The Ultimate challenge: Women’s voices from Chennai’s frisbee community

While men and women indulge in healthy competition during a game of Ultimate Frisbee in Chennai, there are various power dynamics at play.

A little white disc flies through the air; chased by many, and caught deftly by a girl, who then sends it whizzing across the sandy shore. This is a scene that often unfolds along Chennai’s Besant Nagar beach, next to the red police booth. The vast, open space afforded by the beach sets the stage for a fun sport, involving a 175g white disc.

Ultimate Frisbee is fast-paced, involving seven players from each team on opposite sides of the field, throwing the disc to each other, racing to catch it and passing it along to teammates.

The most popular format played in India is the Mixed Ultimate, where both men and women play together. However, while the mixed gender aspect is welcome, it brings with it several complicated dynamics among teammates, which also seem reflective of the roles and limits on women in society.

Through a decade of playing, I have witnessed women in this sport grow and take the forefront; but with growth, comes growing pains. I spoke with many young women, who play on the beach and across turfs and grounds in the city, to gain clarity on the obstacles Mixed Ultimate poses for them. And how it can be a possible platform, where men and women may achieve true equity.

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A little about the sport

A few graduates, who played the sport in the US first brought it to Chennai. They loved it so much that they decided to start their own team back home. What started as a small group of friends playing a brand new sport evolved into a large community of nearly eight teams in Chennai today. It is now played all over the country, with regular tournaments, and teams having represented the country in international forums as well. 

The rules are fairly straightforward; no body contact, no moving when the disc is in hand, and points are scored by catching the disc in the opposite team’s ‘end-zone’ (a rectangular area defined on either end). The game starts with a pull (a long throw), from one of the teams to the other team. The other then moves the disc among themselves, attempting to take it all the way to the opposite end zone, while the defenders try to intercept the disc.

The allure of a new sport, and with it, a new community

As a young college student, I found Ultimate to be the perfect game to immerse myself in, with its mixed-gender gameplay, self-refereed spirit, and no-contact rule.

I remember my first day playing; it was a balmy summer morning and I was asked to join in on a game. I stood awkwardly on the field but once I started running barefoot on the beach, exhilaration flooded me. I felt free. When I first joined, the gender ratio in frisbee was two women and five men on the line (a term we use for the set of players in a round or point). Currently, it is an alternating 4:3 ratio of men to women, a major change implemented in 2018 by UPAI (the governing body of Ultimate Frisbee in India).

According to Sarah, who has been playing the sport longer than me, there had even been days when there were six men for one woman.

The appeal of Mixed Ultimate for some women stems from the no-contact rule. For others, it offers a social outlet and the thrill of competing alongside men. It is also a means to stay physically active in adulthood rather than just hitting the gym.

Harini says, “I’ve always found connecting with people through shared activities more meaningful and easier than just verbal conversations.” Chasing a disc and landing it gives me a dopamine hit each time, and keeps me going back for more.

Having a competitive edge in Frisbee

The role of women in Ultimate Frisbee has grown over the years. Pic: Naveen Kumar

Right now, the game is much more competitive than it used to be; the change facilitated by a gruelling tournament schedule and growing standards of play. This can be a double-edged sword. Some women are more inclined towards this approach as it drives them to “get better.”

For others, the competition becomes a deterrent. Ananditha falls into the former category. “I find that spaces with men in the sport are more competitive and often have higher standards set. I like the mixed format because women can be exposed to the same standard as men and strive to compete as equals.”

On the other hand, women who want to  pick up a new hobby or casually play, simply cannot commit the time. It also leaves them feeling guilty when they cannot keep up. Harini, relates to this guilt on a deep level, saying, “Everyone on the team prioritises the sport and seems committed. I feel like a bad teammate for not putting in the same effort. It makes me feel that I don’t belong.”

This is a very women specific issue, and quite a conundrum. As Prema elaborates, “I feel like the role of women in Ultimate gets determined by the need that we have created in the Indian Ultimate Frisbee community (eg: the requirement for meeting gender ratio guidelines in order to be able to play tournaments) as opposed to considering the preferences of the female matching player and what they want from the sport.” A female matching player is any player who identifies as female.

Given that Ultimate in Chennai is structured around club team practices and tournaments at levels from regionals to nationals, many women are being invited to play purely to fill the quotas of the updated gender ratio.

As a result, women’s goals for playing and needs within the sport are sidestepped and at times even ignored entirely. Kathy describes a phenomenon from multiple tournaments she has played.

“I can play my role exceptionally well, but I’m not very fast. So, I’m given way less game time on the field compared to someone newer but speedy. Sometimes, they are exhausted and dejected, but asked to play nonetheless just because they can run, even if it doesn’t  necessarily make a difference in the game. Meanwhile, I stand on the sidelines feeling spurned and disrespected despite my disc skills.” Neither woman seems to have a say in how they’d like to play, and why.

Complicated power dynamics between men and women teammates

Women have to often work harder to prove themselves in the game. Pic: Naresh Kumar

In Chennai, while the ‘mixed’ format is a great avenue to build conversations around genders interactions, playing together may bring up complications between players. Culturally, men are encouraged to foray into sports from a young age, allowing them to slip into adult sports with a level of familiarity that is not afforded women.

Men may not have concerns regarding the time and place they choose to play, while women are wary of playing at night, and in distant locations. Many team practices take place at night, often extending till 9 or 10 pm. These advantages simply leave men poised for more play, and therefore more say in how frisbee is played.

Most women I interacted with had the common gripe of having to go against their families, battle social stigma, overcome safety concerns and tackle accessibility.

Cathy, who had been playing with a different team, explains why her team no longer plays. “All the women who played with us were held back by family pressures. They would not let them play. It was heartbreaking.”

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Travel time and distance, frequent interactions with men, sport being viewed as ‘unwomanly’, potential injuries, and even playing in the sun are reasons cited by many families to discourage women from playing. Sarah, with a chuckle, adds that her parents sometimes think frisbee is holding her back from visiting them often.

During my early days of playing, my parents were also reluctant to allow me to take part in the sport. I’ll never forget the struggle I had in convincing them to come watch me play. They never did. It makes me sad to this day.

It’s not just the off-field obstacles. Inherent bias towards the capabilities of women has a definite presence in the sport. Cathy says, “I give my heart and soul to playing; but I often feel that I am not respected with enough disc time.” Men touch the disc, as Sarah says, “at least three times more than women.” She’s not far off the mark as elaborated in an article published by Ultiworld, which states that men touch the disc twice as much as women.

Ananditha feels that women get punished harder for their mistakes on the field and are required to ‘make up’ for it for men to ‘trust them’ enough to pass the disc again. Despite having played for eight years, I was once told that it was my responsibility to “build trust among the men” that I would not drop the disc so they would throw it to me.

What is learned CAN be unlearned

Playing Ultimate Frisbee can be a liberating experience for many women. Pic: Naveen Kumar

Although there’s potential for greater inclusivity, many men are open to discussions on this topic and are mindful of their perceptions of women who play alongside them. One of the ways in which a Chennai team attempted to promote inclusivity, was by holding small matches within the team, and awarding more points for women-led assists (the throw which results in a score) and hucks (long throws). Such initiatives work wonders in bolstering women’s voices and allowing them to build confidence in their skill.

Almost all the women I spoke to have seen or experienced disrespect in different ways on and off field. Harini speaks about her qualms with the way men glorify extremely simple plays she makes on field. “I wonder if being appreciated doesn’t necessarily equate to being respected in the community. I wonder if to be respected means one should be as good as their male counterparts.”

I’m inclined to agree because while it is true that physical and biological barriers hold men and women to different standards in sport, excessive mollycoddling of women by the opposite gender can be condescending.

Sarah also mentions that a lot of male players seem comfortable sharing unsolicited advice and feedback on how to throw the disc or where to run on field.

There are some positive improvements in the Ultimate community in Chennai as well. Prema says, “There are more feminists playing,” which certainly makes a difference and Mina agrees to this adding, “I see women standing up for themselves. Chauvinist jokes and remarks have reduced.”

Speaking up against discrimination, everyone agrees, is the first step towards addressing the issues and thereby eventually solving them. Unfortunately, this puts the onus on women to change the sometimes unjust situations.

From the days of women being a number to fill, to now, when women play significant roles on field, there has been a marked improvement. And still, there is work to do. Ultimate Frisbee in Chennai is a platform for men and women to come together in sport, and in many ways, it is representative of the gender issues in our society as well.

The more women play, the more there are women with all kinds of objectives to play — allowing for a more diverse community of Ultimate Frisbee in Chennai. This would allow for women in leadership; teams with more women than men; hobby-oriented spaces for casual frisbee players; and as a result, more women voicing what they require from the sport and defining the manner of their participation.

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