Let’s talk about mixed.

I love playing mixed ultimate. And, as a woman in ultimate, my decision to do so should be as simple as that. I should not have to explain myself and my choice for playing mixed and I should not be chastised for it. I’ve had wonderful club experiences, especially this past season playing with a new “upset” (thanks ultiworld) mixed team — MxD. I was heard by my teammates — male or female — on and off the field and developed immensely as a player. And, while I am grateful for those who have promoted gender equality in ultimate, I believe an important perspective is missing. It has become incredibly discouraging to see mixed ultimate devalued in this movement. Women have and will continue to encounter gender issues in mixed play, but there is immense potential for growth to promote women’s equality. This being said, it’s a division in which I am proud to compete in and fight for equality within. This division means a tremendous amount to me and has helped me grow as a player.

As a mixed player I’ve been questioned about my choice of division in a very condescending manner. The worst part is that the comments and negative assumptions come from the same individuals heavily involved in the gender equality movement. I’ve been told that I will never improve as a player or receive proper treatment on the field. I’ve seen men belittled for their choice to play mixed and women assumed to be weak athletes. Maybe the worst is that I’ve heard comments that players choose mixed because they were cut from other divisions. This community cannot expect to achieve its goals in the gender equality movement if we put down women or men in other divisions. Negativity begets negativity.

When I look back at my time playing college/league/club, I remember a need to prove myself because I felt underestimated as an athlete. Maybe I was too busy defending my pride that I did not pick up on this blatant bias against my gender. Being underestimated because I was a girl, is a poor reason to underestimate anyone. Sometimes, we considered this a social norm — women automatically believed to be un-athletic. This appears to be a regular occurrence in the athletic careers of women — continuously underestimated in their ability because of their gender. From a young age, I found it satisfying to disprove others and show them that I was a capable athlete, not realizing that it was an insult to be underestimated in the first place. It wasn’t until I read the Sky’d article by Ren Caldwell that I understood that this way of thinking and the way female athletes are viewed is a matter of prejudice. This article encourages mixed players to forge on in their division and to improve their use of women in order to work towards disproving this bias. On the other hand, when reading this article by Leslie Keller, I was turned off by what was otherwise a great read because of the complete disdain for mixed. It would be foolish to say that these events do not occur in mixed, but this is only a small glimpse of this division and women’s development within it. These instances that Leslie described don’t happen because of the division, they happen due to the players participating. It’s up to individual men and women to respect one another on and off the field.

Philadelphia’s AMP is a mixed team that’s tried to lead by example within the division, and participated in Gender Equality in Ultimate campaign along with mixed, men’s, and women’s teams. They use four-women offensive set that successfully works the disc through their talented female athletes, but more generally work to play an inclusive style where every player on the field has some responsibility for the result. Raha Mozaffari (AMP) notes that “…mixed is a unique style of play and may not be for everyone.” She then emphasizes “… [but] it’s not right for people to make bold statements putting down mixed because they personally have not had a good experience playing it.” (excerpt from a USAU article that has not been published). Raha has played with AMP for over 10 years. TEN. Look what she has accomplished. How can you see her development and playing style yet tell mixed players that they will not improve/reach their potential? She started playing mixed early in her career and has become an incredible player.

We can have positive experiences at all levels of mixed, we just need to make sure we have an encouraging environment for athletes to grow. What originally drew me to mixed ultimate was my first summer league experience. On Long Island, Huntington Ultimate Summer League (HUSL) surrounded me with an incredible community and the encouragement to grow. It was a completely different from my past experiences involving sports with men. Growing up, I always remember the boys track team teasing the efforts of our girls — our times wouldn’t matter, we’ll never be the fastest, and our races were boring to watch(because we were girls). Mixed ultimate was different. HUSL sparked my love for mixed because of the positive environment it fostered. I was able to handle or cut, play deep deep or mark in the cup — and was happily supported to do so. These type of experiences often occur in mixed and can develop ultimate players at all levels.

Kelsey Devlin — formally on GMG, now plays for AMP — faced the hard decision between divisions this past season. Having had great experiences in both, she surveyed friends and teammates to counsel her in her decision. The advice she received aired a negative attitude towards mixed and her growth within it. Kelsey was told “…I’d hit a ceiling at some point playing mixed that I might not hit in women’s…in mixed, I’d never be the fastest player or jump the highest or throw the farthest — there would always be a guy that held that role.” Kelsey let these words build her mindset going into the season. Her athletic potential was automatically believed to be limited if she played mixed. Well, Kelsey chose to play with AMP this summer despite all the previous comments she told me that she believes she noticeably improved as a player and does not believe this improvement would have been any greater in women’s. She strongly believes that mixed has enhanced her abilities as an athlete, and feels utilized and welcomed as a woman in mixed.

Beyond the attitudes towards an individual’s choice to play mixed, sometimes the entire division is mistreated in the sense that “…there’s always great and worthwhile dialogue about covering women’s ultimate as much as men’s — with articles, live video, etc. — which the women playing in the mixed division don’t necessarily benefit from.” This point was brought up by Raha. Women are not highlighted enough in this division and unfortunately do face a form of gender inequality on the field. In order to encourage a movement of gender equality in ultimate, we need to encourage all women, no matter their division. Why are we discouraging women in mixed?

At a glance, if we look at the numbers from only Regionals, there were 127 mixed teams. Assuming there are 12 women on each team in all 8 regions, there are about 1,440 women in mid to elite level mixed.1 In the women’s division, 56 teams competed at Regionals. Assuming each team has a full roster, that’s about 1,512 women.2 Almost half the women competing at the regionals level play in mixed. We are neglecting and discouraging half of the athletes in a movement designed to level the playing field.

Of course gender issues in the mixed division aren’t perfect, there are definitely issues within it. But, instead of discouraging a division, we should communicate these issues to foster an environment to grow it. One example of how to do so is to discuss the gender ratio. Why is 4–3 the standard? Why is it that when a team chooses to go 3–4, it is automatically considered an insult to the opponent’s women? It appears that we assume teams choose 3–4 because they believe the opposing women are weaker. What I find interesting is that teams will go 3–4 when they believe the previous stated observation, but I have never seen or heard of teams who do so because their own men are weaker and they need to even the playing field. I noticed a particular instance like this when playing at sectionals. Our men were particularly challenged in one game, but we didn’t switch to 3–4 consistently though it was working for us. Could the solution to this be more roster spots for women on mixed teams in order to promote the utilization of women in tough situations?

This past summer a male member of my team brought up a valuable point when playing in a regular season tournament. He noticed when our team found ourselves in tough situations, the men began to rely solely on one another. We hypothesized that after years of playing men’s with one another, mixed was difficult to get used to and old habits were hard to break. Potentially a valid claim, but we were in mixed and this needed to be addressed. This type situation is similar in men’s or women’s ultimate. When a team faces tough opponents, the rotation becomes smaller — teammates only look to their top players. In this situation, the men on the field made an assumption that the strongest players were our men. I share this because it was an important moment for our team that a male member raised this point in order to improve the utilization of both genders. The fact that it was an issue was discouraging, but the willingness to grow was positive. For the sake of the mixed division, we need these types of conversations in the ultimate community in order to find solutions. Let’s break old habits and foster gender equality by raising tough questions in the forefront of this battle, let’s talk about mixed!

Gender equality conversations in the ultimate community must include women in mixed. Excluding or discouraging these women is a set back to the gender equality movement. A major issue is that we do not support athletes rights to choose their division. In the sense that we tag a negative stigma to mixed. If we are a community who can support the right for someone to choose who they can love (which I support 100%), why can’t we support the right for our athletes choice of which division to play? Why are we allowing these devaluing comments about mixed? These issues have driven me more in the direction to play mixed to disprove them, grow women in the division, and improve myself. If anything, I believe that mixed is the forefront in the fight for gender equality in ultimate. It does grow and develop women, it fosters great spirit, encourages both genders to work together towards a common goal and it’s a great damn time.