Overcoming the challenges of mixed ultimate as a female leader

Simone Saldanha
Aug 9, 2019 · 5 min read

By Kiana Hu

Photo by Ron Sellers

The end of sophomore year in high school usually means the beginning of SATs, college apps, and stress. For me, it also meant the end of my P.E. requirement and an anxious realization that I needed to start getting exercise on my own, causing me to reluctantly join my school’s ultimate frisbee team.

Everything after that happened in a blur. The team, a combination of my good friends and cool people that I wanted to get to know, motivated me to go to every practice, work hard, and improve. Even when I got shin splints, I continued to show up, ultimately only missing two required practices the entire season.

It was no secret that I had fallen in love with the sport. At the end of my junior year, the previous captains named me and our only veteran player (2 years of experience) as captains. I had qualms, of course. I wasn’t nearly the fastest or most athletic or most experienced player. But I was up for the challenge, thinking that my passion for the team and ultimate would guide me through this leadership position.

Senior year rolled around, and we got started on the first day of school with a team meeting, which was surprisingly packed with people. My team was pretty small, and many of our experienced players had graduated. I understood it was going to be a rebuilding year; what I had not expected was that our previous coach was no longer able to come to our bi-weekly practices. Effectively, my co-captain and I would have to take on the role of a player, captain, and coach at our practices, which at times became overwhelming. I often felt like I had little authority over a team that was mainly guys (I am one of two girls on our team of around twenty) due to my lack of experience.

Realizing that I probably wasn’t the only one in a similar position, I decided to reach out to other co-ed and mixed captains.

I interviewed two high school seniors and a club team captain: Cara Burks, captain of Gunn Control and Helena Tremblay, captain of EC HUC Mixed (El Cerrito High Ultimate Club); and Briana “Bree” Cahn, captain of Blackbird. I hoped that through talking with other female captains of mixed-gender teams, I would have a better understanding of not only the challenges we faced but also how we could overcome some of them.

The glaring commonality among all the captains was that they were the only female in leadership. Helena has two male co-captains, and Bree is in a leadership group of three other men. Each recognized the importance of their voice in their respective positions.

“I was the only female leadership for most of the year and I felt that I was setting the standard for how the boys would view all female players,” Cara said. “That’s a lot of pressure on one high schooler.”

These three captains all faced additional challenges that varied with the circumstances. Helena attends a different high school than most of her teammates and had only played for two years before the mixed season started. Bree faced the common hurdle of trying to improve the unequal playing time and looking off women on a mixed team, noticing that “our status quo is to put trust and faith in men,” even when there are strong female players present. Cara’s internal struggle with mental health issues and bipolar disorder caused her to become uncertain about her ability to lead on top of worries that her male teammates didn’t respect her.

A lot of it comes down to the “extra” gap we have to fill simply because we are female leaders on the team. We aren’t necessarily the most skilled. We aren’t always faster or stronger than our male teammates. We may lack the same authority. We have added expectations and a more influential image to think about. Piled on top of this are the daily stresses of life, a desire to promote more equal playing time and empower other female players, and oftentimes physical and mental health issues.

These are concerns that will likely persist, because it’s a sport that is still professionally played by men and dominated by men. Of course, there are female teams (in fact, those interviewed have all played on and/or captained an all-girls team), but we chose to take on the challenges of leading a mixed or co-ed team because that can be the first exposure for younger female players or simply because we value the cooperation between two genders on the field, which is unique to ultimate. While it’s still a work in progress, Helena says that “in its ideal form, mixed is the best of the best.” We can only reach that ideal with women in leadership, and it’s a very daunting task.

How did these captains gain confidence throughout all these struggles?

For Helena, it involved taking pride in areas of the sport that didn’t involve skill or experience.

“I’m not the captain that’s going to go and get a massive lay-out D, but I can pump up my team very well.” Helena also recognizes the impact that she’s made by helping to organize more team bonding outside of practice and setting up buddy groups, both of which helped the overall team chemistry.

For Cara, it was reaching out to her coach for a different perspective and being more open with her team.

“I believe that having someone in a leadership position open up and be vulnerable like that is pretty powerful. It lets everyone know it’s okay not to be perfect…I’ve helped some teammates out who came to me because they knew I would listen and understand on some level because of my openness.”

For Bree, it meant realizing that a “big piece of my impact this year was bringing awareness to this issue” of gender inequity.

Even if we don’t lead our teams to victory or impress them with our skill, we all can have huge impacts as female leaders whether it’s through spirit, being there for our teammates, or starting discussions about gender equity in the sport. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.

Other advice:

  • “Reach out to other female captains you know. Share your frustrations, challenges, and successes. Especially the successes. Talking to my female peers and seeing them successfully lead their teams has inspired me.” — Cara
  • “Inserting yourself in the conversation, whether about strategy or team decisions, and feel confident in what you have to contribute.” — Bree
  • “It’s easy to think of mixed ultimate as just girls and boys playing together, but really it’s so much more than that…don’t let there be a gender divide in your team — everyone’s there for a reason” — Helena
  • “Don’t be afraid to be strict with your team because they will have more respect for you if they see how serious you are about getting things done.” — Kiana

Kiana Hu is a participant in the Girls Ultimate Revolution Leadership (GURLS) program. Please visit our website, Facebook or Instagram to learn more.

GURLS is a tuition-free leadership program for ultimate athletes in high school, focusing on meaningfully building gender equity in our sport and community. To find out more about us and support GURLS, we invite you to our “The Future is Female with GURLS” fundraiser, taking place on August 16, 2019 in downtown San Francisco. Visit our event page for more information and to purchase tickets.

GURLS Program

GURLS seeks to address and disrupt a lack of inclusivity…

Simone Saldanha

Written by

human-centered designer. youth leadership facilitator. ultimate frisbee player. improvisor.

GURLS Program

GURLS seeks to address and disrupt a lack of inclusivity and support of female-identifying athletes by creating the next generation of strong, lifelong leaders who strive to give back to their community, empower other girls, and fight to create positive change for all.

More From Medium

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade