Women’s Ultimate Frisbee Interview with Agata Smolarek. #PlayLikeAGirl

Welcome to the second interview from the #PlayLikeAGirl series, which focuses on Women’s Ultimate Frisbee. The world needs more content on women-led sports and this series is just a small contribution. I hope that you’ll find different points of view, stories and perspectives helpful. Building a team is not an easy task. In Ultimate Frisbee there’s always a need for female players, especially if you aim to go to the Women’s Championships. Here’s a story of one such team and how’s it going.

Agata Smolarek - Szczupaki - Photo Piotr Dowejko - Women's Ultimate Frisbee Interview

Meet Agata Smolarek. 🙂 An Ultimate Frisbee player at Szczupaki (Pikes), recently also a proud and happy mom, and a former captain of Sarny Północy (The Does of the North). A team, which was created in the unlikely time for playing Ultimate, which makes the efforts even more standing out. It wouldn’t last if it wasn’t for Agata’s drive to make it work. Check out the story of how the Does came to be.

How did your Ultimate Frisbee adventure start?

It was a complete accident…or fate. A few years ago I was travelling on BlaBlaCar with a player from a Partisan’s Open team based in Olsztyn, Poland. That’s where I lived and worked back then. During our conversation, it turned out that guys were going to Open Days at my workplace, where later they started workouts at our gym. We stayed in touch and after a while they invited me to the Mixed team’s open training. I didn’t take the invite at first, but as I had no excuses, I joined the second one. I’d lie if I said I liked it… not really. At that time Mixed training was taking place rarely, so there was no option to be keen on it, but the people were cool and it was an interesting alternative to jogging.

When was the first time that the Women’s Ultimate Frisbee captured your interest? 

I found out about the Women category in Poland quite late. In 2017 I went to my first women’s clinic, which was taking place during Poland’s Open and Women Championships. I went there without conviction, just to train and only because guys from Olsztyn had spare space in their car. In Olsztyn we were fighting for our team, Szczupaki (Pikes), to take part in the Mixed category’s Nationals. There were always not enough women players, so I never thought about playing in the Women’s Ultimate Frisbee category. Later that year a girl from a Warsaw team invited me to take part in a tournament called Igloo. I took that opportunity and loved it. The next year I played my first Women’s tournament on the grass at Poland’s Women Championships with Lost’n’Found.

Lost'n'Fpund Women's Ultimate Frisbee Team
Photo: Lost’n’Found Women’s Ultimate Frisbee Team

Women’s Ultimate is a category that faces many obstacles. A few years ago in Poland, it faced pretty much a collapse. At the Championships there were just 2, then 3 teams. What do you think is the biggest obstacle for those who want to start a team?

Oh, yes, I remember that moment. It’s surely less attractive for a team to go to a tournament, where they’re going to face just 2 or 3 teams. 

The biggest obstacle is gathering a squad of 14 individuals, which will go to the tournament. But before that, it’s worth it to train together and here’s where the problem arises: low training attendance. In the end, the training doesn’t happen or it’s not satisfying enough for the players. It’s not a reason to complain, but rather to promote the sport.

So, what inspired you to commit your time to Women’s Ultimate Frisbee?

Sarny Północy Women's Ultimate Frisbee team

I always dreamed about a Women’s team in the North of Poland. I knew the girls from Olsztyn, who I trained with in Szczupaki (Pikes), as well as the girls from Tricity, who I started to train with after I moved to Gdańsk and started training with Ultimatum. There were some girls willing to do the work, so together we can create something special.

I always dreamed for the girls in the North of Poland to have their own team, so they could train together regularly. Perhaps it’s really easier to play with an existing team, but it’s definitely more difficult to train with. Especially, if it’s 200-300 km away from the place you live at.

Do you think that Mixed is an obstacle in convincing female players to start playing in the Women’s category?

It’s a difficult question. I think there’s no clear-cut answer to that. The majority of girls start in the Mixed category and like to play there. If it wasn’t for Mixed, many Women’s Ultimate Frisbee teams in Poland probably wouldn’t exist. Including ours. So, kudos to Mixed as because of it we have a chance to train and participate in many tournaments, which open the road to the Women’s category.

Returning to the question, in two Mixed teams that I trained, the leading players were guys and they were the main and only handlers. They fought for the most challenging discs in the air. Female players played a secondary role, but I see that it’s changing and women are more visible on the field. It’s certainly related to our progress and not some male nastiness. 

Agata Smolarek - Photo Piotr Dowejko - Women's Ultimate Frisbee Interview

I think that joining a Women’s team and taking the responsibility for the game is difficult, it’s often connected with getting out of your comfort zone and not many of us want to do that. That’s when those players prefer to stay in Mixed teams. However, I don’t know an opinion from a player who got discouraged from playing the Women category. If you dare to believe in yourself then playing Women’s is all about joy and it brings more progress than playing Mixed.

The quantity of training may be an obstacle. Luckily for us, we had it planned out, so the Mixed team training is not in the way of the Women’s training and our players can participate in both of them. If both Mixed and Women’s teams would like to have 2 trainings per week, there might be a problem and some girls would resign from playing Women’s, mostly because there’s little chance of playing this category throughout the year.

What did the beginnings of Sarny Północy (the Does of the North) look like? What can you say about the first attempts to gain some interest for the team?

In 2019 the girls from Ultimatum wanted to play at WLU (Warsaw Ultimate League) and asked us (girls from Olsztyn) to support them. I had an idea about a Women’s team in my head, so I was thrilled by this proposition. The girls from Olsztyn were eager to join and that’s when we decided to change the team name from Ultimatum to Northern Does. A women’s cooperation from two northern Mixed teams. 

The first attempts to gain interest were… poor. The plans in March 2020 were ambitious, but COVID reached us. So, something that didn’t get the chance to get going pretty much withered.

Sarny Północy - Women's Ultimate Frisbee training during winter

Moving beyond the Ultimate community and building awareness of the sport is not as easy as it seems. Locally it can be quite difficult. What are the typical measures to inform people about the sport and encourage them to join the training?

A year after the Warsaw League, when we decided that we want to play and train together, we created a fan page on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve invested in a logo and team jerseys – we wanted to be recognizable and have a sense of belonging to a team. 

The beginnings were difficult because we didn’t have regular trainings. Mixed teams proved to be a huge support. They were sharing information, for example about our next games at the League or training days. It raised our reach.

It was so much easier when we had the trainings planned out in Tricity this year. We were able to create events, share the posts on Facebook to different sports, outdoor activities and women-focused groups. It definitely bore fruit and new players showed up. Then new problems appeared: 

  • what can we offer them,
  • what can we do to make them stay if we don’t have our own training,
  • What can we do if our training is not open for all?

That’s when we came up with an idea to create a beginners group. It was actually a mixed group, which trained alongside the advanced group for Ultimatum mixed team. I think it was a good choice because the new girls who showed up had a place to train. We could definitely give them more time to teach them the basics of playing Ultimate. It prevented throwing them in at the deep end right away. 

As it’s a mixed training, we have more people interested and the training can take place. Unfortunately, we were not able to set up a separate training for just 3-4 girls. Mixed training enables us to have regular training. We have big support from the guys from Ultimatum in managing these workouts.

What are some of the new ways of raising awareness of Women’s Ultimate?

I went slightly ahead of the question! The creation of the beginner’s group was one of the things and it helped us to get through the winter. Thanks to this group, in the spring we were able to start Women’s training. The girls already knew the basics of Ultimate and had the basic throwing skills.

An additional thing was preparing a grant application for two projects. Gdansk’s Sports and Recreation Fund organized the grant competition. We received the funds for two grants. With the help of the city, we were able to publish our information, and posters in places that we couldn’t reach before, which makes our target group more varied.

Apart from that, we organized a camp for women at the beginning of spring. The training was led by well-known and liked Grażyna Chlebicka, who often represents Poland. Besides the Does players, there were also other players from Poland. It was dedicated to female players, who have experience with Ultimate. They could focus on improving their individual skills. On regular trainings, we focus mostly on the new players.

What do you think is the key to building a huge interest in sports among women?

I can’t answer this question yet, but I think that I’ll be able to do it in a year. We’ll see if we’re able to get the girls interested in the sport and if they stay with us for longer. We’ve already done a lot. There’s plenty before us, like the open beach trainings for women. 

At the moment, I could say that our persistence is the key. There’s no other method. You have to open up for new relations and build them with different people. Not only potential players. You have to show your passion. I think that authenticity, this pure love for the sport, can capture people’s interest. Ultimate is not an easy sport. It can be discouraging at first. But building relationships, and supporting new people – it’s very important.

What had the biggest impact on a team’s engagement in the recruitment process?

I think that each of us was aware that it will be a difficult season because of the number of available players. Back in January, we knew that there would be a problem in putting out two lines on Women’s Nationals. Going to the tournament was a huge motivation. We knew that we’d need support.

What’s the division in team roles and what’s their impact on the player’s engagement in the life of the team?

The role division this season is quite complex and the effect is very good because none of us doesn’t feel overwhelmed. At least I hope so. We’ve got a trainer and a captain (or two – from Olsztyn and Gdańsk!), a manager, a social media team (4 ladies), a person responsible for team roster and registration on the scorekeeping website, a team for the beginner’s group. We also try to engage each of our players in building awareness (making videos for social media, setting up posters, etc.). All of these make each player involved apart from being a team player. It builds team belonging and our strength.

What can you say about the emerging community of female players in Tricity?

It’s really good! We’re creating a cool team, we’re working hard so each of us feels appreciated and important. It seems to me that we’re simply like each other and that’s certainly easier to create a team in such an atmosphere.

What are the future plans of The Does of the North? 

Certainly regular Women trainings in Tricity. Another training camp in Olsztyn, raising awareness of the sport in this city. During winter we plan to take part in Warsaw Ultimate League and perhaps another indoor tournament. Next year we want to be at the Polish Women’s Championships and fight for the top. Our dream is to go to a tournament abroad. We’ll also try to find a sponsor, but first, we want to work through the season.

Hope you enjoyed taking a look at how Polish Women’s Ultimate Frisbee is doing. As a parting gift, I can share with you that a bit of team madness can lead to even more success stories on recruiting in an unconventional way. Enter Tinder. 😉 At some point before the Poland Women’s Championships, one of the Does decided to give it a shot. The result? Raised awareness, good story, recruited players and a blocked account for life. Was it worth it?

Honestly, worth it. 🙂 Might happen again.

If you’re up for more reading, check out the first interview with Alexandra Hiley on Women’s Ultimate Frisbee teams. If you’re up for telling your or your team’s story, message me! 🙂

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