Equitable Team Culture (2/3): Team Routines and Norms

June 21, 2017

Note: 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 column.

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.

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.