Ultimate Frisbee is unique in the sports world because of several reasons and one of them is the female athletes. We live in a world, which is still dominated by men in sports and their perspectives. We’re used to men’s presence in sports and media coverage as we spend hours cheering for them in various competitions. However, we often fail to do the same for our female counterparts. Some will shrug it off and say that women’s sports aren’t so exciting. Others will gladly list you the names of the greatest female athletes these days. Yet there’s still something missing in the way women’s sports are perceived, especially in what we consider amateur sports. I’d like to dedicate this spot on the web to amazing ladies, who make the Women’s Ultimate Frisbee community stand out. Welcome to the first interview in the #PlayLikeAGirl series with a women-focused perspective.
In this first interview, I’d like to introduce you to Alexandra Hiley. An American living in Edinburgh, helping the Ultimate Frisbee community grow in strength and numbers. You can spot her playing Ultimate with Scotland’s Elite Women’s Ultimate Frisbee Team called SCRAM!
Ultimate in Europe is still mostly a Mixed sport. What’s your experience with it and Women’s Ultimate Frisbee topics?
I’ve lived in a few different places now so I have had quite a bit of experience playing, from the university to the elite level, both mixed and women’s. I think Women’s Ultimate Frisbee needs more attention in general. If you’re not one of the top teams, then no one’s really talking about other women’s teams or communities.
Growing up in America, we learn to play sports at a young age. My partner always tells me how in the UK they do not really experience that. He has shown me how the women’s community has thus developed to be a bit different and I think that maybe less women are interested in playing. Perhaps more would be if they had more athletic backgrounds.
He was right in that it was an easy transition for me due to my background, but many women I meet have expressed never having tried a sport prior to ultimate. It is like you see so much promise and potential in them, but maybe they don’t have the confidence, and I often wonder whether it is as if they do not have that role model and think “I can also be an athlete if I want to be.” There is a lot of confidence-building involved in women’s ultimate for sure.
What do you think are the differences in looking at the sport between America and Europe?
Similar to our athletic backgrounds, a stark contrast between American and European ultimate is the athleticism. Although top teams from around the world are similar, I think athleticism penetrates deeper into the American ultimate scene, well beyond just the top teams.
I think the biggest thing people think about American ultimate is that everyone starts as kids. There’s definitely more of that than in European ultimate but I would say that it still is not very common. I do have a few friends who started in high school who now play for national-level clubs and in the AUDL, but I have other friends who also play at that level that have not had that upbringing.
Although, our university scene is rather unique. Americans do put a lot of stock into the sport, which affects all levels of ultimate. This leads to some university teams sometimes being just as highly regarded as some club teams, despite many players still only learning in their first year. Ultiworld, for example, follows the College Championships just as closely as they follow the Club Championships. This lends itself to a bit of elitism in a way, with some groups caring about what university you played at.
Finally, I would say that the elite pool over here is a bit smaller. For example, here in Scotland, we have one elite women’s team. It used to be the elite mixed team, which folded and split into a men’s and women’s team. Some areas, like southern England, are more similar, with several elite teams, mid-tier teams and then more casual clubs. Granted, there are a lot more people down there than up here in Scotland!
I think European Ultimate is maybe still growing compared to the US, and it has been really fun to watch European Ultimate grow and watch a lot of teams get better.
What about the Spirit of the game in America and Europe?
Europeans are typically more spirited than Americans and that’s been really fun to be a part of. I completely adore playing European Ultimate. The Spirit of the game is incredibly important to me and it’s lovely to see how much more highly regarded it seems to be over here. It’s highly regarded by many Americans too, but I have seen my fair share of those who have felt otherwise.
I remember going to a beach tournament a few years ago, Paganello. Every team brought something from their hometowns, cities, and countries to share with the other teams because it was an international experience. Our American team had no idea that was a thing, so we were the rude Americans that didn’t bring anything for anybody. It was such a warm and welcoming experience. It is not that Americans do not feel this way – they definitely do! But to see how Spirit is so highly regarded, as something that’s really important to me, is something that I’ve really enjoyed.
Unless it’s a high-stakes game when you are supposed to play for the Top 3 – there’s less place for spirit…
Yeah, I mean it happens everywhere and I have seen it here as well as at home. We had a bit of a tough game at Nationals last year in our game to go to the top half, and it was a close one. We were within two points of them the entire game, so of course, we were giving it our all, as were they.
There were plenty of chats on the field. It is interesting to see that when you do have a lot of those chats, you often seem to get marked down in Spirit, though I can see where it is coming from. When there is something on the line, everything gets significantly more heated, regardless of where you’re from. I do think it is important to maintain composure in these situations though, something I’m sure I need to work on too.
Yes, I remember being at the European Championships. One of the games was so heated that they called someone to observe the game at some point. The situation was escalating.
Yeah, it can get crazy. We had a similar experience over the summer at Nationals. We were playing a newer team who was doing surprisingly well for their first appearance. It was a rough weekend and were getting frustrated by this point and probably didn’t play as spirited as we could have. I remember being at my absolute wit’s end when this girl and I got into a heated argument on the pitch, which is a rare occurrence for me. We were butting heads over a foul call which ultimately didn’t really get resolved and played out as a contested play. After finishing the point and maybe having a minute to cool off, we actually managed to approach each other on the sideline and have a chat. We apologised for both getting heated and managed to shake hands over the situation. We remained civil the rest of the game.
I really appreciated that she was willing to have that conversation and I think we were better off for having it. It is definitely a skill set to learn, de-escalating yourself to be able to chat with someone in the heat of the moment. I have met my fair share of people who are not nearly as keen to put their own convictions aside, even for a simple chat, so it was nice to be around someone who wanted to do the same.
This reminds me of an indoor women’s ultimate frisbee tournament. I was playing on a new team against an experienced one. We made a lot of mistakes. We tried to find a common ground in because most of us didn’t play with each other before. During the game, it seemed like our opponents were laughing in our faces. Girls wanted to end the Spirit circle with “everything was great”. However, after a small discussion, we ended up addressing the problem as we were feeling uncomfortable about the game. What’s your view on situations like these?
I think that’s so important, especially for women, and we kind of already talked about it. I think women tend to struggle with their confidence a bit more than men do in a sports environment. You really have to support women that are learning how to play the sport and that’s fine. When people don’t fully understand that, they come across as unsupportive and it can be really frustrating.
Do you think it might be one of the problems in mixed and women’s ultimate frisbee teams?
Unfortunately yes, I think it can be. I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles we struggle with in women’s ultimate frisbee. There are definitely attitudes to adjust to for both genders, with some men thinking women are not as fast or strong so they choose not to throw to them in a mixed setting, but also even other women who just don’t want to be supportive. When you’re making a new team or encouraging new/younger players, it’s just so important to cultivate a supportive community. It can be so incredibly frustrating when you’re not met with that.
In my experience, Ultimate has been one of the more supportive communities. It’s less common that I come across someone who’s unsupportive in the Ultimate community versus some other sports that I’ve played. There are definitely a few less lovely people just like there is anywhere, but I’ve met some of the most lovely people on the whole planet playing Ultimate. That supportive community is just so essential, especially when you’re getting a team off the ground.
I’m helping with the community here in Edinburgh, and they’ve been around for a few years, but they’ve been more casual. We’re trying to now form them into an actual team that regularly trains and competes at the tournaments in Scotland and England. We’re trying to get a whole bunch of university girls to join the team and we see exactly that. You get some people that come in there, they’re timid and they’re shy. It’s clear they have some skills that they need to learn, but it’s like if you don’t cultivate the right environment, they’re not going to want to come. They’re not going to want to work on those skills. So yeah, the environment is everything.
Perhaps the biggest struggle with getting girls to play Women’s Ultimate Frisbee is the long-term perspective. Usually when the team gets created the people involved train and make plans. Then everything just collapses. It’s an on-and-off situation with no progress. The same people, no influx of new faces, high expectations and plans that never make it past the initial stage.
It can be incredibly challenging and we face the same issues. I’ve even faced the same challenges in America. I think it is important to recognise that there are different types of players. You get some players that are casual and that’s fantastic. That outlet is so essential. Personally, I’m very competitive. I want to play a lot and I want to see other people be their best, but sometimes they don’t want to be their best. They just want to be. It’s taken a lot of growth on my part to recognize that in others and encourage a system where they have the opportunity to develop themselves if they want to, but also just play if they don’t want to. It’s an incredibly tricky balance to achieve and I don’t quite think I’m there yet either with our group, but we are trying!
I remember, the woman who was in charge before me, had the same problem trying to strike that balance. We’ve been talking about it for years, and I think it’s moving in the right direction. Getting new people involved is really the key. We started looking at the girls that were leaving university and running some combined trainings with them to get to know them, so that maybe they won’t feel as timid coming to our trainings. These young women are usually excited to come and work on their skills, so if we can keep that up and running and then the people who want to just come and go, that base is always there.
We haven’t quite gotten there, but that is our goal this year. The club president is one of my good friends and we just feel so excited about this year because we think it’s moving in a positive direction, but it has definitely been a few years process.
Bigger frisbee communities focused in bigger cities certainly have it easier to recruit new players. In Poland, that’s Wrocław and Warsaw. As you said, it’s good to reach out to the younger generations and some already recognize this need. What is it like in Scotland?
We have the same issue, I think. Glasgow is the other big city in Scotland. I think their Frisbee Community is a bit stronger than Edinburgh. It’s just a bigger city, so you know, the same thing. I think they have even started doing a juniors program in the past couple of years.
Then the elite women’s team that I play for, Scram, and our local women’s club were running some skill sessions in the autumn. I remember getting a message from one of the guys over in Glasgow about a new player. I think she might have been like 16 or 17, but a junior. They had taught her to play and she was keen to keep on going and learning how to play. He asked if he could send her over to the session and I was so excited that that was even on the table. Scotland is small, so getting those groups out in some of the smaller towns and cities is really challenging. So, to have that come out of Scotland was amazing to see. The people that live over there have been doing a great job.
What makes the communities in ultimate frisbee most successful? How does it relate to recruiting people who are not exactly athletic?
From my experiences, the communities that are the most successful have different tiers to their system and communities, so people with different athletic abilities and desires all have access to an outlet. It is essential to have those different levels available to recruit new players. I’ve met plenty of people who didn’t have a sports background, then tried Frisbee, absolutely loved it and started training hard. They became really athletic because they fell in love with the sport. Not everyone will take the sport as seriously and that’s okay. But those groups are the ones that pave the way for new players to fall in love with the game and strive for success.
What makes the women’s Ultimate Frisbee communities stand out in America?
I’m originally from the Northeast, just outside of Boston. I lived between two large hubs of frisbee, Boston and Portland (Maine). Both of those communities had those tiers to their programmes, from casual pick-ups to highly competitive players.
Although I’ve met many struggling groups in America as well, it’s the camaraderie that has stood out to me in this region. The elite level players get involved at the university level as coaches. Women across a variety of club teams got together for events. Everyone participated in local leagues. The women supported each other no matter what level they played, and older players regularly encouraged younger ones. If it wasn’t for these women when I was learning, I know I definitely wouldn’t be who I am today.
What makes a community more connected?
This is an excellent question and is really tough to answer, as I don’t think anyone truly knows why one community might be more connected and another isn’t. I think the key is getting the higher-level players feeding back into the lower levels. This fosters connections among different generations and levels of players.
Another good memory I have of the New England communities was local summer leagues. Teams were typically a really good mix of players from all levels, so if you wanted to get better and join different teams, the opportunity to connect with and learn from those players existed.
I think we struggle with that a bit here in Scotland, though a lot of people are working really hard on this. It is challenging, but having the right infrastructure is key.
What would you call the right infrastructure? With small Frisbee communities, it usually starts out that you have to only go to the Frisbee training. No one really shares, at first, what you should be working on. You’re just trying to figure it out and play.
I think just something that makes more opportunities for the Community to be connected. For example, I think it can be something as simple as creating more opportunities for the community to connect. For example, here in Edinburgh, there is a group that plays Goaltimate. It’s mostly boys, but sometimes ladies will go along. It seems to have been a really nice opportunity as men from all the different teams play, from casual to the elite level. It’s a lovely opportunity for some of those boys who then get the chance to play with really good players and learn from them where they might not otherwise have that. Those types of opportunities are essential for budding young players who maybe see those elite players and think “I want to be like that someday.” And I would argue that without similar opportunities, I wouldn’t be the player that I am today.
What steps did you take in your ultimate frisbee career to reach an elite women’s level?
As I was finishing university, I knew I wanted to play elite club, and there were several in my surrounding area. The local elite women’s team (Boston Brute Squad) would host a combine every year, which was just a day of training run by the team. It was open to anyone and they encouraged all levels to attend, so some friends and I started going in third year. They were always an amazing day out, playing with and learning from some of the best women the Boston ultimate scene had to offer.
In addition to attending events like that, I just started trialling for clubs. I went to several elite club open trials and got cut from many. My first club team was not an elite team and I think that’s okay, because it provided a lot of learning experiences that I needed at the time. Eventually, I started making it further along tryout processes. One year, after being cut from a team I was dying to be on, the coach provided genuine feedback and even some drills to do. So I went away that year and drilled those skills for months. The following year, I was selected for the team.
I think that the transition from university is really tough as a lot of players go from the best on their university team, to being younger and less experienced in a club setting. The two key pieces to the puzzle in my opinion is the willingness to work hard and improve yourself no matter what level of team you play for, and that structure again of higher-level teams creating connections and encouraging growth in younger generations. Most people will not step out of university already being an elite level club player, and that’s okay. I don’t think we encourage enough how okay that really is to play for some other teams before your skills are ready for the elite level. If it weren’t for the top feeding back down into the bottom, I don’t know that I ever would have come across those resources and opportunities myself.
What do you think is the best way to help the community get connected?
I think just offering opportunities for the community to mingle and for your higher level players to get to know your lower level players, but in an environment that’s fun, because if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to go. I think pickups are really great opportunity and everybody, Things like 7s, goaltimate, mini, or even beach are just great opportunities for everyone to practice some skills and socialise.
Despite my goals as a club player, I still love to go to local leagues and pick ups, hang out with my friends and get a drink/food after, and I’ve gotten to know some amazing people this way. I think it’s important to create these opportunities, whatever they may be for you and your community. People will connect through their love of the game and then the opportunities for those to better themselves will also exist for those who want it.
With the women’s team, Scram, we ran a skills session this past autumn for the first time and it was pretty successful. Unfortunately, it conflicted with a few events, but I think we had 30 or 40 women turn up, a lot of whom were university students. It was an amazing opportunity to get to know other women and connect younger players with our elite players, even providing role models to those who needed that. A couple of the girls we met at this session ended up successfully trialling for the squad and are on our roster this year!
What are your Ultimate Frisbee plans with the women’s team in the near future?
So many things! I am currently the president for SCRAM, as well as the training coordinator for the local women’s team. SCRAM has a bid to WUCC this year, so we are very excited to prepare for that. In the next few months, we are attending Tom’s Tourney, one of the big UK tournaments, and Windmill. We are already really excited about our roster this season and are excited to see how it stacks up on the national and international stages.
As for the local team, we’ve done a lot of targeting towards the university-level players. We’re really hoping that we get more interest this year. A couple of tournaments happen around the UK every year, so we’re hoping that we can get a solid team together. The team has lost a lot of its mainstays through the pandemic, so I think we are still re-building a solid foundation of players. Both teams have quite a bit on the go this year but in very different ways.
It’s a great plan! You have it all planned out and you know where you are going, so everyone knows how to work together.
I hope so! We are hoping to have a greater connection between the two teams going forward, so if you trial for SCRAM and don’t make it, there is still an opportunity for you to play, compete, and improve with the local team, ELF. We want everyone to know that this additional opportunity is available, whether someday you hope to play elite or not. It is a place for all. Hopefully, we can forge a good relationship between these two groups and women’s ultimate in Scotland can truly blossom.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this first interview on Women’s Ultimate Frisbee as much as I did. Growing the sport won’t be possible if we don’t work to promote the sport among women. While pro sports are on the rise with female athlete exposure in the media, there’s still a lot of room in amateur sports. It’s up to us to show young girls and women that they can try sports and have fun. They don’t need to go pro to compete. It’s up to women to create a safe and fun environment that encourages healthy competitiveness. While it’s not easy to build a Women’s team in Ultimate Frisbee, it’s not impossible. It takes persistence, planning and creating a system that works. As Alex said, it’s all about a community and elite levels helping out the beginners and daring them to become the next generations of promising players.
If you’re up for reading more player perspectives check out the 5 Questions With… Interview series. If you’re up for sharing your perspective in #PlayLikeAGirl or 5 Questions With… let me know! 🙂