Tuesday, September 20, 2005


The Thing About Ultimate...

In writing about ultimate, I am constantly reminded of the universality of sports. So much of what is true about our sport is true about other sports: that it's crucial to understand spacing and weighting; that on-field/on-court conduct is a sore point in the community; that the governing organization has its critics; that there is a yearning for more media exposure; that successful play demands a reasoned, disciplined approach; that teamwork is about the field, the sidelines, and what's said and done away from the game; that sound play competes with flair within a team; that drive comes from within. All these things are important in ultimate, but not just ultimate. So what makes our sport different?

1. The game itself. Okay, it's a great and exciting game, but the actual rules -- though necessarily unique to ultimate -- are plain and simple: move the disc into the endzone. The specific strategies which result from these rules are unique to ultimate, but the principles which guide them are not so novel (cf. basketball zones, soccer positioning, hockey or volleyball formations, football plays and defenses, etc.).

2. The disc and how it flies. The beautiful and varied flight of a disc is unique in sports, and this lends our sport a real charm.

3. Skying and layouts. A consequence of the disc's beautiful flight is the spectacular manner in which it can be caught. A dive, a sky, the combination of athleticism and grace -- these make playing fun.

4. Self-officiating and SOTG. This aspect of ultimate offers something unique and appealing to the outside sporting world. Golf is largely self-officiated and tennis has its rules of etiquette, but neither of these concepts are as centrally embraced as in our sport.

5. The community of players. Go anywhere and you will be welcomed on the playing field. You can find games of chess anywhere too, but it just ain't the same.

As for (1), well any sport has its unique rules, and (5) may be true of balloonists, for all I know. (2) and (3) are related and part of the throw-catch spectacle. (4) is the subject of a series of blog posts, perhaps, but to avoid the appearance of partiality I won't do that until I am no longer on the UPA Board or the Conduct Committee.

What's my point? Okay, this entry doesn't have razzle-dazzle, but (as readers of this site are well aware) not all thoughts do. In fact, these thoughts are more observations than points -- but I'll conclude by saying, if you love our sport then embrace what makes it distinct.


Would you say that ultimate attracts a different type of person than other competitive sports due to reasons #4 or #5?
That's a good question. Does the culture of ultimate attract like-minded folk, or do new players "assimilate" into the culture or adopt it as their own? I'd guess (with no factual basis) that assimilation is more at play with younger players, whose personality is more malleable. Older people entering the game have probably sought it out either because they are like-minded or open-minded enough to come aboard. Just my guess.
I'm always glad to hear someone else express a basic love for the poetry of disc flight as you did in #2. The uninitiated just don't get it. You either see it or you don't. If I had to guess, I'd say that the vast majority of ultimate heads began with this essential trait: they love to see a flying disc sailing through the air. In its flight, there is a grammar that speaks of freedom (it tends to hang in the air, quite independent of those who wait for it), acceptance (mid-flight, it is beyond our control), nature (sporting with the wind as it does). Its motion is cyclical and progressive; follow any one point on the disc as it moves through space and you get a kind of playful loop-de-loop pattern. Add to that the infinite permutations of disc flight, the I/O's, the O/I's, the inverts, even the much maligned blades, and what you get is an inexhaustable discourse on control, finesse, and perception. I swear, there's nothing like it in the world.
I would place a version of #2 as the primary difference. It's how the disc flies, but it's the aerodynamics, not the aesthetics. The float allows for exciting dives and jumps and catches. The curve creates a truly three-D game.
Yes, the "infinite permutations of disc flight" are so intriguing because they allow you to the deliver the disc to any point on the field in any number of ways.

Moreso than with most (any?) other sports, you can adjust for time as well as space by varying the flight path of the "ball." Footballs don't sit in the endzone waiting for the receiver. Nor do basketballs bend around the outstretched hands of defenders. I think that soccer might have the closest parallels concerning passing (let the ball sit in space, bend it around defenders, etc) but it is still not on nearly the same level.

Yet another reason why "offense is easy."
So what makes our sport different?

1) The rules? The rules were written for High School Students. You catch the disc and your momentum carries you O.B.? So what, just mosey on back to the line and continue. O.B. is O.B.

You're a national caliber player, so called authority on the sport and you travel and you want a 'do over'? Are you kidding me?

You're a world class thrower yet you need the rules to protect you so it's illegal for the defender to touch the disc while it's in your hands?

How about that's why the sport is different. The rules are stupid.

2) This is a double edge sword. I love how the disc flies but that said, it is also incredibly easy to make spectacular catches. The problem with that is these catches are usually the resuld of a mistake (poor throws, etc.). We glorify mistakes in this sport.

3) See # 2 above. Again, these are usually the result of mistakes.

4) SOTG has resulted in a mediocre, standardless mess. Yes, that does make our sport different. woo hoo. It is not appealing (although the intentional fouling of other sports isn't either).

5) I can't go anywhere and be welcome. I play different than you, I've got more moves than you do, I'm a better thrower than you are and when I step onto a field (anywhere from elite to pickup and between), my game is so much different from anyone else's it's not fun for either party.

I love Goaltimate 2.0.

It has all the best things about Ultimate but has filtered out the nonsense.
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