Womens vs Mixed - A Chat With Caroline Ma

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Caroline Ma (Ellipsis, current Australian U24 Womens assistant coach) and Max Halden (IOU editor, current Australian U24 Mixed head coach). It was inspired by some of the interactions we had at Mixed Nationals, talking about the opportunities and challenges of mixed, especially for women.

M: Hi Caro, thanks for taking the time to chat! Let me start by asking - why have you been turned off playing mixed ultimate in the past? C: Hi! I’d like to preface this discussion with the point that I’ve only played a handful of mixed tournaments and generally only play mixed for “fun”. Outside uni, I never trained for a mixed team, played for a representative mixed team or been apart of a mixed campaign. But these reasons may contribute to why that is the case... In my experience, I have found that you have to work harder to earn the respect of the male players on teams. I think if you are a female without a big name who doesn’t know the male players on a mixed team, the base level of assumed talent and capability is always going to be lower than a male in the same position. Generally speaking, men hold the power and leadership on teams and take up more physical and metaphorical space. I don’t want to feel like I need to fight for that space to get to a level of mutual playing respect, just in order to have an impact. This leads to me to feeling like I’m less valued in mixed than I am in women’s.

Even now, as a fairly confident player, and someone who has gotten several opportunities to play with and against some incredible people within a mixed team, I still find myself sometimes shying away from telling captains/coaches what I think, providing analytical observation, calling lines and asking people if I can pull. I wouldn’t hesitate to jump on that opportunity in women’s and I think that’s a problem

M: That’s totally fair. I agree and am really sympathetic to feeling a lack of power. I’ve felt the same way on mens and mixed teams before- it's part of the reason we started Bench. But I find it especially frustrating, as a player/coach who is very focused on making sure everyone feels trusted and supported, that women are disproportionately impacted by bad or unthinking behaviour in the mixed environment.

One point I’d love to make here - I think we unfairly put the burden on female players to change in a mixed environment (take more leadership, be more assertive, take bigger shots etc.) and don’t expect the same of men (clear space more effectively, develop more throwing control, be a great teammate etc). Although I’d say this is actually something I value about mixed - to be successful, I think you have to be more thoughtful, collaborative and controlled to some extent, and developing those skills help you be a better player (and a better person).

C: Yeah, I also think the way that the Australian season is structured means we value mixed less. Some people consider the mixed season a ‘break’ or a couple of fun tournaments. Fewer resources go into it and we spend more time and energy in general on single gender and so we often produce better single gender players.

M: True. Honestly, I think we’re very lucky to be able to play both divisions and it makes us all better players - to generalise, men learn better control and women can push their limits with a greater margin for error.

But to realise those benefits, it requires the right mindset and culture from players and the team. I think that’s why I see playing elite mixed as such a privilege - because of our structure and the emphasis we have currently, it’s not something everyone gets the same opportunity to do and there’s so much the division has to offer.

C: It’s a good point and I feel like we’re just scratching the surface in terms of the depth of mixed strategy. The potential for uncharted playing strategies like cross-gender switching, interesting zones and consideration of where best to utilise each gender on the field are exciting areas where Australia is leading the way.

M: Obviously that’s one of the things I love about coaching mixed. There is so much variation we still have to explore and every team you coach is so different! That diversity is one of the biggest challenges but also why playing and coaching mixed is so fun.

That depth of strategy also reveals itself in interesting ways when you’re putting teams together though. A lot of people don’t think they have the “right” attributes to play mixed in terms of their speed or throws or whatever. I think that’s a little bit bullshit. The right strategy can unlock any players’ potential. For example, while I think it’s often easier for female receivers to succeed in the division and I would argue that the value of excellent female handlers is greater.

C: That goes to a development point though. I think women often have a hard time reaping the benefits of mixed because it only takes one or two guys to decide to really take over to potential derail the women’s involvement and potentially the teams success.

I’ve seen time and time again where strong handlers in the women’s division, who are playmakers on their respective teams, have been either implicitly or purposely pushed to the side to become reset handlers. They then mould their playstyle on that team around the strong male handlers.

This is so common and does many players a great disservice, especially when there are so many clear examples of the positive impact of incorporating the strengths and depth of all your handlers. Look at the impact that Alex Prentice had on the Melbourne Flames or Yina Cartagena on the Colombian World Games Team for example - both powerhouse throwers opening up potential for different offensive strategy and causing the defence to have to adapt.

That being said, I’ve seen females receivers such as Sally Yu in the Adelaide Dragons thrive in the mixed division. She was able to extend and change the shape of her cuts in a way that completely complemented her strengths as a player. Mixed gives her the ability to hit top speed around the field on throws that generally don’t come out in women’s, limited either by capability, discouragement or play style (e.g. Ellipsis’ fast moving small ball).

M: I agree. I guess it comes back to that team culture side of things. Mixed teams often reflect the best and worst bits of society because they more closely mirror society - it’s men and women working together to achieve a common goal. Sometimes that can be just as frustrating as real life is, but it also has the potential to amplify all the best bits and be heaps of fun!

C: Yeah and that culture side was something I hadn’t thought about but it is a great culture to be around. I can see why guys might want to escape a more masculine culture and the fun loving, laid back enjoyment that many mixed teams radiate is a very appealing thing to want to be apart of.

M: Yeah, we just have to be sure that we are translating that into not only enjoyment but also development for players...

C: And that’s so dependant on the men on a team and I think it can be hard for male leaders, especially at a university level, who haven’t thought about it before and don’t necessarily have the experience, skills or extra capacity to ensure the mixed division is a great place for women's development. It’s super easy to just focus on how you can become a better player yourself and considering how make your team or club an inclusive and inviting space for women can understandably fall to the wayside.

M: I guess that goes back to the reason I wanted to ask you these questions in the first place. I’m excited that we’re at a point where people are seriously engaging with mixed as an opportunity for real development. I think there’s so much potential there! But we need to keep making sure we’re creating environments that we’re proud of, that retain and grow players, and that help everyone develop, not just those with power. And a big part of that is having conversations like these, with teammates and friends, so we know where the pitfalls are and we can avoid them together.

Because like I said, I think great mixed and great single gender ultimate compliment each other perfectly. Just like us right Caro? C:... M: We’ll leave it there, shall we? :)

--- If you're interested in the issues raised in this article, don't forget to read Laura's amazing Women In Mixed series.