by | February 27, 2015, 8:17am 9

Here’s the situation: I’m on the sideline coaching Bella Donna at Queen City Tune Up. During the course of one of our games, I walked past two of the assistant-slash-alumnae types, and they were saying really horrible things about some of the rookie players on the field.

Most people who’ve seen ultimate before can tell when someone is uncomfortable with the disc in how they pivot, how they grip the disc, the frightened look of “someone, please, get open immediately!” as they frantically scan the field for a semi-open option for a pass.

Is it really necessary to make fun of a new player so vocally while surrounded by her peers?

My feelings extended beyond what a watchful, protective coach feels for the rookies on her team. It bogged me down for days, and the reason was that those women’s behavior wasn’t unique. I saw it out of lots of teams we played against over the course of the weekend.

On the surface, I began the weekend thinking, “Look at all the people here to support the College Women’s Division! These players, fans, coaches, volunteers, spectators, observers are all here to contribute in one way or another.” But my feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of people tuned into the support needed to cultivate the interest and skills of young female athletes was overshadowed by the negativity came from assistant coaches, alumnae, parents, and players.

It is remarkable how quickly someone or something can totally kill someone’s positive outlook without even trying.

What I can do about it

I coach a team comprised of mostly first and second year players. While I cannot shield them from the loud, hateful comments thrown in their direction, I can take a stance against it.

I had already started drafting my article when I read Calise Cardenas’ incredible article about internet trolls, and the attacks they make on women in ultimate in particular. Someone I admire took the time to write this wonderful prose that perfectly captured my thoughts, and dozens of people commented and built a sort of solidarity. It was followed up by Sam Harkness’ article last week. I felt so empowered in front of my computer screen.

But then, when I remembered my behavior at the tournament, I was numbed to silence.

We would be kidding ourselves if we only focused on the negativity towards women in ultimate, where much of the current conversation settles. It really goes beyond that to include everyone who plays, supports, and contributes to growing ultimate. It happens in other venues, across the board at the club level. I also know that trolling is not limited to our interactions on the internet; it happens on the sidelines and on the field.

The more we resort to elementary school-aged maturity in the way we handle discord on the field, sideline, internet, and media, the more we give the impression that it is okay for anyone to perpetuate. The more disrespect and discontent we show for each other, the more disrespect we get from people “forced to watch this crap” on ESPN3 instead of a “real sport.”

The line between heckling and insults

I get that heckling is inherent to our sport’s culture, but in my experience the best hecklers resort to more clever tactics than, “you’re terrible so you should quit” or “you suck, why do you even play?” The best hecklers are playful, not downright nasty or mean. The teams and athletes in any sport that I most admire are those who celebrate how awesome their teams are without putting their opponents down.

Since our sport is really on the cusp of gaining real attention for being more than some hippie pastime, we need to start conducting ourselves accordingly. What does it say when a player at Nationals yells at an observer, “If I’m right about this rule, then you’re not an observer anymore!?” without any sort of penalty or fine? What does it really accomplish when we turn to our teammate and say, “That girl is terrible. Did you see her pivot?” and re-enact her form while making doofy animal grunting noises on the sideline for 20+ people to see?

If we as athletes want others to treat us with respect and see us as “real athletes,” then we need to start doing the same, regardless of gender, division, day of the week or any other thing that might factor into how we interact. It is not just the way we write about ultimate on public comment sections or engage in dialogues on internet forums. It extends to how we actually interact with each other on the field and on the sideline. We need to stop setting ourselves back. It is not just about how we treat women in ultimate. It’s about how we treat everyone in ultimate.


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  • Kendra Frederick

    Well said, Robyn! This is a great reminder to take a step back and think about how we behave towards and interact with players of all skills & abilities. We were all that awkward rookie once. The beauty of the Ultimate community is that it is far more open and welcoming than any other I’ve encountered. But we can always strive to be better.

  • Gwen

    Thanks for writing on this! I think that this type behavior is most prevalent at the college level. Which on one hand is strange because most college players and alumni are just a few years passed being that rookie themselves. On the other hand, it makes some sense as some players (mistakenly) want to establish themselves as far away from that as possible in an effort to give themselves more credibility in their relatively new-found sport. I think HS coaches tend to be more hands on in monitoring this than college coaches too.

  • Jim Aspholm

    It’s always been interesting to me that a community that can be so welcoming and encouraging to new players can at the same time be to vitriolic and mean. There’s going to be meanness and vitriol in every sport, because there are mean and vitriolic people in all walks of life. But one of the celebrated things about Ultimate is the inclusion so many people feel when they play, and the encouragement they receive when starting out.

    Theory: We’ve all (hopefully) gotten that “Keep up the hard work!” quip from a player we admired at some point early in our Ultimate playing. Some are lucky to get it from elite players, who in my experience as mostly very gracious to newcomers. However, when you make it up that steep, initial learning curve of backhands and forehands and holding a mark, you’re left staring at a very long, slow arc towards elite play. And unlike basic throws or positioning, that stuff doesn’t develop in a matter of a few fall weeks during your freshman year, or during a few spring tournaments. It’s a years long process and one which often levels off somewhere near the intersection of natural athletic ability and sustained work ethic.

    The snipes we as mediocre players take at new players can remind us of the hard work and progress we’ve made since we were panicking from a hard mark, or dropping a disc when trying to switch grips. Unfortunately, that reflection on the laudable hard work we’ve put in comes at the expense of those who haven’t yet put that work in (or have chosen not to). It’s hard to reflect and appreciate the hard work you’ve put in when you don’t have a direct comparison to your former self, so we substitute rookies instead.

    While there is certainly other forms of verbal abuse which can be levied at all levels of Ultimate players, the specific hurtful comments that you mention and I subdivided, can hopefully be diffused both with a communal effort not to be dicks, and a communal acknowledgement of our own hard work and progress. Of course, you can’t spend too much time admiring yourself: there’s work to do!

  • Molly Moore

    Well said – thanks for writing on this topic. In a sport that is praised to have one of the most inclusive and supportive communities (which, personally, I have experienced the majority of the time), it is unfortunate that there are way too many instances of alienation, especially towards new players.

  • parent

    I heard some of the most disgusting things coming from a high school team from Indiana at IWU’s tourney in the fall. The players and parents were cussing and bullying the other players. If it would have happened in any other high school sport, they would have been suspended for the season. I believe the coach was an Alleycat player too.

    • dusty.rhodes

      In other high school sports there are officials on (refs) and off (Athletic Directors &c) the field holding players, coaches, and fans accountable to the culture of those sports and schools. (HS football in TX is different than HS volleyball in PA)

      In the current iteration of HS ultimate, this responsibility falls on players and their coach(es)/chaperones *if they exist*.

      If a coach/parent is cussing HS players out, how many HS players are ready to step up and address that individual in a respectful and calm yet forceful manner? What if there is a whole sideline full of rude jerks? I would not have been able to handle that in HS. I can think of some who would have been able to… but they are few and far between.

      Absent an objective third party, there are only partisans.

    • player

      I believe that was Holy Mackerel. Most disgusting team and parents Ive ever seen at a tournament ever.

  • dusty.rhodes

    The people you described aren’t hecklers. They’re jerks. Not only that, if they are “Assistant Coaches” they need to be asked not to return. Immediately. If one is associated in any official capacity with a team, one must take that into consideration every time you speak. If the team is associated with a school, you must take the entirety of the school into account. If the head coach or captain (or wherever the buck stops on a given team) allows this, they are tacitly condoning it as appropriate behaviour for the team and, if there is a school attached, an accurate representation of the school.

    A good heckler knows that the target is *never* a new player and instead aims for a clearly experienced player.
    A great heckler dials in on the best players on the field with surprisingly simple and elegant barbs.

    The most-heckled player in ultimate is probably Brodie Smith. I doubt he’d want it any other way.
    Totally different than heckling someone whose pivots have not matured into a manifestation of personal style&substance.

    New hecklers would know this if there was only a group of old players retired from the highest levels of play who sit around like actual fans because they play in a different division (no sour grapes!) and yet pine for and understand the glory days of yore. We could call them something like… the masters of heckling. Butwait… that’s not a real division. (I know… just another digression to club ultimate’s tossing asunder of the masters’ division… but if everyone heard the heckles we used to hear in MA Regionals from the Masters’ players… everyone [incl. these clowns on the sideline masquerading as “coaches”] would know the difference btw “heckling” and being a jerk. Fine line, sure, but even knowing that there is a line is a start.)

    The institutional knowledge in ultimate is being systematically excluded from the experience of club tournaments. How do we pass knowledge down through generations if different age groups never play at the same locations?

  • notaboomer

    The more we resort to elementary school-aged maturity in the way we
    handle discord on the field, sideline, internet, and media, the more we
    give the impression that it is okay for anyone to perpetuate.

    elementary school-aged players that i have coached and watched play have been beautifully respectful of one another on and off the field. they have resolved disputes with no sign of hard feelings many times. as the age level goes up, so does the bickering and emotional response to conflict in ultimate in my experience. i say have the older kids and young adults take some time to watch the young kids play and try to remember what it was like to just have fun playing a game. also stop cutting players from the sport. make new teams.