On Being a Woman at Pickup (Ultimate)

It’s been about a year and a half since I started playing ultimate — I had played ultimate before, but only in the context of intramurals when I didn’t even understand what a stack was. In early 2015, it had been almost two years since I graduated from college with no active hobbies under my belt, so my motivations for starting to play were 90% fitness-based and 10% social. I want to write about the difficulties of playing the sport at a low level, as a woman who has never been an athlete. Women who are exceptional athletes have their own trials at pickup; I’ll cover those as well, but not in as much depth.

Photo by Kim Walker

The Effects of the Huck-Fest

When I first started playing ultimate, I possessed the naive belief that more experienced players would generally make smart decisions. However, I started to consistently observe frustration in women that I guarded, often at being looked off in favor of a less open male or a poorly-executed huck. I played full games of defense against women who are significantly faster than I am, and was saved by the fact that they weren’t utilized to the fullest extent.

Why do women get looked off? There may or may not be a gender bias contributing to this phenomenon; I recently played with someone who told me that his friend gets upset at him when he throws the disc to women. But it may also have to do with the casual nature of pickup games. In the club ultimate environment, there’s a focus on consistency (“90% throws”), leading players to look for the open teammate: short, smart passes. On the contrary, the lack of high stakes in the pickup environment makes it easy for a back and forth game of hucks. This means less use of women who are strong handlers, especially if they’re a little less quick, and even women who are making short cuts.

Another potential contributor to the inequity could be the habits of open division players. Generally, male players on offense need to gain more distance from their defenders to be considered open, so players without much experience playing with women may believe that their female teammates are guarded when they are, in fact, open.

The Ultimate Roadblocks

Speaking from only knowledge of pickup communities in Brooklyn and Austin, there’s a much healthier range of male players than female players — the majority of female players I observe have a high level of experience and athleticism. An article written by Jean Gaetan on being a woman in ultimate reads, “When teams have just 2 or 3 women on them, finding fair match-ups becomes increasingly difficult. This can be very discouraging for players who find themselves on the short end of that bargain. Imagine being the new girl that is tasked with covering a player from Showdown [the elite women’s club team in Austin].”

At pickup, the gender ratios are often more dire. I frequently attend pickup games where there is only one other woman in attendance — I’ve been the new girl covering the player from Showdown, or other high-level players, for an entire afternoon or evening. When this happens, I mentally shift my task towards damage control; I spend my energy trying to stop my opponent from shutting me down on defense rather than about worrying about my cuts, positioning, or throws on offense. And if I do get the disc in this situation, I feel even more pressure not to try anything risky — most of the time, I pass it off to the nearest dump or swing. This approach helps keep the score even, but it prevents me from practicing important skills and strengthening certain ultimate muscles, such as moving the disc upfield.

A logical response may be that I, and everyone who finds themselves being outrun, should work on athleticism first — if I were to be as quick as my opponent, I would naturally receive more throws. This is a great idea, and sometimes unrealistic. I can and do work on fitness to an extent, but the selection bias in women’s ultimate means that my only opponent is often a lifelong athlete and/or has years of ultimate experience on me. Clearly, my lack of athletic and ultimate experience should keep me from competitive club teams, but should it prevent me from receiving throws in the most casual of games?

A Team Experience

In Austin, there’s a big push to grow the number of women in ultimate — at least in the league “scene” — but there isn’t an appropriate environment for new female players to try, fail, and try again.

How can we fix this? The occasional women’s pickup events seem great, though I haven’t been able to attend one yet because of an injury. Larger pickup games that I’ve attended, especially during the summer, split up onto two or three fields. Teams are generally divided at random, but splitting the fields into a (self-selected) competitive field and a casual field could prevent two or three experienced players from taking over a casual game, force newer players to assume more critical roles, and allow for more even match-ups.

A month or two ago, a pickup teammate I had never met before said to me, “We need to do a better job at getting you the disc.” When I told him it wasn’t his responsibility to get me the disc, he asserted that it’s important at a pickup game to make sure everyone on the team gets touches and that more veteran players should facilitate that. I estimate that for a 90-minute stretch of pickup, I usually touch the disc about 15 times. Ultimate veterans at casual pickup: try to notice which players on your team aren’t getting the disc. If you make a conscious effort to throw to them only twice, you may give them over 10% more experience and it’ll mean the world.

And if “the new girl” throws away the disc, try to be understanding: it may have been one of her only chances to try something new.