Where are all the Women?

Charlie Blair and University Women’s Coordinator Elly White discuss the recruiting and retaining of Women at University level, and how it can improve GB ultimate.
Recruiting women to Ultimate: UNIVERSITY
The recent poor showing at Nationals has been a wake up call to the UK about the problems women’s ultimate is currently facing. A recent debate on The State of Women’s Ultimate in the US (highly recommended viewing) has sought to address the problems that they are facing regarding growth and development. This has inspired the tSG to devote some much needed attention to the situation at home, taking insight from the discussions of our US counterparts to think about what we should be doing to better women’s Ultimate here in the UK.

Much progress has been made since the establishment of Women’s Tour, but the fear remains that the gap between men’s and women’s is growing ever wider as the infrastructure and resources for Open continue to increase at a pace unparalleled in the women’s division. University plays a vital role in ameliorating that margin. This piece serves to make you and your committee both recognise the importance of recruiting and retaining women as well as suggesting the most effective means to do so.

The Issue
The single biggest factor holding back the development of women’s ultimate is a problem shared by those in the States: numbers. In the USA, women make up only 30% of USA Ultimate’s membership. According to approximate figures provided by UK Ultimate, here too, women represent just under a third of total membership (27%). Amongst student membership however, there is a slightly higher representation, at around 39%. 
To address the issue of numbers, we need to consider the points of entry that the majority of women have to Ultimate. Despite great progress in junior programmes and a huge expansion in the number of schools now teaching ultimate in the UK, for the majority of women it currently remains at university. 

The fact that this trend applies to both sexes in general is evidenced by the creation of the u23 division. This was born out of a need to facilitate international opportunities and the benefits of its incentives for those who missed out on the junior programme. It recognised that the next generation of senior squad players would predominantly come from this age group since so many talented players were still being introduced to Ultimate at the late stage of college/university.
Now, to think about why women join Ultimate. Here is where one must pay the necessary and often overlooked attention to the different ‘pulls’ for men and women. There are greater barriers to overcome when recruiting women specifically, especially because there are is a mixture of reasons why they join. Some girls are converts from other sports, particularly those rejected from sports they have normally played at school. Others simply aren’t sold on the vibe of those clubs. It is however, easier to make men’s Ultimate teams out of this same group of ‘floating athletes’ because there tends to be much more of them. Resources, facilities and peer pressure means girls are dropping out of sport at school at a rate far higher than boys. 

Conversely sports participation tends to increase for boys during the same period
One of Ultimate’s most valuable traits is that it often attracts women who don’t normally gravitate towards sports. As ambassadors for this sport, the sport that we love, we therefore have a responsibility to them; a responsibility to create an environment where women can become excited about being athletic and competitive, maybe for the first time.

How to keep your women 

Growth is the number one priority for the women’s game. Thus, more attention should be given to how we train at university. How we train is arguably the single biggest influence on retention. This notion will divide some, and it has always been a point of controversy, but the authors of this article support the notion that mixed is NOT the way women should be introduced to the game. In fact, the US discussion highlighted how mixed can more often than not be a huge hindrance to female retention at university/college level.

The reasons are twofold: you need to get women’s fundamentals down at university because it is often the first exposure to the sport; the quicker they get these fundamentals, a good throwing technique and a basic knowledge of the game, the more likely they are to stay. 
Giving new women responsibility, and giving it to them often, will help them improve.  This trust and investment will be appreciated and reciprocated with commitment and improvement. They need to be made to feel like part of the club both off the pitch at socials, and on the pitch during trainings. 
No one wants to stay if they don’t feel like they contribute to the team. Some will stay mainly for the people, and of course, that’s important. But if they get given the opportunity to be bigger and better players, more will stay. This is not something that happens for new female players in mixed in the majority of cases.  Some of course do thrive in that environment, but it is the minority. 
Training should be time dedicated to making your women better. So it’s a waste of everyone’s time, energy and enjoyment if done inefficiently and ineffectively. Training ‘mixed’ holds back the improvement of women’s basic fundamentals. They get less disc time to throw and less opportunity to make plays off the disc. Essentially, less valuable game experience.  Often new women don’t even recognise that they are playing well or doing things right because they are so rarely rewarded with the opportunity to make a play on the disc when playing mixed. Would you be likely come back if you touched the disc once a game at training? The disparity between the student membership and full membership indicates that universities are actually doing a fairly decent job at the recruitment stage but failing badly at retention.  
Training ‘mixed’ should ideally be reserved for those who at least have these fundamentals and/or for those who seek additional game time on top of women’s. Moreover, the quality of mixed training will be greatly improved at a greater pace, if the women’s skill set improves at a greater pace. Once they have these fundamentals, they will enjoy mulling in with the guys, rather than feel intimidated or god forbid, inadequate to them.
Thus, in the interest of ensuring the most effective way to better your women, playing mixed should be optional for women, not the default.
The Practicalities
Now making this happen is not always entirely practical in the UK of course, particularly due to the dearth of experienced female players at university clubs. Let us be clear: we are not saying mixed should not be played! It is still a very important part of university Ultimate. Practicality wise, it’s probably easier for most to have first sessions as a whole club. But maybe have a mixed warm up and drills and then have separate women’s games. Even if 7v7 is not feasible, playing 6v6 or 5v5 (or even smaller teams if necessary) will still be more beneficial to development than giving up on the idea altogether and settling for mixed trainings alone. Mixed should NOT be the only or ‘standard’ ultimate on offer to women; in the same way that it never is for men. 
Leeds Uni Women’s team at Nationals 2013. Photo courtesy of Andrew Moss.

All women in the UK at university need access to REGULAR WOMEN ONLY TRAININGS. In fact, creating a separate identity and in the extremes, even a separate club to the men’s team, has often proved to be successful in the US setting. Women’s university Ultimate in the UK is definitely not strong enough to sustain the latter. Nevertheless, getting the game time/throwing time your girls require needn’t break the bank or eat up your weekends. But it will take some proactive action from women’s captains and committees to change this. Elly White is extremely keen and willing to help facilitate many more local meet ups and small friendlies. She will happily put you in touch with other captains to help you coordinate this. 
These can be small round robin style events or even just inviting another local team to come and train with you to bulk up numbers. If you are in London for example, there is no reason why all female university players shouldn’t have outdoor trainings together. They can learn the fundamentals together and then play practise games against each other in their respective university teams. At the very least you want your girls out throwing with EACH OTHER once a week. Ideally, as much as possible! Throwing skill is often lacking in the women’s game and it can be a contributing factor to what makes women’s practices frustrating. Make sure your experienced players actively encourage your beginners to throw at every opportunity. 
Off pitch, aim to socialise early and often and to make sure the freshers feel like part of the social group. A women’s social early on is a great idea, even if it starts as a women’s social that meets up with the rest of the club later. Make sure everyone is introduced as soon as possible.  Furthermore, try to make sure experienced players takes several ‘daughters’ under their wing as part of a ‘frisbee family’ system: one that is both popular and successful in the States. The extra attention a beginner gets from an experience player really helps to make them feel welcome and encourages them to improve.
So, to sum up: women will be much more likely to stay if they feel involved and welcomed. This can be done straight away, both on the pitch by having separate women’s games and off the pitch by being friendly and encouraging.
Finally, we leave you with our tips to help you in the first week of term:
The first training session
  1. Throwing. Backhands with good technique: wrist flick and step across not forwards. Introduce them to a forehand, some will like a challenge. 
  2. Let them run. No stack and no forcing. Just the very rudimentary rules: this is how you score, no running with the disc, this is a non contact sport.
  3. Small drills and small games so everyone is involved. Keep friendship groups/those in the same accommodation together: it will hopefully encourage them to be throwing buddies outside of training.
  4. Experience players praise everything; make them feel like they have something to contribute.
  5. Experienced players throw to freshers. Either they catch it under pressure or someone else gets a D, both of which are great for confidence boosting. 
  6. Experience players play relaxed D, the game needs to have good flow for the beginners to get involved. 
  7. Experience players set an example. Demonstrate good technique, high effort, being on time and listening when drills are explained.  
For any more information, questions, queries or discussion about this topic, please feel          free to get in touch with the authors via tSG.
Additional contributions from Megan Hurst.
All thoughts and opinions are of the authors and are designed to stir up debate! Agree or disagree, contribute your voice to the discussion – comment, share, or respond.  JCK @ tSG.

5 thoughts on “Where are all the Women?”

  1. Great read.

    I'd like to see much much more attention paid to coaching catching though. In the session suggested its completely overlooked (or lost as something you do in a drill, or as a byproduct of throwing) – more than commonly the case in all introductions to the game! Sadly.

    Catching is a essential skill to learn to be able participate in the game. It's a massive barrier. In the UK, catching for women in sports has a bit of a social stigma – “girls can't catch” etc. It's a well document socio-sport factor. So I feel that not only does coaching catching need more attention generally anyway, but specifically when introducing women to ultimate. For a much larger picture than just a frisbee teams practice.

    The UKU coach education curriculum talks about a “frisbee fluency” where the disc is introduced to people in the first instance, way before we're thinking about proper throwing tekkers. This introduction is a confidence builder for some! Something that might be unseen in a large group.

    In my experiences coaching; I found that teaching correct catching technique is the biggest single difference to new players enjoying the game.

    Enjoyment = retention

    And in my experiences of teaching beginner women, they often need little direction about the movement of the game – netball is the biggest participated sport for women in school. They will more than likely have that knowledge to call on. So spend more time with games that introduces catching… do the throwing after. Don't compromise and focus on them together.

    If you're bad at catching, you'll always be the one who turns over. Everyone can “spoon” a bad throw and (especially indoors) get away with it. Once people feel included and HAVE FUN they will stay. Once they stay, then you can coach them.

    For those who are reading this and are still feeling lost. Perhaps found themselves as the new women's captain or something along those lines, I encourage you to reach out and ask for help and advice. UK Ultimate has some coaching courses that focus on how to be a coach. Which I obviously recommend 😉

    Liam Kelly
    UKU Coaching & Development

  2. At Sussex we try to strike a balance between playing mixed and playing women's with the beginners. There are benefits to playing women's games, but also many benefits to mixed at the first few practices of the season. We usually start with mixed, then introduce women's games after a couple of weeks, and after that we probably only play women's games every two or three practices. We even have a couple of women's socials before the first women's game – the social side can be critical to retaining women.

    Benefits of mixed include more expansive cuts such as deep cuts being rewarded with throws more often, as well as the social side – a lot of new players will be joining the club to meet people and have fun, rather than immediately become the best they can be at a game they've never played before.

    This ties in with another difference in the way we coach beginners at Sussex – we don't do drills for the first taster sessions. New players haven't come along to be told to stand in a line and run in a particular direction to catch a frisbee for no particular reason; they haven't come along to become GREAT at playing ultimate, they have come along to have fun and see what the game is about, have a bit of competition and meet some people. The article says to explain basic rules and get into quick, small games – I'd say this is all that is needed at the first taster session(s), and the drills can be skipped.

    Point 5 is a good one – it's important to throw to freshers when they want the disc, as this builds up a trust rapport between the experienced player and the beginner, and if the result is another beginner getting a D or the pass being completed, it's all good. It can be tough to change your mindset into being happy to make throws which you know will be D'd, but in the long term it may mean more freshers come back next week. I'm also a big fan of point 2 – don't teach stack or forcing… More structure and stipulations will equal less fun, until they are comfortable enough with the basic game to seek a more strategic approach.

    This is the way we've been doing it at Sussex for the last seven years (waiting until week 2 or 3 for women's-only games, even when we have high attendance and many experienced women present), and we feel we've recruited and retained great numbers of women each year.

    Felix & Megan
    Squaws coaches
    Uni Women's Outdoor National Champions 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013

  3. It strikes me that University level recruitment and retention is only half the issue. The other side of the issue is a perceived lack of competition at club level and female players continuing to play after university. A lot of elite women's teams have been annoyed by the lack of competition (particularly at Nationals) but it seems to me that this is partially a result of those clubs sucking in the best random ladies as they leave the University scene, on squads of 25+. This leaves no solid foundations to build or maintain clubs locally, which leaves no competition.

    Just my thoughts, maybe closer to the women's scene might know more.

  4. Having just watched 4 GB Woman’s games at the U23 World Championships as an interested parent, one of my observations was that perhaps a squad do 24+ is too large. In the interest of giving everyone equal “pitch time” there was limited opportunity for the better players to gel together and gain the momentum in the match prior to giving the poorer players more limited play time to benefit from playing with a winning team. Unfortunately, GB Women’s lost each of the matches I watched which appeared to frustrate the better players as they knew they had the potential to win and did not benefit the poorer players as they were targeted by the opposing teams sensing their weaknesses. A smaller squad size would allow a more targeted approach to squad rotation and more time for the better players to improve the performance of the less developed players.

  5. An interesting view … the consensus on taking large rosters is that in long international tournaments you cannot field your best seven all the way through so you need more players to provide support earlier games and ensure that the top players are more prepared for those key games (QFs onwards). However, I would love to discuss this and more of your observations. Are you at the tournament any more this week?

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