Bert Abbott suits up in a match up between the Seattle Cascades and Team Canada. (Jon Hayduk)

Bert Abbott suits up in a match up between the Seattle Cascades and Team Canada. (Jon Hayduk)

bertbrain

a column By Bert Abbott

Equitable Team Culture Part 2: Team Routines and Norms - June 21, 2017

This is the second in a three-part series on setting up your team culture to value equity. This series primarily focuses on gender equity in Mixed teams, but the core concepts can be applied to other aspects of equity on any team.

Because the divisions of our sport run along a gender binary, including within the Mixed division when fielding a line, I follow the gender binary in my terminology. I want to acknowledge that the experiences of trans* athletes exist in our sport. Those experiences are complex and intersect with the content of this piece.

Last week, I discussed how to set up your leadership with equity in mind, and this week we’ll shift our focus to everyone on the team. Part of having an equitable team culture is being intentional about the way in which teammates routinely interact with each other. Teams can do this through structures for communication and learning about each other beyond the field.

Communication

Last year, my team held a conversation about gender equity with everyone there to express their thoughts and feelings about how things were going. Largely, the women were venting frustrations about being looked off, cut off, feeling untrusted with the disc -- all the things we think of when considering the standard gender issues that come up playing mixed. We later had a women’s brunch where we ate massive piles of food and talked through what we were thinking and how the team culture was progressing after our whole team conversation. During that discussion, much of what we were searching for were better ways to talk to the men on our team. We wanted them to understand the intent of our discussion with them was to find a common understanding, not just tell them they did something wrong. (That conversation was the origin of my piece “Don’t Blame, Reframe” where I dig into this idea further.)

It’s much easier for players to talk to each other about specific high-emotion situations if there is a cultural norm of open conversation about anything that’s happening - good, bad, or confusing. Each mixed team in Seattle has their own structure for these conversations, using feedback groups with a captain assigned to each, micro-posses for discussion, or setting aside time to have meetings as a team. The structure you use for your team depends on what fits best for your people. If Mixtape tries to have more than 3 full team meetings per year, it’s a struggle because we, as a whole, hate meeting like that. If we play a competitive game with a small group of people, then talk about that game within our groups, though, everyone is on board.

There are general principles for communication that you can use in any of these structures to hold to the goal of creating common understanding. I’ll break down an example where something goes wrong on the field, but these principles can apply to larger team meetings or taking through longer trends in behavior that you’re experiencing.

  • Talk about the good things, too! Not all conversations should be about situations where something went wrong. You can also break down a play where something went right! It’s important for me as a handler to tell my cutter, “I really liked how you attacked on this angle, it made it really easy for me to throw that break.” They can tell me what they saw from the mark that made their angle make sense, and we can both learn from our success and apply that understanding later!

  • Calm down first if it’s a frustration. If it is something you’re upset about, it’s important to get out of the “fight or flight” headspace and back into your thinking brain. Otherwise, you’ll be on the attack without meaning to, and of course that’ll put the person you’re talking to on the defensive!

  • Be sure the other person/people are ready for the conversation. They, too, will want to have a chance to take a few breaths and calm down. My favorite question to be asked is, “Can I give you some feedback?” Rarely is my answer “no”, but being asked that question first always gets me into a more receptive frame of mind, and allows me to pause for a few moments if I need before saying I’m ready.

  • Use “I” statements. Rather than saying “you cut me off!”, reframe to, “I was cutting under and felt like I was open, then I saw you come in from the breakside into that lane, so we were crowded together in the lane and neither of us was thrown to”. Describe the facts of what you saw and heard, separated from the emotions you experienced.

  • Ask for others’ perspectives, and listen to them. Continuing the example from above, ask the other player, “What did you see?” without judgement statements like, “what did you see that made you decide to crowd the lane like that?” When they respond, keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Listen to understand rather than listen to respond - try to imagine yourself in their cleats.

  • Build common understanding from there. Sometimes there will be someone who’s completely right about a situation, but most of the time there’s a compromise to be found. In our example, maybe the cutter who came in from the breakside thought the other person was heading deep, and saw an opportunity to attack their defender’s hips. What could come out of this conversation is that cutter needs to check to see if the lane is occupied before making their cut. Additionally, the other cutter in the lane could use their voice to communicate where they’re headed to make sure that lane stays clear.

Learning Beyond the Field

In general, understanding and knowing the players on your team beyond their favorite throws, cutting style, and strengths on defense are important for building a strong team culture. We decide to spend so much time with the teams we play on because we enjoy playing, but just as importantly we enjoy the people we’re playing with. Learning about each other’s interests, lives, and backgrounds outside ultimate is important to understanding the whole person we’re spending so much time with. We spend weekends and holidays together, live with each other, attend each other’s weddings, and form strong, lifelong bonds with our teammates.  

In getting to know my teammates, I’ve had conversations about religion, sexuality, life goals, stories from growing up, and just about any other topic you can think of. Sometimes I’m learning about the similarities between my background and someone else’s, and other times I learn about the differences that have shaped us. It’s important that in these conversations, I understand and learn the larger context that determines how society values and treats me differently as a white person who was raised Christian versus my Black teammate who’s Muslim, or how it’s different for me as an LGBT woman versus that same teammate who’s a straight male. I’m not saying I should get into some oppression Olympics with him to compare whose life was harder (first off, I’d probably lose and I hate losing), I’m saying I can look bigger and see the influence of societal pressures on our lives.

Teams can prioritize this work by starting an article of the week (or month!) where team members all read the same article about racism, sexism, or any other system of oppression and reflect together on the content of the article. You can get together and watch and reflect on documentaries such as Miss Representation, The Mask You Live In, or the ultimate community’s own All-Star Ultimate Tour Documentary. If your team has the resources through money or connections, you can engage in trainings, like an anti-racism workshop. Individuals can also seize opportunities to further their own knowledge and share what they’ve learned with the team through open, honest communication through the lines you’ve established.

Understanding our stories and the stories of others, and how they fit into the general tapestry of power and privilege in society leads us to a greater knowledge of our teammates as people. Not only does this mean we can form stronger relationships because we’ve have built the empathy and care that’s rooted at the base of true friendships, but we can also better understand the structures of oppression that we’re all a part of. This means we are more equipped to fight against those structures and work to improve things for the people we care about, even in our own small ways.

Our own teams are a microcosm of society, a blending of unique people with individual stories coming together for a common purpose. When I go into a leadership situation with a male captain, it helps us achieve our goal to know how we’ve each been treated growing up as athletes. He’s played sports all his life, and throughout that time, he’s been pushed to be a better athlete, to grit through pain, to work hard, to be a leader and communicate his ideas with others. While I’ve also played sports my whole life, I’ve been told to stay out of the fast lane so my brother doesn’t get jealous, to shy away from pain, to focus on school instead, to follow and listen because others know better.

I’m not saying these are the experiences of every man and every woman in sports, but knowing our individual stories and the societal influence on them means we know how to treat each other to be the most supportive co-captain and teammate possible. He can consciously make space for me and support me as a leader and as an athlete. He can get fired up when I body up on defense and tell me to keep picking up the disc after a turn, even if I’m tired. I can help him monitor his airtime and length of explanations in huddles, and can hold him accountable to keeping his body healthy when he’s in pain. I can cheer for him and show support when he does the little things like use women as positive examples or holds space for his teammates. These are all the hard things we’ve been conditioned to think don’t fall under our roles because of the messages we’ve heard all our lives. I tend to want to step back and he tends to step in, but we’re both captains to provide a balance of ideas, and we’re both players on the field that should shoulder an equal but distinct burden to each other based on our skills.

We can implement those same communication strategies for learning about our teammates on and off the field. Then, we will always hold to the goal of reaching a common understanding and making the team a welcoming, enjoyable place for everyone to play ultimate and be with each other.


Equitable Team Culture Part 1: Leadership - June 12, 2017

This is the first in a three-part series on setting up your team culture to value equity. This series primarily focuses on gender equity in Mixed teams, but the core concepts can be applied to other aspects of equity on any team.

Because the divisions of our sport run along a gender binary, including within the Mixed division when fielding a line, I follow the gender binary in my terminology. I want to acknowledge that the experiences of trans* athletes exist in our sport. Those experiences are complex and intersect with the content of this piece.

A few weeks ago, a group of leaders on Mixed teams in Seattle came together to discuss and share ideas about how each of our teams could set up our team processes and culture to show a value for gender equity. We took an intersectional approach, meaning we were also thinking about the other aspects of equity along the way. We considered a few elements of team culture and brainstormed strategies together, and I’d like to share those ideas with you in a three-part series. If your team has done something that you think is helpful, please share it with the EMU Campaign or NUL on social media, and let’s all learn from what you’ve done!

The first element we considered is the leadership - how do you set up leadership in structure, conversational norms, and modeling to ensure everyone’s voice is heard? How can leaders give their team a positive model of gender equity in their leadership?

Structure

The first idea is simple, but often overlooked. If you’re on a Mixed team, the people on leadership should reflect that your team is Mixed. I’ve personally quit teams over this. At a time that I felt ready to be a leader on the team and had already taken on an informal leadership role in giving feedback and making match-ups, I approached the two male captains of my club team to say I felt we needed a female captain. They said, “leadership discussed it and we think leadership is fine how it is”. Then and now, I feel that this was absolutely the worst response they could have given (and it lost them a player that I’d like to believe was pretty valuable). Because men and women think about match-ups, field sense, and communication from a different lens, it’s critical to have female leaders in on the conversations that guide the team.

One of the stumbling blocks, though, is that often women are less likely to step into positions of leadership than men. We experienced this on Mixtape this year - two women accepted captaincy nominations, while five men were in the running. We certainly have enough expertise on both sides to produce just as many female leaders as male. To combat this, ask women to step up, and ask them repeatedly. Additionally, find ways to give formal and informal leadership positions to women you hope could be captains in future years, like on committees or through peer to peer feedback structures.

Dividing Tasks

Once you have the composition of your leadership, remember that there are expected gender roles that may factor into how tasks are divided. Remember how in middle school we normally made the girl write on the poster because she had the prettiest handwriting, and then the boy could be the facilitator? Keep these conditioned gender roles in mind when you’re delegating tasks. Who are you having speak in front of groups? Who’s taking on the background organizational tasks? When you set up committees, who steps up for what, and how does that play into perpetuating these stereotypes?

Now, I’m not saying you should assign people to do tasks they’re bad at just to prove that you’ve achieved #gequity as a team. I’m simply asking that you examine roles and responsibilities with a lens on gender equity and don’t assume that people are in their best roles based on stereotypes about gender, race, etc. For example, I’m a Strength and Conditioning Coach with a Masters in Teaching. It would be pretty dang silly for me to be a silent, administrative captain given my skillset, but being a captain who explains drills and talks about weightlifting flies in the face of my traditional gender roles.

On Mixtape, we divide up practices fairly evenly so all four captains explain about an equal number of concepts to the team and we’ve divided up players into feedback groups so captains can foster growth in their quarter of the team (and do so equitably!). This leaves the administrative tasks, which we’ve tried to delegate out to some team members and between the captains so no one has to do too much of the plug and chug tasks.

Conversational Norms

Because of all the aforementioned historical ideas about women vs men in leadership, it’s also important to ensure equitable representation of ideas within meetings (captains, committees, and whole team). Men are more likely to take up air time in a meeting or get credit for ideas, so putting in place conversational structures and norms can help ensure everyone’s opinions are accounted for in decisions.

Acknowledging this tended disparity, then working proactively to make sure women are heard is a valuable practice to truly representing your team. Even in small groups, women get interrupted more often than men, including by other women (I’m guilty of this!). Consider passing an item around at meetings to designate whose turn it is to speak. Perhaps structure discussion time so that each member of the group is assured equal airtime where everyone else listens as one person talks for their allotted time. In larger group settings, like when captains are running a team meeting, put someone in charge of tracking the conversation - who’s talking, whose voice isn’t being heard. Here’s a tool to track conversation on gender lines, but also consider other perspectives that might be missing! Have that person invite specific people to speak up and give their thoughts, and have them ask people who are dominating the conversation or interrupting to monitor their airtime to make space for others. There are countless different ways to structure small group and large group discussions that you can find in teaching guides, so poke around and find what you think will work best for your group. If you want support, again you can hit up the EMU Campaign on social media, send me an email, or ask a teacher on your team to help you out. Chances are, they have structures like these in place in their own classrooms.

Leaders as Models

When leaders recognize the privilege they hold and their limited perspective, and actively and publicly work on themselves, the whole team benefits. Usually, we elect captains that we respect and look up to as players, leaders, and individuals. These are people we trust with our team’s future and have elected to listen to for countless hours throughout the season. When leaders are intentional about their interactions and word choices, players pick up on that and start adopting those patterns as well.

When we’re in a huddle talking offensive strategy, and someone asks fellow captain and offensive committee member Evan Klein a question about handlers, he (a cutter) will turn to me for my expertise, and vice versa! When we set up drills, we make sure we’ve got men and women out there to model each drill by intentionally specifying the people or the gender representation we want on the field. If a captain uses unintentionally gendered language in a huddle, they’ll correct themselves publicly before continuing rather than keep going. (Note that this is huge for my own ability to follow the conversation after the gendered comment. By taking a moment to correct and say, “I mean, person…” before continuing their explanation, I can refocus on the point being made rather than seething about the fact that my fellow captain just made the implication that only men can get poach blocks.)

There are certainly other pieces of successful leadership models for teams, both in general and in terms of equity. If you have ideas or perspectives that I’ve missed, please share them with the community! My voice is just one viewpoint, and I’m sure I’ve got blind spots, especially with respect to the other dimensions of equity that I haven’t addressed here. (See what I did there, publicly acknowledging my privilege and limited perspective?) Now go forth, team leaders both formal and informal, and set yourselves up for success!


spirit of the game & gender equity - May 31, 2017

Last year, along with Niko Heckman, the coach of Madison NOISE Ultimate, I spearheaded a movement to establish a divisional individual spirit award for the Mixed division at Club Nationals, much like the Pufahl and Farricker awards for the women’s and men’s divisions. I don’t remember at what point we decided the award should be about Spirit AND Equity, but according to email archives, that was a part of the name from moment one.

 

We independently collected blurbs from teams about their nominees and held voting over the course of the tournament for one female and one male rep from each team. At the end, Allysha Dixon (Philadelphia AMP) and David Protter (Colorado Love Tractor) won the inaugural awards, the take-home prize being a homemade puff paint masterpiece. This award is going to get a lot more official this year as USA Ultimate takes the reins, but one thing that will remain is that a commitment to equity on and off the field will be a part of the award’s description and parameters.

In my mind, spirit and equity are inextricably linked together, especially when you consider spirit of the game applying to not just how you treat opponents, but also your own teammates as well as fans and the community at large.

Teammates

The essence of Spirit of the Game is mutual respect among competitors. Often, we think about this as being just respect for your opponents. This is how I personally framed SOTG for a long time, until Mixtape’s outgoing Spirit Captain, Lauren Pattie, presented to the team how Spirit applies to the way we respect each other and the leadership on the team, as well.

Doing the little things like showing up on time, supporting each other on the sideline, or filling out team surveys on time are all ways we can show respect for our teammates. Let’s peel this back one layer and look at intra-team Spirit from an equity lens. I can show respect for my teammates by valuing the contribution that each person makes, fostering the growth and development of all those players, and creating an inclusive team culture.

In general, regardless of the division or level, this means making sure that all the players on my team have the same opportunities for growth and access to team activities. What this looks like is offering rides, doing collaborative fundraising, and being communicative about season costs so lower resource players can participate fully. If there’s a wide range of ages on the team, it might look like choosing family-friendly settings for team hangouts so that younger players or players with kids can participate in culture-building activities. It means establishing everyone’s preferred gender pronouns rather than assuming them. It means challenging your assumptions about the skills a player brings to the table (and what can be developed) based on the color of their skin by checking your checking your opinions against stereotypes about relative athleticism, skill with the disc, and decision-making. In Mixed, this means counteracting internal biases and respecting women just as much as men for their knowledge and ability by providing appropriate amounts of feedback and framing mistakes equitably.

Opponents

All of the ways we show respect for our teammates translate to the game experience of opponents and the perception of fans and other bystanders (organizers, observers, potential fans). Think about the most enjoyable games you’ve played. For me, those games are against teams with positive internal team attitudes that carry forward to how they interact with us. I, personally, hold onto these negative and positive associations for teams for a long time - there are teams I respect and value and look forward to playing, and there are teams I grit my teeth to see on the schedule because of that one player with a toxic attitude or knowing that the team won’t use their women unless we leave them unguarded.

An additional layer comes from how we talk on the sideline and in huddles about the other team, and how we evaluate a players’ skill based on their outward appearance. To a certain extent, yes, matching up based on height is a good place to start, but we tend to make assumptions about other parts of play as well. We can counteract these biases through asking reflective questions as a team or individually. Do I look across the line and see a Black player and think they’re going to be more threatening without the disc than with it? Do I assume if I’m matched up on an Asian player than I’m about to guard a crafty handler? In Mixed, do I assume the men will be better than the women? If a player makes a call, how do I react - do I let the players sort it out or do I provide input? How do my reactions differ if it’s a male or female that just made the call? If it’s a younger or older looking player? If the player is a person of color?

The Community

Not only can individual teams show respect for all competitors by valuing equity, the organizational structures can do the same. USA Ultimate can show that Spirit of the Game is fundamental to our sport through competition structures, the division of resources, and efforts to promote visibility of the sport.

We can (and have, according to the Vision Tour results!) push USAU to make conscious decisions to make competition structures accessible to all players and disburse resources to communities that need it so lower resource players can participate in the sport. We can (and have, according to recent media coverage announcements and last year’s Equity through Visibility project in the women’s division!) push USAU to make conscious decisions in how they cover the sport at the highest level to show respect for women as athletes. We can push our local organizations to follow USAU’s policies regarding transgender athletes and to have inclusive language for non-gender conforming individuals in the way they talk about players.

We can also push the AUDL to represent our sport more accurately by showing a more explicit value for Spirit of the Game and equity in their rules and competition structure. Those efforts are budding, but are meeting some resistance since pro leagues are businesses, not player-driven organizations. In my mind, the relative attendance and fan enthusiasm for the Cascades Cup compared to other Cascades games is an incredible argument on the side equitably showcasing athletes of all genders even within a professional structure. (Have you ever heard fans chanting “four more quarters!” at the end of a regular pro game?!)

Spirit and equity are intertwined across all the intersections of identity, at all levels of organization, and at all levels of play. If we hold Spirit of the Game to be fundamental to our sport, then we must hold equity as fundamental, as well.


Cultural Archetypes of Teams - May 15, 2017

This year, I’ve been a part of multiple teams’ tryout processes, and I’m working collaboratively on gender equity conversations with mixed teams in the area. I’m awestruck by the embarrassment of riches we have in the Seattle area. People are trying out for multiple teams, and have more than just the choice between single gender and mixed ultimate for their season. Players are also getting to choose between different types of teams within each division (and those teams get to choose the players, of course!).

In particular, I noticed that the mixed teams in Seattle each have their own distinct central facets of team culture and identity, so when people try out for each team, they get an opportunity to try on different team cultures. What’s even more amazing is that each established mixed team in Seattle is dedicated, in their own ways, to gender equity.

I want to consider the different cultural archetypes of mixed teams I’ve encountered and how each can express a value for gender equity that fits within their respective team culture. An individual team can and should have pieces of each of these archetypes, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll reduce complex cultures to one-dimensional, two-sentence summaries.

Lovers

This team is one founded on showing love for each other in every possible moment. They show this love with words and actions, and are willing to get raw and exposed with their feelings.

The way I see these teams value gender equity is through very open, honest conversations on how they feel about the impacts of inequity and movements toward equity. The tricky thing with this kind of team is caring too much about each other’s feelings, meaning they don’t call people out in the moment of an offense or push each other outside their comfort zones.

S**t Talkers

I’ll say it - this is where my team, Seattle Mixtape, sits most of the time, and I love it. We also live in the “lovers” space, but less loudly and less explicitly proclaimed than the s**t talk. We call each other out on everything. Every humble brag, every turnover, every awkward moment gets called out with love.

The way we’ve made space for gender equity conversations is from this calling out place. We’re okay giving each other firm feedback in the moment - whether a captain uses inappropriately gendered language in a huddle or someone cuts off others on the field - we are willing to let them know. The danger in this cultural archetype is getting to the place where the talk twists into put-downs and blaming language, a place my team has definitely gone before!

Fun-Focused

The fun-focused team is one that most players have experienced. This can be a team made for the club series, but is often a team put together for one party tournament. One might ask why this team should even *need* to tackle equity, because such serious subjects take away from fun! Birdfruit player and my EMU Campaign compatriot, Natalie Jamerson puts it best - “I can’t have fun until we talk about gender equity.”

Often, these teams will show their values through play and how they talk to each other off the field. These teams can show a value by monitoring their humor and language off the field to make sure it’s inclusive, and make space for women in informal leadership moments, like calling plays on the line and leading cheers. The danger of this team is twisting gender equity into a joke for the team, which is a tenuous balance to walk without really hurting feelings.

Improvement Oriented

This team wants each and every player on the team to get better at ultimate. They’re all about individualized feedback and setting measurable goals.  

As I discussed in my last article, gender equitable mixed ultimate is often just good ultimate, so a team that wants to improve can show their value of all players’ improvement, while ensuring they look at player feedback from a gender equity lens. If the team gets too locked into this lens and forgets to look at feedback and development from other angles, feedback might become one-dimensional, leading to one-dimensional players.

Business

Finally, there are those teams that run like a business, thinking clinically and logically about every facet of organization and strategy.

The way this team can look at gender equity is from the angle of “customer satisfaction”. Ultimate is something that we all pay to do (except a handful of people), so in effect, this business team is an “experiential product” that each player is purchasing. The goal of this team should be for all players to have a satisfactory experience, and similar to the fun-based team, they need to address gender equity to enable all the players to have a good time. The potential hazard with this approach is being overly analytical and not valuing players’ feelings fully while addressing these issues.

 

By no means have I covered all teams with these categories. What I appreciate, however, is that there are so many different ways a team can operate. None of these are inherently a wrong way to run a team and different players will find one of those team models to be their best fit. What’s really beautiful is that every team can find their way to express a value of gender equity that fits into their overall culture. As your season begins, I challenge you to think about what your team’s culture is and how you can thoughtfully and authentically show your value of gender equity within that culture.