By Felix Shardow (Felix Ultimate)
Mixed: the aspects that make Ultimate most unique can also be the most challenging
Whilst I was in South Africa, there was a discussion going on on the SA Women’s Ultimate Facebook group about the strains mixed ultimate currently puts on women. Women in mixed are in over-demand, so are pressured to play every point of every event in order for a mixed team to compete, and often become exhausted quickly. I spent some time chatting to players in Gauteng and getting my head around the situation as best I could, and have collated my thoughts below. I start by talking about on-pitch strategies – ways to deal with the situation once you’re already in it – before moving on to ideas about how off-pitch structure can be changed to avoid the situation in the first place.
- On-pitch strategies to conserve energy
Even if a team is lacking in legs, strategies can be employed to minimise the effect this has, and to conserve as much energy as possible. I don’t think this angle has been explored in as much detail as it could have yet.
If one team is lacking numbers, it’s a perfectly legitimate strategy for the other team to attempt to tire them out – in any sport. This means adjusting both their offence and defence to encourage the under-staffed team to run. If the under-staffed team do not counter-strategise, then they are likely to become exhausted and lose the game.
Defensive strategies that save energy include using switching, surrounding, or more zonal-type marking – however, players who are on force or in the cup in a traditional zone will often use more energy than they would otherwise. One potential strategy to employ in Mixed in particular is to have the men marking man-to-man if they have energy to spend, whilst the women mark using switching and surrounding tactics against the women on the other team – minimising the distances they have to cover as the opposition’s women run between them. This strategy would be particularly effective against a vertical stack offense, where the 3 women can be surrounded easily at the initial setup, and switches used to react to fakes / clearing.
To conserve energy on offence, vertical stack is not ideal. Although players can ‘hide in the stack’, the stack moves around the field frequently, and if a player is caught out of position then there’s a strong chance they will be ‘clogging the lane’ and preventing the offence (which relies on large channels of clear space) from functioning. Whenever there is a turnover, players must move from wherever they were on the field into the stack – which could be a distance away – and if there are multiple turnovers, this is not an insignificant amount of energy being used. An offence which allows players to spread over the field, such as horizontal stack or Hexagon offence, are preferable as low-energy players can just take the nearest position in the offence whilst the other players move into position around them. There are however some positions in horizontal where resting is not an option – the central handler being looked at for a reset, or the cutter in front of the disc. In Hex, the thrower always has three options of relatively equal benefit to the team, so if one of these options is resting then the team does not necessarily suffer as a result (though it is usually best to keep a high-energy central ‘hat’ player). In fact, half the team could be ‘resting’ in position whilst the other half use the remaining available space to generate scoring opportunities. If players poach off those who are resting, then the poached player is usually close enough to the disc to receive a poach-punishing pass without having to cut.
The positions in Hex are more evenly spread compared to stack offences – including players behind the disc when it nears the sideline – so the energy used in transitioning from defence to offence is minimised further.
If you’re the team with more energy: on offence, if the other team mark person-to-person then run them ragged, and if they try to switch and surround then you should spread out and avoid cutting towards each other. On defence, stick tight to your players and force them to fake and move convincingly if they want a chance of getting the disc in their hands – or if they are inactive & not near the disc, use smart poaching to try to force them to have to move.
2. Off-pitch solutions
More men than women play sport, so when the only local league running is Mixed, it follows that teams will be oversubscribed with men and will always be pushing the limits with regard to number of women. In Gauteng, the women’s league last year did not gain anywhere near enough interest, and I understand ended up having a negative impact on women’s development in the region. There are teams like Soweto who are thoroughly Mixed, and trying to fit them into open / women’s leagues instead would generate problems and likely lead to their women not competing, as they would not get to play with the team they know & train with. Therefore I don’t believe running open & women’s leagues alongside each other is the right solution for Gauteng, and instead open & mixed concurrent leagues should be considered.
If the gender ratio is 3 males : 1 female, and there are not enough women for a good competitive women’s league, the logical solution to satisfy all players is to run one open league (2:0) and one mixed league (1:1). Clubs and players can choose which division(s) they wish to enter, and it’s likely that all players will be in equal demand. Larger clubs will be able to field a team in both divisions, smaller clubs will likely just play Mixed – but everyone will be given the opportunity to play. In Cape Town the female participation rate is at 38%, so I understand the situation is very different to Gauteng.
It’s been suggested that Mixed is a deterrent to women getting involved in the sport. My experience is that the opposite is true, and that Mixed can actually encourage more participation than otherwise. People play sports for all kinds of different reasons, and Ultimate being playable in Mixed format is a refreshing change from the norm. Similar to Spirit of the Game, the aspects which make Ultimate unique are often those which attract the players who are best suited to the game and will enjoy it the most. Instead of shying away from the differences, we should embrace the challenges they present and champion the ideals they promote.
WFDF guide the direction the sport takes, and their new gender split rules for Mixed mean each team has an equal say about the average gender ratio of a match (teams essentially take turns picking the gender ratio, 4:3 or 3:4). This opens up new strategic possibilities, and rewards teams who enter a game with an equal number of players of each gender – which is good for the sport and inherently good for mixed. Always playing 4 men / 3 women, or even worse a 5-2 split, is not good for Mixed and not good for women’s development in the mixed division (very difficult to get the disc when 5 bigger, faster team mates are trying to do the same thing). That’s the big picture – issues such as exhaustion and player numbers are indicative of problems elsewhere (i.e. team strategy, league divisional structure), and should not be treated as a problem with the rules. If we can agree that the new gender split rules are for the best, then we should look to adapt the league structure and team strategies so that the rules can be applied with as few issues as possible, and everyone’s focus can switch to enjoying all the positives of Mixed Ultimate, the strategic possibilities available, and the basic joy of play.