It amazes me how much impact you can have in ultimate with only your voice:

The energy you can provide to the players on the field by screaming one of your team’s wackiest cheers from the sideline. The chaos you can cause for the other team by calling out the fact that you are poached in the back of the end zone. The handblock you can generate by telling the mark to stop the inside-out throw, and the fair play you can ensure by speaking up about the foul that just took place.

All of this is to say becoming a better ultimate player isn’t only about training your body to accomplish athletic feats or your mind to understand sophisticated strategic schemes – it’s also about developing the confidence to use your voice on your team’s behalf. And this is why, in my opinion, one of the most exciting aspects of getting more girls and women involved in ultimate is the thought of empowering more girls and women to be comfortable not just using, but owning, the power of their voices.

2014 Nationals

We’re all familiar with the stereotypes around women, especially young women, when it comes to speaking up. While it is certainly an over-generalization, there is some truth to the idea that, compared to boys, girls are often quieter and more hesitant to speak up. Girls use more “uptalk” and may be more likely to question their own thoughts, defer to others or behave in conflict-averse ways.

These are all characteristics that play out on the ultimate field as well: wide-open under cuts that are never seen because they are made silently, discs that could be easily defended but aren’t because an entire sideline refrains from yelling “up,” clear fouls that don’t get called and obviously poor calls that go uncontested. I have also felt these characteristics manifest in women’s teams that are just very, very quiet, with practices with a decibel level lower than that of the nearest public library.

2016 Regionals 2

A raging introvert myself, I’m no stranger to any of this. In fact, it’s because I was once so afraid of speaking up that I feel so strongly about the importance of finding and using our voices in ultimate.

On our college ultimate team, my freshmen class and I were actually known for our silence. I went to practices and tournaments because I loved the sport, but always said as little as possible to the teammates who intimidated me so much. Because of my irrational fear of having normal conversations with my wonderful teammates, I focused on the one door that felt comfortable: yelling from the sideline. I knew there were a few obviously helpful things I could add, so I started with up calls and worked my way up to advising the mark.

As the year rolled on, I realized that I actually had a lot of thoughts about the team when casually chatting with teammates one on one. I started speaking more in those settings and eventually started to do the same in tournament hotel rooms and workout pods, finding comfort in smaller groups within the team.

A great blessing in disguise came sophomore year when I tore my PCL. Unable to bring value with my body, I focused on making better use of my voice. From my new vantage point on the sidelines, I realized I had some potentially useful comments for team huddles and started to speak there and although I recovered from injury later that year, it dawned on me that I might actually be able to do more for the team with my voice than my body even at full health. I embraced this realization by speaking more often on my college team, helping coach a local youth club team and getting certified as an observer to learn how to speak more authoritatively and credibly.

There are still plenty of situations in life and ultimate that I find intimidating, when I feel my natural tendency to withdraw rise up and tempt me to the comfort of remaining mute. But it’s also true that once you’ve found the power of speaking up, it can be hard to put it back in the bottle. There are now just as many situations when I worry I am speaking too much, not leaving enough room for others to share and grow into their own voices. At this point, it’s a problem I’m happy to have and another opportunity to learn effective communication – recognizing the power of a silence that comes from intentionality rather than fear.

2015 Stanford Invite

Of all the transformations ultimate caused in me, my voice was the most significant gift. Learning how to throw a forehand huck was an accomplishment, but growing into a confident speaker has been a genuine blessing.

It is absolutely for the sake of ultimate that I want the young women who play this beautiful sport to get comfortable using their voices: from the sideline, on the field and with their teammates. But it is much more so for the sake of society at large – for the world we will get to live in – as all of these smart, funny, capable young women discover the power in speaking with a strong voice.

2017 Assistant Coaching

If I could offer any advice to young women who aren’t yet making full use of their voices – more pointedly, if I could offer any advice to the younger me – it would be the following:

Your voice is a muscle. It will take practice to get better at using it and using it well. It’s okay that this growth will take time. As with any form of strength training, strive for the balance between setting goals, challenging yourself and practicing patience.

Find your door. There are a lot of ways to make use of your voice in ultimate, and one of them will likely come to you more easily than the rest. For me, it was strategic sideline talk. For you, it might be leading cheers, checking in with your teammates to see how they are feeling during practice and tournaments, getting to know teammates one on one and sharing things about your lives outside of ultimate, offering an opinion about a team decision like which tournament to attend or whether to buy new jerseys, advocating for others, sharing your knowledge of the game or the rules, or simply asking questions. And once you’ve gone through that first door, the others will open much more easily.

It’s completely okay to feel afraid. Just ask yourself why. If I could go back, the one thing I would try to do sooner is admit to myself that I wasn’t speaking because I was afraid, and then try to approach that fear from a place of curiosity. In openly facing the fear, I probably would have realized that most of my anxieties were self-imposed. Ironically, I also might have been able to see that even the anxieties with outside causes were things that probably could have changed – had I been willing and able to speak up about them.

Notice how others do (and don’t) speak. This is all about using the infinite resources around you, rather than withdrawing into the false ideal of self-reliance. If you’re playing ultimate, you probably have some solid examples of women owning their voices, whether they be coaches, captains, teammates, opponents or community members. Watch those you admire, and notice what makes their use of speech effective. Notice how different their voices are and appreciate the many different forms effective communication can take. Notice the times when others appear afraid or seem like they are holding back, and ask yourself why. Do any of these individuals remind you of yourself? What advice would you give them? Can you follow it too?

Relax and have fun. At the end of the day, speaking confidently is an expression of self-love. It’s about being yourself and getting out of your own way, so your team has access to the full gift of your unique voice. The great news is this: Ultimate is a really special sport, and your teammates are probably a bunch of weirdos. If everything above seems like too much to think about, you will probably grow just as much by simply showing up to practice and allowing the joy of chasing plastic around a grassy field to open you up naturally.

2014 YCC