Part I: Women as Play-Makers
By Kellie Koester After several weeks of swirling rumors and hurried conversations on the field, three captains sat down to plan our winter season. Kira, a tall outside cutter known for making tough grabs in the air, has been playing ultimate frisbee since 2003, when she started attending a casual weekly pick-up game in Seattle, WA. She then joined a more established frisbee league, and in 2015 captained a newly formed coed club team. Alicia, nicknamed Skittles, has been playing frisbee since 2004, with humble origins of playing barefoot in the park, and in addition to playing in organized leagues, she coaches in a learning league. And then there’s me, Kellie. I started playing in 2012 at the University of Idaho. I’ve played on several club teams and internationally in Brazil. I handle on offense, and love playing in funky zone defenses. We all love this sport, but it’s a sport that is still malleable and still growing. We consistently see a lack of opportunity for women to play together and to make big plays. We needed more space for women in this sport. That's why, we recently created a women’s team to play in coed winter league.
If you haven’t watched an ultimate frisbee game, I encourage you to check out a highlight reel. The game is more athletic, fast-paced, and strategic than the barefoot game you might have played at summer camp. Ultimate is a combination of the endurance of soccer, the field set-up of football, the finesse of golf, and the fun of a beach party. There is a need for raw athleticism to outrun your defender, precision and technique to throw the disc to the perfect space for your cutter, and trust, as in all team sports, to establish teamwork. In Seattle, the first ultimate frisbee league started in 1984. This year, there are 3,500 participants in DiscNW leagues, which does not include the entire ultimate community. Of the leagues listed on the DiscNW website 20 are coed, 5 are men’s/boys’ leagues, and 3 are women’s/girls’ league. The single adult women’s league has sold out all five years of its existence, and in the most recent registration frenzy, all spots were filled within 13 hours of registration opening.
"This is why we decided to create another opportunity for women to be play-makers."
The majority of leagues in the Seattle area are coed (called “mixed” in the ultimate community), meaning that each team plays with 4 men and 3 women on the field. But just because there are women on the field does not mean that they are participating at the same level as the men. Men throw more goals than women, men catch more goals than women, and men make more defensive plays than women. There has been some analysis of the involvement of women at the elite mixed club level, but it is incomplete. Without any hard data to show, I will say that at lower levels of competition that this disparity seems to be more pronounced. All of this is not to say that women don’t contribute, rather that their contributions don’t show up on a stats sheet as often. This is why we decided to create another opportunity for women to be play-makers.
The response that we got from all of the women we talked to about the team was, “YES.” Our teammates are passionate, talented, athletic, and bright women. There were two main concerns for the team: expectations and injuries.
First, some of our teammates wanted to be clear that we may not win many, or any, games during the season. Our focus is on self-improvement and team chemistry, but that growth isn’t always reflected on a scoreboard. Winter league in Seattle is not competitive. Teams don’t keep score, but rather play to a time limit. Playing in this low-stakes league was intentional, as it allows our focus to remain on our own team and the goals that we are setting, irrespective of the score.
Secondly, injuries are a reasonable concern. Ultimate is a non-contact sport, but some contact inevitably occurs. The weight disparities between women and men can lead to dangerous situations.
We intend to deal with the risk in two ways. First, we will play fearlessly, and second, we will communicate with the other team. The first means simply going to get the disc. Often injuries and collisions in ultimate frisbee happen when someone hesitates, or goes somewhere that their opponent does not expect them to go. The second means having the confidence to approach players or captains of other teams when plays happen that make people uncomfortable, or are unsafe. This is unique in ultimate: the level of physicality is decided by discourse between players, and not by which fouls a referee may or may not call.
"There was nothing but love and support from our community."
When we first pitched the idea to the league coordinators, they expressed hesitation. As the rules are currently written, a team of all women would be in direct violation of the explicit 4:3 gender ratio. They wanted to approach this idea delicately and to preempt as many issues as possible. There were discussions about altering our schedule to avoid the more competitive teams, possibly asking teams to opt-in, and about how to market ourselves. In November, we sat down to dinner with league captains and coordinators.
When Skittles and Kira presented our idea to this group of community leaders, the response was overwhelmingly positive. These leaders did not think that schedules should be altered, or that teams could opt out of playing us. There was nothing but love and support from our community.
Now all we have to do is wait until January to start playing. We’ll check back in after the season ends in March.