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June 12, 2012

Ultimate Frisbee, like many other sports, feels designed around male athletes' strengths. It prizes running fastest, throwing farthest and jumping highest. I learned to play Ultimate in college with separate men's and women's programs, but in the independent Ultimate community leagues are more commonly mixed or all male.

Some basics of the sport: Ultimate dates to 1968 and, according to USA Ultimate, is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. It is a competitive sport played by two teams of seven players each on a field with endzones. A score is made when a player catches a disc within the opposing team's endzone. Players can't run with the disc, so after catching it, the player must throw it to a teammate within ten seconds; if the pass isn't completed for whatever reason, it's a turnover and the other team gains possession. Ultimate is self-refereed and is governed by the "Spirit of the Game," by which players are responsible for their own fair play and good sportsmanship.

On mixed-gender teams, which dominate Ultimate outside of college, women's success is defined in comparison to men's instead of on its own terms. While women who play the sport are athletic and skilled, few can directly compete with the men in size or speed. On women's teams, girls have the opportunity to fill and excel in all the roles on the field.

Women are scarce compared to men in the sport, so mixed teams have 4:3 or 5:2 ratios of male to female players on the field. With more males on the team, men define the style of the game and, too often, the women are ignored.

At times, women's efforts can be eclipsed, such as when a girl runs deep for a throw where her defender is not a threat, only to have a boy come out of nowhere to get the disc. Such a frustrating speed mismatch is far less likely in a women's league. Other times, the erasure is more subtle such as when a teammate commented during a huddle that not enough people were cutting deep, really meaning that boys hadn't been making the cuts.

Even when women are well-integrated on a mixed team, their range of possibilities shrinks. As a tall girl, for example, I am well-suited to guard the deepest area of the field in women's Ultimate. But on a mixed team, I'm not tall or fast enough to defend against boys who cut deep. On offense as a handler (the player typically throwing the disc), what would be considered a long pass in a women's game loses significance compared to boys' longer hucks. These differences limit the positions where girls are valued and leave many feeling less able to contribute on a mixed team.

Men's and women's Ultimate are like different languages. I have noticed that boys usually have to be farther from their defender to be open than girls do, so on mixed teams girls are likely to throw to boys who are guarded and boys "look off" girls who are actually open. The flow of the game is also different, with men typically favoring long throws, while women work the disc up the field with shorter throws. These variations do not necessarily advantage either group, but when a majority of the team is men, their version of Ultimate becomes the norm.

I can only speak to my own experience and skill level, and I do know women who prefer mixed Ultimate. Where I see the loss of opportunity (like being the one to throw long), they may see something gained (like being the one to cut deep for a disc that's farther than I would be able to throw it).

One thing is certain: given the reality of too few women in Ultimate, creating better environments on mixed teams is the most viable option for involving more girls in the sport. Bridging the gaps in understanding between genders and using all players' strengths create more successful mixed teams and make them a more attractive option for women in Ultimate at all levels of play.

I'm grateful that I learned to play Ultimate on a team where I did not feel that only certain positions were options, and I hope the opportunities for women's leagues will continue to grow. Separate may not be considered equal and many people may not take women's Ultimate (or other women's sports) seriously, but instead of being on a mixed team that treats me differently and makes me feel like a lesser player, I would rather play in an environment that empowers me to succeed.