This past January I was fortunate enough to have another wonderful experience coaching the USA U24 Mixed team (USX). We won a gold medal, like the previous two years, but this cycle was very different from the past two.
This was the first iteration with no founding players. Last cycle we had returners that had shaped the teams existence and this was the first official passing of a torch to new leaders for whom this was already an "established" thing. This time we took a smaller roster, slightly eschewing the "more people means more fun" mentality for the possibility of a tighter knit team. This cycle also was captive by the times and far more interested in gender equity than teams in the past. All of these things are probably worth talking about at some point, but for now we will divert from the last one to look at the same thing I have looked at the past two, gender contact ratio.
The same caveat applies as before: there isn't a "perfect" number that represents the most "equitable" style of play. We can't make hard conclusions about the involvement of both genders from this number, but it does help us check our perception of reality and talk about broad topics.
The context of the game was similar to last cycle. It was windy, but not too oppressive. Japan used their women more effectively (at least in my opinion) than Australia did in 2015. Our team was more conscientious about using our women, and we had more female handlers than we had ever had. In 2013 we could argue having 3 female handlers, with really only Sophie being a true center handler in the bunch. This group decided early on that we had really good female center handlers and threw the first pass to them without any instruction from us. This time we had Hardy, KJ, T-Lo and Anna all acting as handlers and all taking turns getting centered to. Japan also utilized a zone that required a lot of patty-cake from our handlers (or maybe it was the handlers that we had at the time) because we weren't going to swing around their 3-3-1 as easily. This patty-cake often featured male handlers getting lots of touches.
The numbers for this game were pretty surprising. I felt like we were more equitable with our distribution, not as a mantra but rather because we were opening up good space and willing to throw passes. I often talk about how my anecdotal measure of success for a mixed team is how willing they are to throw a 20-30 yard under to a woman who is well guarded. It shows a level of trust, openness of space, and also a recognition that small spaces are ok sometimes. I felt like this team leaned in to that principle well and was often throwing big gainers to their women. Those women didn't turn around and boost it as much as I would like, but at the same time they weren't always resetting the disc either, so I think it is a structural problem in how we were running the offense.
To the numbers. In this game there were a total of 417 touches (as compared to 252 and 180 in the past two cycles . . . patty-cake). Of those 417, 157 were by women. This breaks down to 37.6% of the touches or a contact ratio of 1.66 times as many touches for a man as compared to a woman. If we look at the past two cycles we had numbers of 3.00 (2015) and 2.53 (2013). I know I said that this number doesn't well correlate with better play, but I can't help but feel that we threw to women more often and this number supports it. No doubt part of it is getting people in places to shine, but we were consistently throwing difficult passes to small windows and hitting women. We also did a better job of clearing out space downfield so that strings of female passes could occur before a male defender and offender crowded the picture.
It is worth noting that these numbers include a few points against that Japanese zone where we had a high number of touches and since much of that was between three men (Brett, John and Matt) it skews the numbers a bit. Women were still key players in those points, but not in the patty-cake that was most of the touches and rather in the key outlet and through passes that actually moved the disc. One such possession had 27 touches by women as compared to 52 touches by men. Another was 18/47, respectively. I thought about taking these points out, but they are real points that affected touches, so I felt they should stay in.
On thing that is worth looking at is a comparison of the final to the semi-final. After the semi against Canada there was a clear feeling by members of the team that we "hadn't used our women well." While that is amorphous and certainly isn't completely embodied by this ratio, it was the feeling by the players and we were a little surprised. Looking back at the film the first time it felt like there were plenty of places where only men were touching the disc, but that it was largely a structural issue (cutters too far away and reset defenders able to get too close) than a broader failure to throw to women. Watching the film again looking at contact ratio, the semifinal was less balanced than the final (showing that we cleaned things up) but not terribly so. The ratio was 2.24 touch for men for each by a woman. That is better than both other finals, although it is markedly worse than our final this cycle.
So what does this mean? I feel like I got this job in part because I was able to well describe a way that I thought we could best showcase mixed ultimate, not by ignoring gender and treating everyone the same, nor by over leveraging particular advantages (see Bad Larry mid2000s who ran 4 women so their men had more room to homey) but by saying that if we put people in the right places and throw to them in a system that creates space for everyone, we can all get better. It is a "total is greater than the sum of the pieces" approach. I feel like we did that in the past, and while watching these two games again more critically I do feel that we made many refinement errors (didn't run our redzone particularly well, suffered from handler creep, etc.) we did a better job of getting everyone space at times and throwing passes to everyone. That, combined with a better balance of genders in each position, and a focus on gender equity, is likely part of the reason we ended up getting more people involved.
Again, that doesn't mean that the road to victory is having a ratio of 1, or that this is the only way to win these games. But as a person who hopes to live up to values of inclusion, and recognizes that there are times that I fail, looking at the Gender Contact Ratio for this cycle makes me think that we did a pretty good job.