Getting everyone involved in elementary ultimate

I’ve been coaching elementary school ultimate for 5 years and to my continued displeasure, every year I face the same issue – getting all my players involved and improving their skills.   The good news is that co-ed ultimate presents a rare opportunity to get boys and girls to play an organized sport together and work on their strengths and their challenges.   Every time we play, we’re demonstrating that sexist ideas about athletic ability are outdated. Still, the problems persist.

In general, boys are more socially conditioned to fully participate in sports. This can lead to the exclusion of others and to diminished team play.  Many boys appear to not see girls on the field when they look for an open cutter. Again, generalizing, some girls tend to hold back when they’re playing co-ed. Boys and girls tend to group themselves together at a practice or on the sideline at a game.

There’s no single solution to a problem that’s rooted in culture, historic inequity, and to a much lesser extent, physical make-up.

Here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Briefly discuss the value of getting all players involved.   At the start of the year, it’s a great time to let kids know that successful teams use all their players and that you intend to make sure that everyone’s time is well spent. This should be totally positive and not heavy handed. Keep it fun and listen to their ideas too.
  • Create interactions at practice. Trust and comfort in one another’s throws and catches comes from repeated contact and many chances to hang out. I mandate boy/girl throwing partners at least every other practice to make sure that players get used to each other.
  • Build teams within teams. Creating teams of handlers (or cutters) that rotate through practices and games allows kids to face off in a friendly way and again, see the skills of teammates that they may have ignored otherwise. Some coaches have girls play single-gender for some part of the practice to build confidence.
  • Focus on skill-building. This may be less of a gender issue than an experience issue but I find that putting coaching resources into bringing up the fundamentals of every player on the team allows many leaders to emerge from the group. Even the most gifted elementary school player has work to do on his or her basics. If you’re committed to giving as much playing time as possible to every kid, your team will be stronger if every player feels confident.
  • Take time during the season, possibly at the start of the practice to reflect on how it’s going. Ask questions like, ‘How did we do at distributing the disc? Did everyone get a chance to do something awesome?’ You can again show your kids that you hold up teamwork as a value.

I’d love to hear ideas from other coaches that have worked well and if you’ve seen lasting changes on your teams.