Recently, a player in Ottawa shared her fresh frustration:
“My colleague came to me this morning, disgusted, as her daughter has joined her high school ultimate team. When she spoke to the teacher/coach about the fact that only the boys touch the disc during a game, she was given only the following as an answer:
‘Yeah, as a female, I played ultimate for over a year before anyone passed to me.’”
You’ve likely heard this complaint before, or one like it. It recurs at almost every arena of the sport, from the recreational to the elite. And it provokes equally familiar dismay. Pundits pontificate, invoke principles, and invite interventions. Somewhere, someone appeals to the better judgment of men, and pleads them to start throwing to women. Some poor contrarian offers a losing battle to explain how a gender-lopsided offense might sometimes make sense. On the whole though, the feminist consensus triumphs: women should be equally involved in the game; as a matter of fact, it just doesn’t make sense for them not to be. The whole argument surges around a mutually agreed-upon moral and strategic high ground.
So what’s the problem? Why does gender-bias (or blunt sexism) still persist in a team sport? Where does it even come from, among people who have knowingly signed up to play a mixed-gender game? How do we fix it?
Daunting questions. Faced with the bleak enormity of the problem, the coach in the story above was resigned to accepting it.
Don’t Try to Fix “Sexism” – Fix Bad Habits.
I prefer to change the discourse, because the words we use affect the solutions we seek. Problems of “sexism” are too broad, too all-encompassing, and elicit a very unspecific way of thinking, predisposed to lofty moral discussion. Problems of skill and technique, though, maybe made visible by differences of sex, are more easily analyzed, and that much more manageable. In short, try not to think of your team’s problems so broadly as “sexism,” but consider looking at them as products of reinforced habit. Never mind the rest of the forest for now, but focus on the trees.
As every coach knows, you cannot easily improve teamwork simply by invoking moral, cerebral arguments. When it comes to quick or pressured decision-making, the cerebrum just isn’t in control. Gender-bias has some profoundly reflexive, and habitual components; like a robust weed, the roots of bias run deep. Several studies have even famously plumbed the extent of unconscious (or “implicit”) bias and quantified it. For the curious of mind, you can even submit yourself as lab rat and measure your biases in some online tests. If your team suffers from gender biases on the field, it will take more than a speech to address them. This is not to say that the battle is hopeless; we must be made aware of our worst habits if they are to be addressed. But we must know the shortcomings of our tools and the anatomy of the problem: appealing to the conscious mind to overcome bias works only when the conscious mind has the time to seize the reins. In the heat of the moment, old, unresolved habits have a way of resurfacing.
I have previously written about challenges and approaches in dealing with team habits. Bad habits persist unless you can produce a system that repeats and rewards a preferred habit. You cannot simply declare, for example, “throw to the first open player you see” if your team habitually hangs onto the disc too long. Instead, you must address the decision-making mechanism, the reasons these decisions are made, and the circumstances leading up to them.
Players unconsciously impede their teammates in all kinds of ways: they may crowd throwers, they may look for “better” (more satisfying) throws, they may compete for the same spaces, they may time themselves poorly, or pull defense into valuable spaces. The fact that these bad habits may manifest especially along gender lines comes as no surprise. So to address them, we must revisit how habits develop. We must develop drills, scenarios, and rules whereby the desired behaviours are naturally repeated and rewarded (e.g., by scoring easily) and the undesired behaviours are unrewarded. If your team struggles to use its women to their potential, then look for the underlying teamwork habits that inhibit them.
The “Only” Way – the Value of Simple Limits
When athletes enjoy too much freedom on the field, they easily grow sloppy in technique. They may unconsciously ignore opportunities or unintentionally impede each other’s efforts, because, in the moment, the underlying habits feel rewarded. Bad choices easily go unpunished and become indistinguishable from good ones. If you cut off a teammate, for example, and thereby receive a pass, the habit reinforces itself. If it is easier for a male to cut off a female, it is easier to reinforce that habit along gender lines. So, like a skier occasionally foregoing the use of poles, your team must learn to work within limits to learn the rewards that come from better teamwork and to remove the crutches they lean on. Instituting rules in controlled practice scrimmages (or even in serious games) can help address these organically and intuitively.
For example, try this broad rule at practice: women must throw to men only; men must throw to women only.
At face value, this rule just forces men to throw to women, but more than that, it trains a skilled way of thinking. Good offense (in any sport) is predicated on rules of continuation, right-of-way, and field awareness. The right of way is often decided by set plays, a determined cutting order, or a philosophy around preferred spaces and preferred throws. We rarely follow a gender-based rule of priority, but you could, because many rules of priority are fairly arbitrary in spirit anyway; they just provide a means to make the future more predictable. The principle is the same: you set up your teammates for continuation, you anticipate where the receiver will be, you look to move the disc there, and you position yourself in complementary fashion. You could (and I previously have), run a very effective offense simply on this premise. It has the benefit of specifically training equitable use of both sexes, by teaching teammates to invest in getting each other open, and throwers to habitually look for them in the expected places.
Another example: you may huck to women only.
There are several factors that often diminish the striking role of women in the game, but a prominent one is the risk and fear of a male poach closing the gap. Another is the difficulty of competing with a male teammate for the same deep space. Men may feel compelled to override their teammates’ efforts because they feel their defenders will otherwise poach, to say nothing of the temptation of going for the disc. This rule specifically trains male counterparts to proactively make more space for a woman striker and to move in complementary fashion. It also allows all teammates to throw to women, removing the constraint from the rule above and making everyone a legitimate hucker. With less competition from their own teammates and more throwers looking for them going deep, women will get more practice in a striking position, and their teammates will practice providing the deliberate opportunity.
Another example: women may throw upfield only.
Many female players have experienced the visceral frustration of the “babysitter” effect, whereby well-intentioned teammates crowd them as soon as they gain the disc, chivalrously offering an “easy” reset. The crowding virtually guarantees that a dump pass is the only viable option, thus reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecy, and training upfield cutters not to cut for women throwers — generally defeating the entire offense. A simple strategy to train away this behaviour is to forbid dump throws in those situations. In short, if your team wants to maintain possession, they must simply execute excellent upfield continuation. The new reward becomes gaining the disc in better, more powerful positions and scoring more fluidly.
Sexism as a Symptom
Constraints like those above make powerful habit-reforging tools. They are effective because they do not disrupt the objective or the nature of the game; they merely limit or reinterpret the game in some ways. These limits are strategically chosen to reward subtle, but desirable behaviours that converge toward the goal. They reward the ways in which teammates create and see opportunities in each other. And instead of commanding players to change the symptoms, we create rules to make the causes uncomfortable.
Most importantly, they approach teamwork from the assumption that gender-bias or sexism is not a conscious act, but a symptom of unconscious ones. They examine and address the forces that help make these acts habitual.
I have listed a few examples for addressing a few common problems, but it is by no means an exhaustive list. Consider your own team, and some of your own underlying habits that may inhibit the effectiveness of your teammates. Consider the root causes. And never assume that gender-bias is a purely moral defect; instead, consider that it may be a defect of habit.