BertBrain Classics: Don’t Blame, Reframe

This article first appeared in the BertBrain blog on Upwind Ultimate’s site in April 2017. The gender terminology has been updated, but all other content remains the same.

I’m known as a person who states what’s on her mind and forms really strong opinions, sometimes to the extreme. Case in point, leading into tryouts this year, my teammate that runs the Mixtape Twitter posted this:

Seattle Mixtape tweets, "Game day. Boot straps. One leg at a time. Be yourself. Legs. Throw it to Bert (only if she on your team). Eat a healthy breakfast. Bangout."

As a person in a leadership position on my team, the way I communicate is just as important as what I’m trying to communicate. Think about helping a new player learn how to throw a forehand, or how to cut as a part of a stack. We don’t tell the player, “you’re doing it wrong! Do it better!” — we specifically and constructively build the player up through a progression of skills. The same thing should hold true with how we coach teammates in matters of gender equity. We should acknowledge where each player is at, then use constructive feedback to push them to the next level. And, just like a player learning how to throw a flick, team leaders need to work through the roadblocks with players until we’ve hit that benchmark, then we set the next goal, always building! 

This is my working edge for this year – how do I continue representing what I believe in, but do it in a way that people are ready to receive? I firmly believe that people of all genders need to work on their “stuff” to be great mixed ultimate players (and also good human beings), but there’s a way to communicate the ideas that focuses on building skills rather than simply highlighting mistakes. My personal #gequity communication motto going into this season is, “Don’t blame, reframe.”

Here are four of the things I most often want to scream at players with respect to inclusion of women-matchers on the team, and the way I’m going to reframe them. 

Blame: Don’t cut women-matchers off!

Reframe: Look for ways to create space for your teammates

This comes up a lot in mixed ultimate. A woman-matcher grinds out the set-up of their cut, timing their run for a deep shot, an under, a reset…and a man-matcher drives in with their defender, cluttering the whole lane and making both cuts inviable. Both players might have been open individually, but now there’s a big tangle of people and the offense grinds to a halt.

I think part of the reason we see this is because we spend so much time working on how to set yourself up as an individual to get the disc. Make this move, read your defender’s hips like this,  drive under once you’re this deep, start your reset at stall 5. We need to teach clearing space and heads up timing with just as much focus as we do getting open. 

The first tournament I played with Mixtape, Mark Burton was cutting in the middle with me, and he always had me initiate because he knew my cut would take a little longer to develop, so he wanted to read off what I was doing first before making his move. This included him clearing when I slashed over to the breakside, or cutting hard under off a hesitation step when I started running deep. This consistent and deliberate inclusion in the offense is actually why I made the permanent switch over to Mixtape from my previous team.  

I want to teach this kind of intentional cutting and clearing and celebrate when there’s a success. I want to notice the plays away from the disc that create space for the offense to flow. I want to glorify hard clears just as much as tough catches.

Blame: You’re not throwing to women!

Reframe: Trust your teammates; learn what “open” looks like in different matchups; improve your accuracy on short-range throws

The classic mixed ultimate heckle, “throw to your women!” is a long-standing heckle for good reason, but it’s not productive feedback. When I approach players who routinely look off women-matchers, they have reasons they don’t throw the disc each time.

In my mind, the reasons I’ve heard can be lumped into three categories:

Last season, Khalif El-Salaam decided in practice “I am going to get the ball to Meagan Kapostasy.” She had started the season as a lower-roster player with lots of grit on defense, but we couldn’t get her integrated on offense. I heard all three of the reasons above for why we didn’t involve her very well – her hands were untrustworthy, she couldn’t get enough separation, throwers couldn’t hit her in stride. With continued opportunities to make plays on offense, though, we all learned (myself included!) that Meegs is just as gritty on offense and will do whatever it takes to secure the catch, then she’ll stand up and complete her next pass. By one player on our team making a conscious decision to decide to learn how to throw to her, Meegs got the reps that allowed us all to trust her. Over the season she proved the skills she already had and built on them further, which was huge for our team’s success as a whole!

Blame: Stop crowding women-matchers when they have the disc!

Reframe: Keep running the system no matter who has the disc

Once one of the women who rarely gets the disc (see above) finally does, we often see one of two things happen – the offense freezes completely, giving zero options, or everyone on the team including the sideline crashes down into the 10-yard radius around the thrower. This sometimes happens with men-match players as well, but most often in the Mixed setting, I’ve seen this when women-matchers have the disc.

Neither of these are productive, and both stunt offensive flow. Talking with women-matchers, some of their favorite players are the ones who “actually cut deep for me”. Personally, when I cut upline, I want to see for me what our offense is supposed to provide for any handler — an option for a deep shot. I won’t throw it all the time, but by the fact that players are cutting deep for me, they’re also opening up options underneath and they’re maintaining stack spacing so the handlers have room to work once it’s their turn. 

I want to also consider this in terms of facilitating player development. If no one ever cuts deep for a player, they never get the opportunity to try hucking deep. If everyone is always swarmed within 10 yards of a woman-matcher, they will only learn how to throw <10 yard passes (often to triple coverage) in-game. This is a valuable skill, sure, but most definitely not the only thing we want our women-match players to be able to do. We should want everyone to be able to complete the passes dictated by whatever system our team is using, so we need to provide every player with that opportunity in practice and in games.

Blame: Stop mansplaining!

Reframe: Develop listening and other communication skills

Women-matchers get talked over in huddles, talked down to in feedback conversations, and generally needlessly mansplained on a regular basis on every single Mixed team I’ve been on. This isn’t confined to just ultimate, either, it comes up everywhere in life. What’s beautiful about working on this aspect of the game is that it has real consequences for players in everyday life. 

By working on listening skills, men-matchers, especially cis men, can make space for women-matchers to take or act on leadership roles. Often, the voices we hear from in ultimate (and in life) are the same kinds of cis white male voices that have been the societal default of power dynamics for eons. Just like a team thrives on a diversity of player types on the field, teams thrive on a diversity of perspectives. 

There are countless resources out there to help players work on their communication skills put together by experts in the field, and this is another topic that deserves its own article series. As with everything, though, the first step is acknowledgement. Look for the patterns and recognize your own role in them. I take part in these destructive patterns, too, even as a woman-match captain! I’ve noticed that I’m far more likely to interrupt another woman-matcher than a man-matcher, and that I more often look to men-matchers to be examples or share their ideas. 

We play ultimate to have fun (well, at least I do!), but generally I’ve found that people also want to get better at the sport. I’m going to use this season to think about how I can take a frustration I’m having with someone’s play and instead, pinpoint the skills the player can develop.