Click here for Part 7 - Improving the experience of mixed ultimate
I want to finish this series by talking about one final thing we can do to positively impact the way we experience our mixed division. If we really want to make a difference, we have to take an interest in the conversations that matter most to the future of the division.
There are three conversations where I think the decisions we make are likely to have the largest impact on our experiences of the division. I’d like to caveat this by saying I’m not raising these with any aim to solve them here. I want to talk about them because I think it's important that we all actively contribute to the dialogue around these three challenges if we want to see the right outcomes for our sport.
The “off season”
I believe that the conversation we most need to have is about the idea of mixed as our “off season”. Many of the current issues facing our domestic mixed scene are a product of the way we view mixed as an off season and the type of training, coaching and attitudes that come with that. Viewing mixed in this way not only impacts our practical investment of time and resources, but also the way we approach the development and growth of our players.
There are some pretty complex factors wrapped up in this discussion because there are physical implications for our athletes of having no off season, but there are also implications for the initial quality of all three divisions if we look at the alternative of running a US format with the three divisions played in parallel.
I don't know what the answer is here but I ask us to start taking this discussion seriously because if mixed is our best bid for the Olympics, our focus, resources and attitudes to the division need to shift sooner rather than later.
University ultimate format
With Australian University Sport’s recent changes to the format of our university competitions (you can read Lachie White’s write up on the changes here), this is a timely opportunity to talk about the implications for mixed ultimate. Of the changes made, the most significant for our mixed division is the decision to remove regional qualifiers. These were previously played as mixed gender warm up tournaments prior to transitioning to single gender for Australian University Games every September. While I question some of the logic behind that last format, the move to remove those tournaments means that there is now no centrally supported mixed competition at a university level.
Many of us started playing ultimate at university and our first experience of the sport was through a mixed pathway. If our focus shifts away from mixed at a major acquisition point into our sport, how does that change our players’ playing styles, their adaptability and their perceptions? If players don't learn to play with diverse skillsets and styles early on, does this change the way they learn the game and how prepared they are when they enter the mixed nationals domain?
The answer to these questions may not be clear cut, but if I've learned anything from our community it's been how significantly people's early experiences define their perceptions of the sport and the division. That's not to say that these university changes have to be a bad thing for mixed. They just mean that we need to invest more time in talking about other options for promoting and coaching quality mixed at a university level.
The move towards ‘deciding end zone’ rules (where teams alternate between choosing the gender split based on the end zone they are starting in) and away from ‘offence decides’ (where the team on offence chooses the gender split) has already had an impact on the dynamics of our mixed division. The change has favoured teams with strong female rosters, allowing them to choose to showcase the strength of their women consistently throughout a game irrespective of how many points they have scored. The renewed discussion and focus on gender splits has also caused other flow on benefits. Things like setting higher expectations for having more women on our rosters and an overall increase in the proportion of teams regularly calling 4 women as part of their team strategy.
Conversations about gender rules will continue to play an important role in shaping the way we experience our mixed division. Some of the potential discussions this might include are things like equal gender splits on rosters, alternative rules for determining on field gender splits (e.g. the 1:2:2 format used at World Games) or even controversial discussions about an entirely new format for the sport played 6-a-side or 8-a-side to encourage gender equality on field.
While an outcome to some of these discussions may never eventuate, the process of having these conversations will have a positive impact on the focus we place on gender equality in our sport. Ultimately this will impact the way our mixed game is played, the experiences of women and the overall image of our sport. As Max so eloquently put it: “Our game should work to change the structural biases and divisions in our society, not reinforce them.”
If we care about the direction of our sport and the mixed division we can't afford to let these conversations happen behind closed doors or with minor buy in. We all have a role to play in thinking critically about what the outcome of some of these discussions really means for our sport and contributing to them in a meaningful way.
I’d like to close this series on this point: If we want to make a positive difference to the way our players experience the division, then we need to focus on increasing access and exposure to the best brands of mixed ultimate. Engaging in the discussions this series has raised, coaching mixed-specific principles and taking steps towards improving the quality of mixed we play will make a difference. While we all have an individual role to play, we also can't do it alone. If we do one thing to positively contribute today, let's share this series with our teams and our network so that we can have better conversations about mixed ultimate across our community.