(A brief-ish introduction) My name is Libby Cravens, and if you had asked me 10 years ago what would keep me active in my late 20s, I would have guessed that I would still be a committed distance runner who played soccer recreationally. Happily, I am an ultimate player (mostly retired) and coach. I played my college-eligible years for University of Texas Melee and have since spent four years coaching Mayhem (the second University of Texas women’s team). I have just wrapped up my second-year as a U-20 girls Youth Club Championships (YCC) coach with Texas Tango. I have also spent the past few years as the youth director for our local USA Ultimate Affiliate non-profit, The Ultimate Players League of Austin, and have been involved in coaching youth ultimate since 2007 (including directing summer camps more recently). Most relevant of all, I was a member of the Girls’ Ultimate Movement’s best practices panel when GUM was first coming to life a few years ago.

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I first started playing ultimate recreationally with my high school cross country friends and was one of only a handful of youth girls who was playing in tournaments in the state of Texas at the time (thanks to an obsessive love of ultimate pushed by my teammates, including the 2012 men’s Callahan Award winner, Nick Lance). Things have begun changing in important ways for girls’ ultimate in Texas. Unfortunately, the South (and Texas specifically) continues to have obstacles to the growth of youth ultimate.

  1. Unlike the Northeast or the west coast, for a majority of parents in Texas, “ultimate Frisbee” is still equated with throwing discs at baskets or something you would play with your dog. In a state where “competitive” female athletes are playing soccer, basketball or volleyball, it is rare to find parents seeking out ultimate for their daughter. Spreading an understanding and awareness of our sport feels like an uphill battle at times.
  2. All the adults involved with ultimate in Texas are volunteers! As a college head coach, I lose money coaching each season. Our youth coaches spend a season with their teams only because they love it. Retaining (and expanding) our volunteer base is tough. But without adults, youth ultimate cannot grow.
  3. Texas is very large, which means getting players and teams together can require long commutes. Playing against other all-girl youth teams requires out-of-state travel. So many would-be girls’ ultimate players are focusing on other sports, and the ones who do love ultimate have a hard time finding others who feel the same way. Our Texas U-20 girls’ team (in its third year of existence) is a statewide partnership. We draw from across our state to consolidate 20 or so ladies to compete at YCC. Last season, we took every girl who came out to tryouts and played together only one weekend as a team before the trek up to Minnesota. We managed to get FIFTH, and it was a truly incredible experience. How our girls performed is a testament to the talent and potential that is only just beginning to shine in our under-developed portion of the country. For now, some teams will continue to travel over an hour to play in our youth leagues.

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4. Field space is limited. Youth ultimate is not a varsity sport and is often not formally supported by the school. Our youth league here in Austin is held outside of the city because we do not have access to affordable fields and would be competing against soccer to get them if we did. If you have field space or a supportive athletic director, please appreciate it!

So how do we get more girls playing ultimate in Texas or the South (or anywhere really)?

  • “If you can see her, you can be her.” This quote resonated with me when hearing it at the Bay Area Coaching Conference on Gender Equity over a year ago, and I will repeat it ad nauseam from here on out. Girls need female role models in sports – and they are not getting them from the media. Women need to be coaching! I repeat, women need to be coaching. Coaching may not be for EVERYONE, but I hear over and over that my colleagues do not “feel qualified” to coach. Do you have a few hours to spare and love ultimate? Get your feet wet and play to your strengths! You can change lives and the future of our sport. That seems worth a bit of initial discomfort.
Photo Credit: Lance Weaver

IMG_4027Current players should be inviting their (non-ultimate playing) friends out to play!

When I ask my new college players what first got them playing ultimate, they almost always cite a friend. Hold learning clinics and create a culture of inclusion and acceptance. No “sorry” needed, and mistakes are okay! I bet we can all imagine how awkward that first forehand felt (and if you don’t, try throwing with your non-dominant hand – it will come rushing back to you). Austin held our first bring-a-friend GUM clinic this spring, and it was AWESOME. I highly recommend this to everyone.

Bug your school. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Parents, staff or students going to principals or athletic directors to increase the presence of the sport on campus is a start! Start a club or after-school ultimate program, ask physical education teachers to allow (background-checked) adult players from the community to be included in the ultimate unit, make announcements, post flyers and spread the word!

What can YOU be doing

  • Volunteer! If you’re an adult club player, volunteer with college or youth teams. If you’re a high schooler, run a clinic at your old middle school, etc. Contact your local disc organization – they will NOT tell you they do not need you.
  • Bring your friends out to ultimate!
  • Mentor a newer member of your team.
  • Run a GUM clinic in your city!
  • Donate to support future girls’ ultimate programming or sponsor a player.
  • Watch women’s and girls’ ultimate.
  • Read about women’s and girls’ ultimate.
  • Join/follow girls’ or women’s ultimate through social media.
  • Speak up. Join the conversation about gender equity and the value of women in our sport.

We need to do this together.

Photo Credit: Caroline Weaver

Tango still only has one player from Houston, a girl who plays with almost all boys at her high school in south Houston, just like I did. On the other hand, Marcus High School in Dallas-Fort-Worth (who has ultimate as part of their schedule during school, by the way) had enough girls on their team this year to field an all-girls’ team and win an out-of-state tournament! This season, Tango actually had to make cuts to our travel roster for YCC due to an increase in the number of girls interested (though everyone is still welcome at practices). More girls participated in our youth spring league in Austin, including more girls as captains, than ever before (and we saw 20 percent growth in Austin’s overall youth participation in the youth spring league from 2016 to 2017). We will also see the growth in youth participation impacting female participation at the college level (and later the club level). Mayhem (the second women’s team at Texas, which is the only two-team program in our part of the country) had a roster that was bigger than Melee’s for the 2016-2017 season and beat all but two D-I teams in the state at some point. Right now, female participants make up approximately 30 percent of ultimate players. I hope you will join me and the Girls’ Ultimate Movement to change that. We are much more than 30 percent of the population and should be more than 30 percent of the voice in our sport.

Feel free to reach out to UPLAYouth@gmail.com, if you would like to contact me.

Shameless promotion of some of the awesome girls in our community–