Ten years ago London was host to a mere 24 female Ultimate players. The establishment of the women’s Tour opened the door for growth by providing the opportunity for women not merely to play at a competitive and athletic level against one another, but facilitated both the incentive and necessity for other teams to strive to regularly train at such a level. As such we have witnessed Tour participation swell from only seven teams in 2004 to twenty-one in 2013, four of which represented the capital.
Whilst on the surface this may seem somewhat impressive, a simple comparison with the growth in Open and the fact that only Iceni and SYC attended Nationals highlights the lack of sustainability that London clubs – indeed clubs nationwide – outside of the top tier appear to be suffering from. Thus, despite a steady increase in female participation, our club infrastructure, and thus our development, remains weak.
It is why at the beginning of this month, representatives of London based women’s clubs and those interested and/or affiliated to their development gathered for an open forum to evaluate the current situation. They included: Iceni, SYC, Crown Jewels, Curve, Discie Chicks and a new team, so nascent yet to be named! In addition there was university representation from Kings, UCL and Imperial. It was incredible alone to have a whole cohort of women representing their interests in London, a decade since Alia Ayub and Laura Pearce encouraged women in the UK to talk about what they want from Ultimate for the first time, which led to the inception of the Women’s Tour and the appointment of the first ever UKU Women’s Coordinator.
|Representation from all over the London club and university scene.|
The enthusiastic reception of such a forum itself was inspiring. It demonstrated a genuine concern and passion amongst so many. More importantly, it gave an insight into a real and existing demand for women’s Ultimate. Based on the figures provided, we can estimate the London female player base to currently be between 150-200 women, easily. That in itself is at least 10 Tour teams! However there remains women’s teams wanting to compete at Tour events that aren’t getting enough players, whilst at the same time, there are clubs who boast 70 Facebook members, yet too often can only field a handful of players at trainings.
In learning that the capital bares so much promise before we’ve even considered recruiting afresh, it is therefore more important than ever that we engage with the ‘needs-gaps’ hindering our clubs.
The challenges we are facing become strikingly clear as we learn of the different groups that we need to be able to cater for. From Iceni, who talk of elite, international challenge to Discie Chicks, founded by fledgling, beginner student-types who could not be absorbed by any established clubs. It is startling how much these clubs don’t know about one another. That needs to change. And media outlets like tSG will endeavour to serve as a tool to foster more interaction.
As noted in a recent study, we need to appreciate that our sport, like others, are reliant on the club structure to be able to reach out to new and returning players.
“The culture of the sports club therefore faces a challenge in needing to appeal to participants at various stages of the participation pathway, as well as servicing the talent”
It is imperative to recognise that these groups are interdependent and their current disparateness prevents them from reaching the pace at which participation and level of play has the potential to grow. It is clear, that as it stands, no single women’s club currently has the resources to do that. Perhaps the only one that could, Iceni, have already tried and failed at accommodating two teams; at maintaining development and competitiveness simultaneously.
In retrospect, the subsequent birth of ISO in 2008 can probably be put down to a lack of exchange, which ultimately resulted in a natural divide between the two teams, who more or less ended up running independently of one another.
However, it is this continued lack of exchange that has left the women’s scene in general suffering from a dearth of Ultimate outlets. Iceni needs feeder clubs if they are to continue to draw upon the most talented that London has to offer. But despite their good intentions, it remains a one way process. Year in year out, Crown Jewels see their best players leave for the likes of Iceni, and more recently SYC. Whilst Crown Jewels obviously encourage those with potential to aim high, as a club they suffer from inconsistency. Every year they are left back at square one, struggling to fill leadership vacuums, and to retain the most promising players.
But if we want to see real gains in our sport, if we want to absorb a wider player base, whilst at the same time raising the bar of play across the board, we need many, many more clubs with strong foundations. Many more clubs need to be able to develop groups of players together, for longer, and have the means to do so, so that these groups are not forced to seek other outlets who can deliver what their club can’t.
At the core of this then, is the quality of trainings that these clubs offer have to improve and must strive to match that of the most competitive clubs. Whilst Crown Jewels appreciate the value of SYC Saturdays, they have quite logically expressed concern that the quality of these sessions will entice players away from their own club, who are unable to compete with the leadership and experience others can offer.
This in itself leads us to a second problem: the ‘unhealthy fixation’ of concentrating Ultimate in South London, namely Clapham. The recent Winter League session run by Iceni was a great success. Having said that, there was only a 50% turnout of those who originally signed up. I appreciate, the weather amongst other things was a key contributor to absence but when one is weighing up whether it is worth braving the elements, a long journey will make the choice pretty easy for you. And it is important that clubs like Iceni consider these as factors, for fear that low attendance is down exclusively to a lack of interest.
If we want to see more players participate, if we really think with common sense about how we can sell our sport, we need to make it easy for women. As things currently stand, players old and new are being logistically isolated from the wealth of experience that does exist in London. For some, an hour long commute each way to training can really sap the fun out of playing Ultimate.
Members of Curve are drawn to play together because they want to be able to train close to where they live and work. In fact, they are the ONLY club that caters for players in the North and East areas of the capital, stretching from Walthamstow down to Shadwell. This club very much deserves the support available in London as they attempt to make Ultimate for both women and men more practical for those in these areas.
Whilst at the lower level it is clear that the lack of regional representation plagues participation and retention rates at entry level, it is equally unsustainable for the top tier clubs to not do more to raise the level of local competition. Iceni cannot keep looking to Europe and North America to reach their goals. The cost and time-consuming nature of these tournaments can in turn prevent home-grown players from reaching an elite level that without these barriers would otherwise be attainable. This is particularly acute when we consider the need for developing youth players. A continuation of such an insular and short sighted mind set will inevitably hold back the pace at which the national squads can develop.
In considering how women’s Ultimate is currently structured then, it is not surprising that we addressed a third limiting factor to development in something I define as a culture of ‘UK lacklustre’.
The divide in skills and experience between the top tier and mid-range teams has lead to a stagnation of women’s Tour. Not including Nice Bristols’ great achievements of late, the Women’s Tour remains a very predictable affair. Crown Jewels have vocalised a sense amongst mid-range teams that the top four feels somewhat unattainable. At the same time however, they freely admit that a mental block tends to occur when they face up against an Iceni or Bristol shirt that makes them seem much more intimidating than they necessarily should.
I would whole heartedly agree with this notion. As someone who has experienced playing for the ‘favourites’, I have walked away from matches knowing that we got away from playing poorly because the other team gave up without a fight. Having said that, I can appreciate that it is difficult to harness that belief when you know that your opposition is fair more well drilled and far more organised than your own.
However, this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and as such, the predictability of Tour can render many teams feeling that there’s not a great deal to battle for. Unfortunately, the satisfaction of finishing top ten or top six at Tour does not seem a worthy pay off for a greater commitment to women’s ultimate. Consequently, this has seen members of these clubs commit to mixed instead.
Of those teams that did not attend Nationals, many cited a preference for Mixed. There is of course nothing wrong in having a real preference for the mixed game, but I contend that for some, a preference for mixed is a product of not having access to or indeed any experience of the benefits that the women’s game can offer them at their desired level. Only when women have access to this are they able to make a real ‘choice’. For this we need more opportunity. Moreover, they need to be aware of these opportunities.
This problem is even more acute at university: a topic tSG has explored in more detail already. Many women just aren’t made to realise what is available to them outside of university or even outside of mixed. The leadership of Discie Chick were shocked to find at their first trials many girls just didn’t know how to make a first cut or take on any roles on pitch because they had come from clubs ‘where the boys were in charge and the girls were the accessories’.
WHAT DO WE DO?
This is just the start of a discussion that this forum is committed to continuing in a bid to see real improvements being made to women’s Ultimate in London. This was the first ultimate forum of this kind and not the last; we have big ambitions and we want and very much need the help of as many people as possible to achieve our aims.
In light of the points raised, we have initially identified three areas that we will begin to develop in the coming months:
1)The potential for more regular and local competition – to incentivise women to commit to training more regularly together
As such, the forum participants will explore the viability of hosting a London Women’s Ultimate Cup/League this summer in the hope that it will stoke a friendly rivalry to encourage teams to push their level of play. At the same time this should give a reason for women to forge teams in their local area instead of gravitating to South London to play.
2)Skills sessions/ mentoring that goes beyond South London
At the same time, if new regional teams are to be maintained they will need to benefit from the support and expertise that resides in London. Skills sessions should be hosted in areas where most development teams are located. Moreover, the responsibility shouldn’t necessarily rest on clubs like Iceni and SYC at all times. We need to make use of players who are playing less, but have a wealth of wisdom and knowledge to offer. London based ROBOT players for example, many of who are ex-GB, could be well placed for this. Can you think of any other groups that could help? Are you able or willing to mentor a developing team?
Finally, if we are seeking to increase the opportunities available to women, we must publicise them! And if we need teams to better coordinated, we must give them the means by which to share information and regularly interact. At the bottom of this article you find links to the two new Facebook groups created to keep the ideas and the chat alive amongst all the relevant groups in London. We want to centralise information for the benefit of both existing and new players on a new website currently under construction and due to go live that will be linked from both tSG website and UKU website.
Most importantly, tSG will endeavour to make the wider Ultimate community aware and informed about a thriving women’s scene with regular updates. We seek contributions from current clubs to help us form team profiles that will help to publicise your club to existing and perspective players.
Bottom line – YOU need to get involved! YOU need to share this article, this website! YOU have a wider responsibility to the sport you love if want to make a real contribution to its development.
YOU need to get women excited about your sport. And YOU need to help create content that is relevant to them, that you can direct them to so that they can see this world you want them to be part of. That is, the UK Ultimate scene in London; not a random USA Ultimate clip. However impressive, it may not help new women feel the sport is accessible to them.
We want to see clips of YOU or your teammates doing something awesome. We want to make superstars of UK Ultimate out of YOU!
So get in touch and get involved!
If you would like any further information on the activities of the London Women’s Forum or would like to get involved please don’t hesitate to contact Charlie Blair @tSG (using any of our contact methods) or Alia Ayub, Moderator LWUF firstname.lastname@example.org
Also join these groups:
London Women’s Ultimate FB group,
London Women’s University Ultimate FB group.