Click here for Part 1 - The Preface.
The concept of ‘bad’ mixed ultimate is too broad to solve. Telling our players to play better mixed, to be more inclusive or to throw to our women isn’t overly helpful in solving the gaps in our division. If we want to improve the overall quality of mixed ultimate, then we need to be clear on what the specific problems are and come up with individual solutions to tackle each one. For that reason, I’m kicking off this series by defining examples of bad mixed ultimate that I think we need to address.
Something worth calling out here is that bad mixed ultimate is gender agnostic. So, while the negative impacts of many of these examples happen to affect women more often than men, they are not exclusive to a specific gender. The examples chosen below are primarily gender neutral and illustrate the shared responsibility we all have when it comes to influencing the quality and experience of mixed ultimate.
So what does bad mixed ultimate actually look like? Unsurprisingly, bad mixed ultimate mostly just looks like bad ultimate.
Bad mixed ultimate is...
Looking off an open player because of our conscious or unconscious judgements about their value. In particular, but not limited to, not throwing to a player because of their gender, age or height. Traditionally this is the most common definition cited about bad mixed ultimate, but it is less common in practice than some of the other problems we see below. In this series I steer away from the narrow debate centred on “being looked off” in favour of tackling the broader gaps we see in the division.
Cutting into the under, break or deep space another player is already cutting for. Even if we're faster than that player, we're also dragging our defender into the space and impacting flow.
Not keeping our defender occupied. Poaching and smart use of mismatches are particularly effective strategies in the mixed game, so as offensive players it's crucial that we are aware of what our defender is doing and dictate play in a way that keeps them occupied. If they still choose to leave us free in space, then we need to recognise and punish that as early as possible.
Not recognising the strength of mismatches on our team and actively using those as part of our team strategy. Regardless of which gender or individual player has the mismatch, these mismatches are only useful if we exploit them – more on this in part 5.
Not using our players’ skill-sets and roles. I want to credit Max here with one of the most insightful points I’ve heard about why some players may not be called for the roles they play best or be used to their full potential. Even assuming the best intentions of our players and leaders, so many of us have no idea what happened during the single gender season and what role players of the opposite gender have played or want to play. This impacts us even when we've played with the same players for a few mixed seasons because it is entirely possible during one single gender season to have shifted roles or to see a dramatic change in skills/level of play. For example, it's entirely possible within one women's season for a player to have shifted their role from being an exclusive receiver to stepping up and handling for their team.
Not including balanced gender representation in leadership (line calling, captaining, brains trust). In addition to this being a good practice for gender equality and bringing the best balance of skills and personalities, this also has a huge influence on our ability to overcome the previous point. At this stage there are still more teams with male dominant leadership, which creates an environment where on balance, women are more likely to be allocated positions based on limited understanding and an incomplete assessment of skills.
Disregard for the safety of players. This impacts both genders, but more often than not given the speed, size and aggression of male players, it is men endangering women with their plays (either knowingly entering contact, or unknowingly due to lack of field awareness).
Unconscious bias surrounding judgement for mistakes. Unfortunately, there is still a perception that there is a higher stigma attached to turnovers at the hands of female players than male players in our mixed game. There are two things we can do to tackle this. First, male players can start by questioning the way they respond to individual turnovers and challenge any gender-specific discrepancy in the way they feel and react. Second, it's important for female players to recognise that a component of this issue is actually perceived judgement and not necessarily reality. That is, the female player who causes the turnover believes that people's perceptions of her talent will change and has an opportunity to change her thought process.
The ‘savage’ roster. This is common at social tournaments and at leagues, but it also still happens at our national championships. On balance, it is usually women who are often expected to play with no subs or fewer subs than men. This not only has an impact on performance and risk of injuries, it also has an effect on the perceptions women have about their role on the team. A desperate plea for girls or leaving our female recruitment to the last minute implies a lack of value placed on our women.
Unwillingness or lack of knowledge to adjust playing style from single gender. You can’t make the same cuts and expect the same passes. You can’t make the same throws and expect them to be completions. Failing to adjust to the requirements and opportunities of mixed is poor mixed ultimate, irrespective of whether driven by an unwillingness to do so or a lack of knowledge. Both genders have a responsibility and an opportunity to adjust their playing style for the mixed game - more ideas on this in part 5.
Looking off safe options for big plays. I want to call out an important distinction here: this is about intermediate play not intermediate players. True, these examples are more commonly seen at an intermediate or lower level of ultimate where players are a bit more ‘green’: in our leagues, at social tournaments, at university. But all too often it is actually elite players, playing an intermediate style of play that drives these problems. It's not uncommon for experienced players at social tournaments and leagues to be tempted by glory plays or mess around with dodgy scoobers and low percentage hucks. This may seem fun at the time but in reality it is damaging. Every experience of mixed ultimate shapes the way our players view the sport. In particular at this level, you are much more likely to be playing alongside less experienced players and if this is the only exposure they are getting to elite male and female mixed players, we need to make these the experiences that count.
Changing the team plan at crunch time. Here we’re talking about teams who by all accounts use their girls well as part of their strategy throughout a season or tournament, but who change their playing style for the finals or during crucial points. Setting aside a discussion of this year's mixed nationals final (#windgate) for another day, I'd like to focus on the example of the 2016 final: Doublewise vs. Friskee. Both of these teams performed successfully year after year because of the strength of their female talent and the way they used those strengths on both offence and defence. But when it comes to finals, those games have sometimes fairly closely resembled men’s ultimate. In 2016 there was a noticeable shift in the playing style and decision making of a few key male players on both teams and that was enough to change the dynamic of the game. If we only play through our women until it really counts, then what are we saying about the way we perceive their value on the field?
Lack of trust. This may play out in an unconscious bias towards implicitly trusting men more to catch our passes, or to have a lower turnover rate. It may express itself through the unconscious bias that our women are not expected to be as athletic or make as many big plays as our men are. It also includes the need for women to trust that our men are not deciding based on gender, unless proven otherwise. If we fundamentally distrust people based on gender, we are perpetuating a gender bias that may become toxic in the mixed environment.
Why it pays to define the problem first.
This may seem like a long-winded way to make the point that bad mixed ultimate is bad. But clearly articulating what bad mixed ultimate actually looks like is crucial. By being clear on the breadth of contributing issues, we empower ourselves to tackle specific problems rather than sinking time on conceptual debates about gender equality and value. It’s up to us to take this understanding and use it to make adjustments to our game that raise the standard of mixed ultimate and players’ experiences of the division – more to come on this in part 5.
Many thanks to Pat Thorpe Ultimate Photography for the images in this article.
Click here for Part 3: Are We Failing Our Women?