By Chuc Luu
In the California Central Valley sits the 209 Ultimate community, a collective of approximately 300 members from all walks of life.There’s the Monday night pickup crew, league players, the beer buds who come out on the odd Saturday, the retired college players, and the youth; a mushpot of players of varying levels coming together to enjoy the sport of ultimate.
When I first started playing in the fifth grade, we had fifteen players in the youth program. In my five years at 209 Ultimate, I have seen countless faces pass through. While the youth scene as a whole has grown, only three kids have stayed from the original squad. I wondered why that was. Was there an ultimate-specific reason youth stopped playing? Could anything have been done to keep players in ultimate? What could be changed to keep more kids in youth programs from elementary school to college?
I sought to find the answers to these questions through a series of interviews from three groups: U14 players, U19 players, and those who had stopped playing somewhere along that transition.
**Disclaimer: The information presented is based solely on the 209 community and may or may not reflect struggles in the wider ultimate community.
The Pipeline Project: a research project attempting to discover what keeps youth from staying in ultimate to apply meaningful change to the community and establish a pipeline from elementary school through to college.
To start, I talked to U14 players. I asked what they thought of the sport, as well as their visions of the future for themselves as players as they transitioned to high school. The vast majority wanted to stay in ultimate, but doubts were evident in the youth. Many expressed their concerns with juggling new responsibilities and commitments, primarily high school sports, as a reason they might not stick with ultimate. However, nearly all players, regardless of age or time playing, expressed a strong love for ultimate, most notably the overwhelming inclusiveness of the community. One middle school player stated, “When I go here, people take it just as seriously [as other sports] but with the bigger aspect of fun… It’s the people, they’re great.” Similarly, another eighth grader noted, “I like the community, it’s just more fun and welcoming than other sports.”
The largest age group of those who quit came in the bridge from junior high to high school. Why was this, when nearly all U14 players interviewed expressed their strong intention to continue to play in high school? Did they line up with the possible reasons U14 players gave?
The majority of interviewees cited high school obligations, namely, high school sports, as their primary reason for leaving ultimate, “Other things were school related. Impossible to take a break from. Cutting back ultimate was the only way. I hate it but it was,” said one interviewee.
This was not the only reason people quit. Interestingly, the next highest reason was social pressures, either feeling excluded from the community or not feeling a strong enough connection to stay or come back. A player who left recounted her experience, “I never felt like a part of the community. I felt excluded because I wasn’t a from-the-beginning person.” An injured player cited his feelings of disconnect from the community, “In the beginning, it was physical, I couldn’t play and it sucked, but once you’re away from a community for a while it becomes harder to come back, because it’s like they’ve already established themselves as a team, and it might be weird to come back… I was afraid it had changed.”
What could have kept these people playing?
“A closer team experience and relation could have definitely kept me playing.”
“Less busy schedule.”
Finally, I interviewed U19 players, who through the busyness of life, had continued to play ultimate. I wanted to find what kept them in the community in order to grow those aspects, as well as glean insight into what could have been done differently in the past.
LOVE OF THE GAME
“[The best part of the game is] when you can bring the highest level of competitiveness and the highest level of spirit at the same time. You can have a deep rivalry against a team and still play spirited, and call correct fouls against yourself.”
“I play ultimate because I love the spirit, I love the people, and I love playing it! The environment that has been created is so special, and I’ve never felt so accepted into a sport.”
“I can’t think of anything I’d like to change about ultimate, but I would like to change one thing to make ultimate more popular and well-known. I think implementing ultimate into the athletic curriculum would be so beneficial. Kids in the Bay Area already have it in their system. I am so tired of playing water polo and swimming in high school because obviously, those aren’t my sports! I want to play it ultimate in school instead. I want ultimate to be a sport everyone knows of, and not an “activity’ that requires 10 minutes just to explain that it is a sport. I’m tired of telling people that I play ultimate, and having them ask me what it is, or if its even a sport. A lot of people make fun of me for it, and that’s okay. They’d get their you-know-what’s kicked if they came to practice. In conclusion, I would just love ultimate to be exposed to more people. It would open so many doors for people and would only raise awareness for this incredible sport.”
“There was a point I considered quitting in my freshman year due to lack of teammates participating and lack of commitment. I would try to change the perspective of ultimate. The sport is seen as a joke, and unworthy of attention by real athletes but is just as demanding and more so than other sports like football and baseball.”
ESTABLISHING A STRONG TEAM CULTURE
“In hindsight, the only reason we were ever successful was the core of friends, and since we never established a system, when the core went away, it fell apart. With other teams that start with recruitment and a system and consistent practices, nothing really changes when the core moves out, a new core takes its place. If I were to change anything I would have more of a system and been less exclusive early on. [Other players] weren’t a part of the original core, and we didn’t really follow up or care when people left because we still had each other.”
The problem here is that we’re lacking in both recruitment and retainment. We continue to work towards growth as a sport so in the future, kids are no longer forced to choose between ultimate and other more “legitimate” sports. There are many short term solutions available to move forward:
- A strong hierarchical authority of coaches and captains is crucial.
- Open communication between players and captains/coaches from the beginning to work through commitment to other obligations to settle on a compromise to clearly define expectations will also be necessary.
- By creating a stronger sense of community through team bonding, organization, and accountability, players may be more inclined to prioritize ultimate and feel a stronger connection to the community.
- To prevent disconnect from the community, it is important to reach out towards injured players to keep them involved during recovery and make coming back to the sport easier.
- Retainment begins with recruitment, therefore, developing an outreach program to youth in the area will bring in more players to push for general growth.