Interview with Katherine Rowe: The Ultimate Coach
BY BETHANY ELDRIDGE | EDITORIAL INTERN I was an awkward and lanky preteen back in 2012. I wore my hair in a low ponytail, accompanied by shorts that covered everything down to my shins, my social life consisting of watching episodes of Ellen between sports practices. I played softball. A sport that I would later leave behind after spraining my ankle sliding into third base and missing most of my AAU basketball season for three long months.
Naturally, when high school came I knew that softball was not for me. It reminded me of swollen ankles and crutches, the smell of Axe deodorant and voice-cracking boys (from my Little League days). I needed to move on, and that I did. I picked up Ultimate Frisbee and fell in love with how the disc moved through the air and my instinctive ability to catch; feeling my cleats dig into the mud-covered fields with my teammates’ ability to throw hucks to me in the end zone. I fell in love with a sports community that I truly felt a part.
The high school that I attend, Lower Merion, has one of the most successful teams in Pennsylvania at Ultimate Frisbee. We have won five state championships and have always made it far in the playoffs. Right now, our team is thriving. We have tradition, we have innovation and we are determined to continue being the best.
That is why I found it a complete honor to talk to Katherine Rowe, a coach that I have never played for, but was the head coach of Ultimate and who guided my older peers to the championship in 2009, 2010, and 2013. Rowe is now the Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Smith College after she moved from her position at Bryn Mawr College. She started playing Ultimate when she was a student at Carleton College—later playing competitively, internationally and locally—before she started coaching the sport herself. Rowe is now an Assistant Ultimate Coach at Smith College.
"[Ultimate] attracts these ethical, competitive people who want to be shaping their sport rather than dropping into routines in which other people are telling them what to do." - Katherine Rowe
As soon as you walk into Rowe’s office you notice three things: (1) the beautiful view of the green at Smith College, (2) the four Frisbees that are showcased at the end of her very official desk and (3) a framed photograph of Lower Merion Ultimate players holding the championship trophy from a few years ago. I was excited and nervous to talk to a woman so influential and so heavily involved in a sport that I care so much about. But, as any Ultimate player knows, seeing a disc immediately makes you feel at home. So, when I saw her collection I was put at ease. I realized the awesome community that we are part of and that we had the opportunity to discuss.
Bethany: What is your Ultimate Frisbee story? How did you get involved in the sport?
Katherine: The first week of my first semester at Carleton College, the RA on my dorm floor invited us all out to teach us how to play. Everybody at the college at that time played. At some point during that week while scrimmaging on the big green in the middle of campus, I cut long and I saw a long pass coming to me in the corner. Knowing I could hit it in stride, I ripped the disc out of the air. I can still remember that moment; I was really hooked at that point.
There was no women’s team at Carleton. So, I co-founded it with two friends, and we started playing intramural. The rule at the time was that you needed two players of the opposite sex on the field each time, and eventually there were enough women that we created a team with two men on a team of all women instead of two women on a team of all men. That was the team that became the intercollegiate team, the closest other women’s team was in Wisconsin which was 6 hours away by car. I am still really close with those women and we still go on vacation with our kids every summer.
From there, it was playing through graduate school competitively in the Boston area and then playing internationally. I helped to cofound Buda, which is the Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance with Bruce, my husband whom I met playing Ultimate. We raised our kids with Ultimate players, and when we moved to Philly we actually bought a house that we knew was less than a mile from the Ultimate fields, so that it would be easy to go to summer league and practices. Our kids grew up on the sideline, and we vacationed every summer with seven Ultimate families, so all of those kids also play. Our kids call them their cousins, their Cape Cod cousins. I had about five years of being a coach at Lower Merion before moving to Smith.
"Especially in Ultimate, it’s always a mix of really talented athletes and people who have never had an athletic life, and how those people knit together into a team is an exciting social, intellectual and strategic challenge."
B: How have you approached coaching Ultimate?
K: Coaching was a really big transition for me. There is a transition that you go through, when you were a really competitive player, and you transition to become the coach of a team. You have to find a way to support other people’s competitiveness but know that it is not your own. In other words, when you are on the field playing, that is your game. I am here to make that game go really well, and to have you be as much as a team as you can be. Every year the team is different; it finds itself as a team differently. That discovery process is my job to help grow. Especially in Ultimate, it’s always a mix of really talented athletes and people who have never had an athletic life, and how those people knit together into a team is an exciting social, intellectual and strategic challenge. It took me about four years to transition out of being a competitive player and becoming the coach that I wanted to be.
B: What is your experience in mixed play?
K: I love it. I think that there are always some systemic risks as well as some physical risks. This is really because guys’ bodies are bigger. Men who are good at playing mixed, are good at avoiding dangerous situations, and women who are good at mixed are good at not putting themselves in vulnerable positions. So there is that learning process playing with bodies in motion that have different weight and momentums.
One of the really fun things about playing mixed is just how fast that game is. The guys are moving faster, they are throwing harder and you speed up to match. The decision making happens faster, and there is a ton of pleasure in getting the whole speed of the game recalibrated. I love that. That is terrific to utilize when you go back to playing women’s Ultimate.
B: I noticed with Ultimate that there is thriving culture, even more than other sports that I have participated in. What do you think causes this close-knit community? What are your favorite parts of the community?
I think that there are two things. One is spirit of the game and the explicitness of that philosophy that no player will intentionally interfere with another player’s basic joy of play, even at our most competitive. That striving for intense competitiveness is always in the context of other people doing that same kind of striving, which creates a reorientation of competitiveness into a community. The self-refereeing is attached to that: you are in the business of owning your own play and balancing your competitiveness with that ethical drive to hold to the rules. So that’s the second part of it, the self-owned nature of play without referees, and often, until recently, without coaches. So much of Ultimate is player-driven and I think that it attracts these ethical, competitive people who want to be shaping their sport rather than dropping into routines in which other people are telling them what to do. For women athletes especially, it’s an amazing thing to see a player come to understand that when she makes a call thirteen other people will stop and pay attention to her authority in making that call and then she has to think about how she should use that authority, which is a kind of social, intellectual and cognitive growth that is happening really early with Ultimate players. That breeds a community that is oriented towards how you make community with people who do not want to be as tied down.
Another thing is that anywhere in the world you go there will be a pick-up game and then while playing in that pick-up game people will say, “Oh, come to the bar with us!” and then they’ll say, “Hey do you have a place to sleep? Come stay on my couch”. I have had that experience over and over. I was the player who was crashing with the rest of the team on some parents’ couch. Early on I thought that I wanted to be that host, I wanted to be that person who had those couches, I wanted to have those teams drop in for a weekend and feed them and let them crash and do their game and go. It’s not so much about paying back what I received, but just the great pleasure of reinforcing our culture that is to oriented towards always trying to make community in the right way together.
I am sure that Rowe and I could have talked about Ultimate all day and night, and I was contemplating all that we had discussed. One of the best moments was in the middle of the interview, when Rowe got up from her seat without promp and picked up a disc from her collection. While feeling the Frisbee, she highlighted the importance of a relaxation method that she introduced at Lower Merion called "focus".
Rowe told me that her technique during “focus” is to imagine a disc with 30 of her player’s thumbs attached to it, the way that we set up our cheers. Cheers are one of the greatest way we unite before a big play, game or moment and consists of a mass of players huddled around a disc while shouting our hearts out. She says that she imagines one of her former players Carolyn Normile touching each thumb and it puts her to immediate relaxation. Even today, she was holding a disc mimicking the exercise while she explained to me that, “It just really takes away your anxiety; anxiety gets in the way of everything.”
That is what really resonates with me about playing Ultimate, and what Rowe reinforced in her interview. Each team that you are a part of is filled with such rich history. Like the history of Rowe starting the first women’s teams at Carleton. Like the history of men willing to throw and catch passes from women teammates competitively. History of pickup games and blurry nights spent amongst Ultimate players all over the world. These traditions prevent the anxiety that I see so much more in other sports. The community that has been built around Ultimate enables me to talk to strong and busy women like Rowe, and enables her to pass along the traditions that she has learned over the years with ease and comfort. This gives me hope that I, along with my other teammates, will be able to do the same wherever our paths may lead.
Each month, one of our high school interns will interview a former athlete and current leader. Our mission is to connect our girl athletes to experienced ones, to tell the stories of our women’s sports community, and to inspire her own voice. Interested in joining our Editorial Internship Program in the fall? Send a letter of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.