Click here for Part 4 - What Can We Learn From The Data?
At present, we hear a pretty consistent dialogue when it comes to players who prefer women's over mixed. Women say that the women's division is more technical, that they learn and grow more, that they get to try new roles on field and that they feel more valued and get more touches. Some of these points make sense – there are no men on field to play deep in a zone or to put up big hucks, so there are new roles for women to fill. But I want to challenge our community to question this narrative and what other factors might be influencing these ‘truths’.
The role our preconceptions play
There are three biases which I believe are making the largest impact on the way we currently think about the division and our preferences. Recognising the role our preconceptions play is important because without doing so we can't fairly compare the merits of the mixed division to those of our single gender divisions.
The first is structure. Is the level of growth and development we experience over a women's season a product of the division itself or is it really a product of the structure, length and competitiveness of our single gender season? When we compare this to our mixed season, there are a number of structural differences that have an impact on our ability to develop players at the same rate and to the same level as our single gender divisions. The season is shorter overall, most clubs set fewer regular team training sessions (if any), there are fewer lead up tournaments, significantly fewer dedicated coaches and no set strength & conditioning programs or expectations. Finally, the way we talk about mixed as an “off season” is in itself damaging to showcasing the value of the division.
The second is perception. Here I’m referring to the perceptions and mindsets of individual female players. A factor that became evident when exploring what influences womens’ enjoyment of mixed was the level of confidence and assertiveness players demonstrated on field. Those who were less confident and those who perceived (whether true or not) that men on their team would judge their mistakes, were more likely to play conservatively, challenge themselves less and enjoy the experience less overall. We have an opportunity to question whether our experiences of mixed are reality or are driven by our perceptions and expectations.
To give you a practical example, consider two very different perspectives provided by female players on the same topic: throwing in the mixed division.
“I think I’m less confident in mixed because I subconsciously don’t want to be the ‘shit girl’ so I am more conservative and play really safe because I don’t want to cause any turnovers.”
“I definitely have developed skills as a player being able to push myself more in a mixed game or having more room for error to try out throws I wasn't as comfortable with in the women's game.”
Even without watching these players side-by-side, it's clear what impact their respective perceptions of themselves, their teammates and the division are likely to have on the way they play and experience mixed.
The third is dialogue. The most common reason women cite that they fall in love with single gender is that they get to step up and do more things on field. I can understand the sentiment – there are positions traditionally filled by male players that suddenly need to be filled. But there is also an entirely different set of skills a female player can step up and learn from mixed. At present there is no real dialogue about the unique benefits that our mixed division can offer women, and without talking about it we can't really expect our players to be thinking about it. If we want players to make a decision about their preferences from an even playing field, then we need to provide an alternative lens for thinking about the value of our mixed division and start showcasing the thoughts of our community on the best parts of mixed ultimate.
A case for mixed ultimate
So, what do our players love most about mixed ultimate and what does it have to offer women? I can't fit everything I really want to say on this topic into one article but I'm excited to share a snapshot of the things our community loves most about mixed, plus a few of my favourite player quotes.
Strategic opportunities: Mixed allows us to play around with strategies and intrigues not available within our single gender divisions. It gives us the opportunity to experiment with interesting defensive adjustments, make effective use of poaches and exploit mismatches, and work out how to bring together the best of diverse skill sets and personalities: “I love mixed as I enjoy the challenge and atmosphere around it. The connections you make with people on field are interesting as everyone has a different skill set and you work together to figure things out.”
Our athletic limits: Every moment I’m on field I’m pushing myself to match the speed, agility, footwork and athleticism of the top player on that field. The diversity of skills and athleticism on field in mixed is what brings the opportunity to push new limits. Seeing big plays and being driven to make big plays for my team pushes me – well, that and the opportunity to school the boys! And this sentiment isn't unique either: “What I love about mixed is firstly the opportunity to stretch myself athletically. You don't get many chances to be physically competitive with men in sport and I often find I play better when playing mixed or when matched up to a guy.”
More space, more pace: The mixed game is generally much faster than women's and requires us to be more in sync with our teammates to preserve flow. Compared to a women’s game there is a lot more viable space to play with. This changes the cutting options and our defensive mentality, which makes the game exciting: “I enjoy the increased field available as the boys are usually more comfortable hitting deep shots.”
Pushing our throws: In general there tends to be a greater margin for error on throws in the mixed division because of the increased average speed and wingspan of players. While this isn't an excuse for poor option taking, it does mean that at training there is more opportunity for women to push some of their break throws or work on new throwing options they want to add to their repertoire: “As a female thrower I felt A LOT more confident playing mixed. I really never hucked or threw riskier break throws in women's it was more something I developed playing mixed and then refined it before bringing it into my women’s game.”
Support and stability: Despite our best intentions, there does seem to be an above average amount of drama some women's seasons. The sense of stability and emotional support experienced on mixed teams is important to some women: “Mixed teams are generally more fun and less drama, this makes a big difference over a long campaign like nats or worlds.”
Team culture: I want to close on this point because women and men across the board were vocal about their love for the culture of mixed. Players of both genders perceived mixed teams to have a good time on and off the field and to have a great atmosphere. I know it's not strictly on topic, but what surprised me most was the way men spoke about mixed in comparison to the men's division – I'd like to share a few of those thoughts with you:
“I love the competitiveness of men’s, but mixed teams feel closer, they do a lot more together. I know I’ll have more fun.”
“I like how you get to avoid the hyper masculine nonsense of most men's teams. I find that kind of culture isolating.”
“I really love playing with mixed teams because of the vibe of the team. While I love the macho bravado of men’s teams I think having mixed genders makes it a more welcoming and wholesome team vibe.”
An even playing field
I'm not advocating for everyone to preference mixed. What I am advocating for is an even playing field to make those decisions from. That starts with questioning some of the biases that skew the way we think about the division. Mixed will never be for everyone, but making that decision based on our own playing style, personality and strengths is a much better reason to do so than because we didn't do the division justice as a community.