We Can Do Better

Revolver huddles up in front of the crowd at the 2013 US Open.
Photo by Brandon Wu — UltiPhotos.com

Jim Parinella’s excellent article Why Can’t We All Just Get Along seemed to arrive with a touch of clairvoyance as this extremely interesting thread on reddit appeared last week about quitting ultimate. Posted by a player from a Division II University team in the UK just after Nationals, it shows some (in my eyes) fairly normal responses to the rather unique world of Ultimate from the viewpoint of someone with a background in more “normal” sports.

To quickly summarize the issues that led to this unnamed person wanting to quit the sport:

  • People cheating via deliberately poor foul calls
  • The false niceness of SOTG (or, “Why do Ultimate players think themselves holier than thou?”)
  • People reacting poorly to people getting angry
  • Why do we do end of game talks?
  • Being lambasted for enjoying themselves

I have to say, I have a lot of sympathy with the author. I grew up into the sport playing at the same competition as this person, and it was the learning ground for my game. Having graduated and played internationally, I returned to university ultimate while completing a PhD. I found myself back at a lower level of play, once again, but this time I quickly realized that university Ultimate has a rather unique set of features:

  • Dominated by young athletes with poor throws
  • Few or no experienced players (experienced meaning 3+ years in the sport, international or top flight club experience)
  • Many players recent converts from other sports
  • Very poor overall rules knowledge
  • High levels of competition between teams of even ability levels where one or two incidents can have a huge effect on the game

All of this is a recipe for poor spirit of the game.

To start things off, teams dominated by athletes with poor throwers tend to end up with more hospital passes, and therefore more opportunity for games to be call-heavy. Without some older, more experienced players to calm things down and apply correct knowledge of the rules, it is understandable that calls may escalate. Because the tournament means a lot to the participants, bad feelings may persist after the event.

I can certainly empathize with the author on this, as I frequently found myself acting as the mediator or rules expert, even spending a significant portion of my time trying to calm things down during my second stint of university play. I was also shocked by some of the actions committed on field, possibly throwbacks to other sports.1 After some testing moments, I mostly calmed down — but it’s not hard to imagine events boiling over.

Where does it come from? Is this just a lack of rules knowledge? Or is it putting players from other sports (or no sports at all) into a sporting environment where they don’t know how to act appropriately? It could be just that these players don’t know the rules and therefore don’t understand why picks and fouls are being called — and because no one bothers to explain them, they just get frustrated.2

Spirit of the Game is a strange concept to explain to players new to the game. The author on Reddit claims that spirit has driven people away from the sport. I find that interesting and disappointing.

It could be because spirit of the game is (sometimes) incorrectly taught to mean that players cannot be competitive, which drives away competitive people. To quote the post: “Is it really that bad to get angry during a competitive game?” I say a resounding no. I get angry at myself a lot playing ultimate. Turfed a pass? Grrr. Missed a D attempt? Grrr. Teammate forgets the force? Extra grrr.

When you pour your heart and soul into something, it’s OK to be disappointed when things go wrong. I found myself more on the side that this behavior should be acceptable, rather than on the side of many of the commentators — who seem to have sat up on their high horses to deride the post, as though there’s a single model of what an ultimate player should look like and that we all need to fit the same mold.

I find myself particularly empathetic when it comes to the issue of cheating: I have played in many games where people cheated, sometimes blatantly, and to deny the existence, or even importance of cheating in ultimate (especially at some levels), is simply bizarre to me.3

I was extremely disappointed in many of the responses on reddit which seemed to attack the author. Where’s SOTG now? Just because you’re interacting via the internet doesn’t mean that you don’t need to show some respect. A simple scroll through the thread and you’ll see the poster lambasted as “selfish”, “insecure”, “mediocre”, “a lost cause” then told to “man up” and “take your pity party somewhere else.”

Is this the right way to respond to someone who criticizes the sport? To make personal attacks? I appeal to the Ultimate community: We can do better.  We can do better at coaching young players.  We can do better at understanding the role of SOTG and communicating that to our teams.  We can do better at policing the actions of teammates who might be bending the rules.  We can do better at understanding why people might not want to shake hands, or play “silly” games after a hard fought match.  And we can certainly do better when reacting to criticism of the sport we love.

What if these opinions were held not by a single player in the UK, but by a representative of the Olympics or someone in a position of authority to give Ultimate official recognition within your country? I know that our responses would be better than the above. Of course, there were many sympathetic responses on reddit aiming to rekindle the lost love of the game.

You play a minority sport. Guess what? Some people are going to attack it. Some people are going to play it and fall out of love with the sport. Sometimes, wouldn’t it be wise to take the criticism on board? To take a look at the sport from the perspective of an outsider, to look upon it with fresh eyes, and say “is this what we really want?”

With the advent of professional ultimate, we’re in an unprecedented era of change for our sport, and as the sport grows in different countries, we’re going to come across cultures other than our own that have their own unique way of shaping ultimate. This may have consequences on spirit of the game. Some parts of the sport will evolve; some will remain the same.

  1. One example that involved me: I was popping against a zone, and as I went to crash through the cup, one of the defenders put out an arm to prevent me moving through that space and hit me in the throat, effectively clotheslining me. I’m not sure what an appropriate action to this should be, but I reacted with anger at this rather extreme level of aggression 

  2. Interestingly, these issues don’t appear to be as prevalent in the US, from the comments I’ve seen in the thread.  Perhaps the presence of non-playing adult coaches in the US (there are almost none in the UK) has something to do with this?  Perhaps better coaching is part of the solution?  I know of very few UK university teams with any outside coach. 

  3. When I was coaching GB, I made it clear that angry outbursts were unacceptable. Why the hypocrisy? Because I wanted GB to have a good reputation on the international stage. I knew we’d be playing in front of crowds & cameras, and the last thing I wanted was someone wearing a GB shirt screaming obscenities, even at themselves. But, on a club team or at Div. 2 Nationals, I don’t see any harm in it. 

  1. Sion "Brummie" Scone

    Sion "Brummie" Scone coached GB Open from 2010-2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013, and the u24 Men in 2018. He has been running skills clinics in the UK and around the world since 2005. He played GB Open 2007-12, and GB World Games 2009. He lives in Birmingham, UK. You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@sionscone).


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