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Mon, 20 Jan 2014

Growing an Ultimate Community

As promised to the lovely young couple I met on the beach of Cancun, how and why you should grow an Ultimate community.

But first, what is Ultimate (sometimes called Ultimate Frisbee). You can start with these ten simple rules:

Playing ultimate requires little more than a disc, some cones, and cleats. It’s a fast-paced (and fast-growing!) sport with simple rules, a strong, good-spirited community, and is best described as a mix of Football, Basketball, and Soccer. Like Football, the goal is to basically catch a touchdown in the endzone. Like Basketball, you cannot run with the ball (but you can’t dribble a frisbee) so you have to pass it (setting a pivot foot like Basketball, and with a 10-second “shot-clock” in which to throw the disc). Like Soccer there is a lot of running back and forth in an open field, an emphasis on long passes and teamwork, and limited/non-contact.

Why would you want to support ultimate in your community?

For that I’ll give you a little history of Ultimate’s rise in Mexico. It starts a little prior to 2000, when Fernando Najera of Mexico City spent some time in the U.S. and was introduced to the sport. When he came back to Mexico he wanted to promote it as an alternative to Soccer. For the reason why, you’ll need a little cultural background about sports in Mexico.

I’ve been told by muliple people that Soccer in Mexico is taken sometimes a little too seriously in that “cheating” or “being tricky” is seen as an inevitable fact of life and is “part of the game”. This is in sharp contrast with Ultimate which has rules against contact (or the “threat” of contact, ie: setting a “pick”), and generally no referees, even at very high levels of the game. Players are expected to work things out, call their own fouls, and avoid fouls in the first place. This spirit of the game is pervasive at lower levels of play and is doing its best to survive at the highest levels of play, although most of the formal competitive leagues are introducing “observers”, which are kindof like “optional referees” to help resolve disputes between players on the field.

Another aspect is that in Mexico, sports (and especially Soccer) are seen as “for men only” and girls/women are discouraged from participating. This again is in sharp contrast with Ultimate, whose player-base generally actively recruits women and support women playing. Even at the highest levels of play, the leagues are generally “Co-Ed” (4-3 or 5-2), “Women” (7 girls), and “Open” (7 players, men or women).

So Fernando took Ultimate back to Mexico and started promoting it locally until he had a core base of players. He then organized an international tournament in Acapulco for people from all over the world to spend a weekend playing frisbee (on the grass and the beach) and enjoying the beautiful weather, food, and nightlife that Acapulco had to offer.

In actuality this was just a clever trick to draw talented players from around the world who could train his core group of players on how to improve their game. Since 2000, there have been 10+ international tournaments in Mexico and a vibrant community of players spread throughout the country. From those first shaky days in 2000, Mexico now fields competitive teams in multiple divisions in “Worlds” (at least Open and Womens).

Ultimate has a focus on self-refereeing, a vibrant international community, it is a very spectator-friendly game, that is easy to teach, easy to learn, easy to watch, and has a community that I’ve found to be inclusive of all shapes, ages, and sizes. My favorite slogan has to be the one adopted by the Mexican teams: “Learn to Fly, Play Ultimate”. When you throw the disc, you put a little of yourself into it, your hopes and dreams that it will reach its intended target and can imagine what it would be like to follow that same trajectory. When you dive for the disc, or jump to make a catch, time stops for just a moment when you stretch as far as you can, and that is the closest most of us can get to actually flying.

How to start playing Ultimate

As shown above, the rules are extremely simple and natural. At it’s core, Ultimate is a game of throwing and catching and there are quite a few variations for fewer players or a smaller play area.

Divide a group into teams of two (7 players is recommended), with light and dark shirts (grey is neitehr light nor dark). Set up two goal-lines a little bit farther apart than the best player can throw. Explain: “You can’t run with the disc, you can’t run into anybody, and if you drop it or don’t catch it it then the other team gets it.” Line up each team on the goal line and have one team throw to the other. You’re now playing Ultimate, and you have 90% of the rules down (it really is that simple).

I recommend a strategy for teaching the game based on the old story of “boiling the frog” where rules are gradually introduced. Usually the first rule that comes up after explaining the general goal is to introduce the “stall count” or “shot clock” of ten seconds. If the disc is moving nicely and only occasionally getting held on to for too long, it might be a while before you need to introduce this rule. I’ve most often seen it become necessary when the competition heats up, and people start to be more careful with their throws, you’ll find that introducing the “stall count” makes the game more exciting and more fluid.

The next rule that usually comes up is “disc space/double-team” and “spirit of the game”. They all go hand in hand. Usually some defender will get over-aggressive and too close to the person with the disc, or two people will try to “surround” the person with the disc. Explain that Ultimate has an over-arching rule called “spirit of the game” and two specific rules related to the spacing of players.

First, when guarding the person who has the disc, you must be no closer than the length of the disc. This is called “disc space” and if you think about it, it makes sense (the thrower needs some room to maneuver). The second rule is that you can’t have two players surrounding the person with the disc. Only one player is allowed to be within 10 feet of the player with the disc. All other defenders must be “outside” that imaginary 10-foot bubble around the player with disc. Again, if you think about it this rule makes sense too. There’s a few more details around spacing which you’ll find in the complete rulebook, but if you’ve gotten this far you’re basically done.

Stepping on the line is out of bounds, substitutions are allowed only after a point is completed, kick-off throws that land out of bounds go to the middle of the field, thows that roll out of bounds are played from the sideline, after any minor stoppage of play you have to “tap the disc in” by offering it to your opponent. A few more miscellaneous rules and you’re all set! But if your community is just starting out with Ultimate, you’ll come to a lot of these same conclusions naturally, or if your community comes to different conclusions and it’s a casual game, the “Ultimate Police” will not swoop down and write you a ticket for playing by your own rules.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have less than 10-15 people, you can usually play a game called “hot box”, which is kindof like half-court ultimate. There’s a box in the middle of the field and an outside boundary where you have to complete a pass outside the boundaries before you can catch a score in the middle box.


20:02 CST | category / entries
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