Click here for Part 2 - What is bad mixed ultimate and why should we care?
When I first started to research this topic, I was keen to explore a complete view of the experiences of women in our mixed division. That meant hearing from women across a broad spread of playing and leadership roles, geographical locations and levels of experience.
While there is definitely merit in showcasing the experiences and thoughts of individual players, exploring those attitudes across a broad sample of players gives us a platform to have a more balanced and informed discussion. Having a view of both the positive and negative extremes of our community means that we can get a better understanding of what is actually happening. And without an honest view of where we are, it's impossible to know what underlying issues we need to address in order to make our mixed division a consistently positive experience for all players.
So, how do our women feel about mixed ultimate?
The views and opinions of female players fell into three main camps and were always informed by their past experiences of the division. This reinforces the fact that if we want to shift the way our players perceive mixed ultimate, we need to focus our attention on increasing the consistency with which they are exposed to the best types of mixed ultimate and work to minimise the examples of ‘bad’ mixed ultimate explored in part 2.
A little contrary to what existing #content might suggest, a large majority of the women I interviewed fell into the balanced centre. Most women have experienced both the good and bad of mixed ultimate. Almost all women in this group have experienced some of the examples of poor mixed ultimate discussed in part 2, but have also played on teams where they really enjoyed their experience of the mixed division. That is, on the whole they perceive a balanced experience of the mixed division. It's worth calling out that this focuses on the way these women perceive mixed itself and their experiences on mixed teams, rather than their actual division preference, as this group covers a range of preferences.
“That's a hard question, I like different things about each one. I think a lot of the time preferences are related to your experiences, at the moment I'm pretty tied as my memories are very happy playing both.”
The fact that a majority of women acknowledge both good and bad experiences of mixed ultimate is a positive sign that despite some of the gaps in our mixed division, overall most women are still being exposed to the benefits of great mixed and what that looks like at some point in their playing careers. However, it also tells us that we have some work to do in building a consistently positive experience across the division.
A small group of players fall on the negative extreme of the discussion. These women have almost exclusively shared negative experiences of mixed or significantly negative enough events to sway their opinion of mixed. A positive mixed environment may not exist for them in their geography or local network. Some women shared examples from outright harassment to abuse of power to a full range of on field gender biases. As many of these examples were shared in confidence I won't explore the details here, but I think quotes like this one speak for themselves that we still have room to improve:
“There were men in positions of relative power who made a younger and less experienced player do something in the spirit circle that she didn't want to do.”
It’s sad that this is still happening within our community and especially sad that many of these examples came from our current and past university scenes. It reminds us that what happens early in our ultimate careers has ongoing implications for our perceptions of the mixed division.
A small subset of players also fall on the opposite side of the spectrum. These women have had largely positive experiences of the mixed division and most of them showed strong preference for mixed over women’s. An interesting hallmark of this group is that many of them were resistant to engaging with the discussion about women in mixed ultimate. Some of these women expressed a feeling that the current dialogue over-victimises women. Several of these players explicitly called out that they don’t think it’s fair to expect men to pass to a weaker option simply on the basis of gender:
“I think there are times when it's strategically sound to use your best players and/or your mismatches – and sometimes that is just the guys.”
“If we were playing opens and a team wasn't using their three players who were slower and newer than the rest of their line, would we freak out about it? Nah.”
It’s interesting to consider the mindsets and experiences that informed these players’ views. Most of them have been fortunate to play on elite mixed teams (sometimes with mixed-specific coaching) and with players who know how to play the best mixed ultimate and use the skills of their entire team. Most of these women are naturally athletic and generally they demonstrated above average confidence and assertiveness on field, ultimately changing the way they play and the way they are perceived by male players. This reinforces the point that it’s useful for us to consider how our own playing style, personality and skill level play a role in influencing our views about the division.
What influences our experiences?
Based on the discussions I had, the main factors that influenced our players’ experiences of the division came down to:
Level of experience: Overall, the more elite a team is and the more elite players are, the more likely women on that team are to view their experiences of the division positively. This comes down to the fact that, on balance, elite players are more likely to understand and make adjustments to their game to be effective in the mixed division. This means fewer examples of poor mixed ultimate within our environment. Our own level of experience also makes a difference because making mixed-specific adjustments to our game allows us to make a greater impact on field and feel like a valued part of our team. Overall, this suggests that if we coach for mixed specific principles earlier, we will improve the way our players play and experience the mixed game.
Team culture and the mindset: The overall style of play and culture that a team builds around mixed ultimate is a key factor in determining the experiences our women are likely to have. Teams that use all of their players’ strengths and skills and work to bring together the best of the diverse connections available in the mixed game are the most likely to build positive mixed experiences for their players. We have an opportunity to set expectations as a team about the brand of mixed ultimate we want to play going forward. Opening the lines of communication about what great mixed looks like is the first step towards achieving this.
The playing style of individual players: Even teams that play great mixed ultimate overall can be disrupted by individual players on that team who don’t play the best brand of mixed ultimate. Any of the examples of poor mixed ultimate covered in part 2 can have a negative impact on the experiences of our women, and just 1 or 2 players playing in this manner can have an impact on the culture of the team. Tackling this challenge comes down to both the knowledge our players have about playing effective mixed ultimate and their willingness to make mixed-specific adjustments to their game. As a community we have control over the level of knowledge our players have about the principles of effective mixed, but the willingness of individuals to play great mixed has to come from each of us taking individual responsibility for the way we play.
Parts 6-8 of this series are dedicated to improving the consistency of positive experiences within our mixed division. That begins with an exploration of the principles of effective mixed ultimate in order to start a conversation about what great mixed ultimate looks like and to provide a lens for coaching mixed-specific adjustments.
Challenging our personal biases
Our personal experiences don’t invalidate the views of women who haven’t been a product of the same experiences. Just because we haven’t experienced outright sexism in our sport, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just because we haven’t experienced the best mixed ultimate, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This is our best opportunity to listen openly to the experiences of others and question how our own biases and perspectives are playing out and what they are a product of.
The growth of mixed and single gender is not a zero-sum game. We are shaped by our experiences but not defined by them and we have an opportunity to take ownership of the way we think, talk about and influence our mixed division.
Many thanks to Pat Thorpe Ultimate Photography for the images in this article.
Click here for WiMU Pt.4: What Can We Learn From The Data?