard. Sure, sometimes she’s been scored on, but she’s always made his life difficult. See point above. Secondly, do you scream “mismatch” every time a man a bit shorter or slower matches up on your taller/faster male player? Probably not, because it’s a rubbish strategy. Deciding you’re going to play exclusively through your one cross gender match is generally not well thought through. Are they a cutter? Are you now expecting them to break marks and swing discs all day? Are they actually that much better to warrant the cost of completely re-patterning your offence and trying to go through one player?
Not everyone will buy in, and that’s okay
Overall, the team was great and maintained trust in principles I laid out through the season, even when we had teething problems or lost points at the tournament. Some players struggled with the concepts and were frustrated by how the team was run, both before and at the tournament. My big learning from this was to not shy away from seeking and engaging with their opinions, even if I was afraid of what they would say.
Losing the respect of my players, particularly older male players, was a significant source of stress throughout the season, and I think that led me to dictate principles more than discuss them. Sometimes you have to put your foot down on your decisions for the team, but I think this is a topic that requires people to feel listened to and valued, whatever their perspective.
You can apply these principles to all levels of ultimate
The real challenge came with the Queensland u22 Mixed team I coached last weekend. Would these ideas be applicable to a different age group, with very little time and preparation? I’d worked with Monstars for months, discussing gender equity and getting (almost) everyone on the same page. I literally met my team the morning of the tournament, and we had a meeting to discuss gender equity and how we wanted to play mixed.
I was absolutely delighted with how the team embraced the challenge, with maturity and thoughtfulness. They successfully executed cross gender matches on defence, cut for their female handlers and dumped the disc back to them, supported and respected their female teammates in leadership positions. I couldn’t be prouder of this team, and concluded that these strategies for mixed aren’t just reserved for the AUL and Div 1 but all levels. So go shake up your league teams!
The most rewarding thing over the last few months has been watching female players emerge as more confident on the field, taking ownership of their space and their right to dictate play. I watched them become more comfortable calling lines and leading teams. Regardless of the strategy and scoring more points, this is the real reward of playing good gender equitable ultimate.