Monday, September 25, 2017

Ultimate Life Skills

I played a lot of organized sports as a boy, mostly baseball, but I was also on football, basketball and soccer teams as well. I played eagerly, nagging mom to get me signed up, waiting impatiently for each coming season, then fully engaging in practices and games. My parents never emphasized winning, instead simply encouraging me to give it my best, and while some of my coaches may have slipped over the line at times, I learned basic sportsmanship with simultaneously coming to embrace the competitive aspect of sports.

Over the weekend I went to watch my nephew's middle school Ultimate (frisbee) match. I'd seen people playing the sport before, even paused to watch for a bit, but this was my first real exposure. From a fan's perspective, it's a fine sport to watch with plenty of action marked by teamwork and athleticism (running, throwing, defending, and catching). It's a non-contact sport, placing an emphasis on speed, leaping, and passing. I can imagine that were I a middle schooler, this might well have been one of my games.

At one point, a pair of girls were facing off, one handling the disc while the other defended. I didn't see what happened, but I looked up to see the disc on the ground and the action had stopped. The girls started talking. A coach called out, "Everyone freeze until they work it out!" The girls continued talking back and forth for a minute or so, then one of them picked up the disc and the game continued. What had I just witnessed?

There are no referees in Ultimate. From the game's inception in the late 60's, this has been part of the design of the game, with the players on the field instead empowered to enforce the rules according to "the spirit of the game." The coaches are not involved, the parents are not involved, their teammates on the sideline are not involved, only the players on the field can make determinations about fouls and other rule violations. If they cannot come to an agreement, the game is over. I could tell that neither of the girls wanted to admit fault, but they came to an agreement for the good of the game and then on they played. Later I saw another player call herself "out of bounds," before turning the disc over to the rival team.

Unlike the sports I used to play where "sportsmanship" was almost an afterthought, these higher values, these life skills, appear to be inextricably woven into the Ultimate game. There was no no yelling at the refs or the usual griping and moaning like we see in other sports. It was refreshing. Even more refreshing was that at the end of the match both teams stood together in an inward facing circle, teams intermixed. I couldn't hear what they talked about, but apparently it's an opportunity for players to compliment their opponents' play. After a bit, they were doing some sort of chicken dance together which was followed by a round-robin rock-paper-scissors competition.

I've always thought that the name "Ultimate" was a bit hyperbolic, but after what I saw on Saturday, I now understand.

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