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   Every time we play, we’re demonstrating that sexist ideas about athletic ability are outdated.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.

One thought on “Getting everyone involved in elementary ultimate”

  1. Thanks, Josh, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking first post. At Bryant Elementary, this is a long-standing issue as well. We’ve had some luck countering these engrained behaviors using these techniques, which parallel many of yours:

    1) My co-coach Marcus introduces the season with (and often reiterates) the idea that the best way to win in youth ultimate is (for everyone) to “throw to the girls.” This is rooted in our observation that many times in games our girls are left much more open than boys. Maybe an even more egalitarian way to express this is: “the best way for us to improve as a team is for us all to learn to see the whole field and throw equally to boys and girls — whoever is cutting to the open space.” A nuance here is that unfortunately, a coach who has a few talented players can often win (aka “be successful” — at least in the eyes of many players and parents) not by equalizing disc contact, but rather by keeping only a couple kids in (usually athletic archetype boys), invoking a hucking strategy between them, and sidelining the rest of their lines.

    2) I really like your mitigations: boy/girl throwing partners; rotating handler teams; & single gender activities. We’ve also seen progress by adding constraints to our scrimmages, like:

    a) you can only score if everyone touches the disc at least once

    b) you can only score if a girl catches a pass, or the final pass

    c) only certain players (often overlooked or less-confident girls) can pick up the disc (on a pull or turnover) [This can lead to a huge increase in disc contact time for those kids!]

    d) you can only score if you first make X passes

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