Four Widely Misunderstood Rules, Explained By Observers

Some rules seem to mystify even the most experienced players. We break some of those rules down with help from observers.

Mitch Dengler observing at Queen City Tune Up 2014.
Mitch Dengler observing at Queen City Tune Up 2014. Photo by Kevin Leclaire —

Everyone’s been in a situation where someone didn’t know the rules. Don’t be that person. In a self-officiated sport, it is the responsibility of players and coaches to be fully informed on the rules of our game. Here are five of the most misused, misconstrued, and misunderstood rules of ultimate. Mitch Dengler, the national observer director, helps break them down.

Best Perspective

Best Perspective: The most complete view available by a player that includes the relative positions of the disc, ground, players, and line markers involved in a play. On an unlined field, this may require sighting from one field marker to another.

– 11th Edition Rules

Best perspective is most often used for in/out calls on a disputed catch. Obviously, with observers present, the closest observer maintains best perspective for the call. But what many don’t understand is that, in unobserved games, best perspective can reasonably belong to any on-field player, not necessarily the one who made the catch.

Dengler explains:

Best perspective is ultimately an opinion as two opposing players can honestly believe they had a better look at a play. It is possible that a receiver has best perspective on a line call, but most every observer will agree that they RARELY have best perspective as they are looking at the disc, not the ground.  For line call situations, players near or on the line generally have better perspective than those away from the line.

Another time best perspective comes into play is on up/down calls.

Dengler continues:

Up/Down calls are hard to generalize as it comes down to angles and visibility. Who saw the disc the whole time?  Who could see the disc hit the ground or see an air gap the whole time, etc.

Both line and up down calls are not always ‘closer is better’, especially up/down.  Looking almost straight down on a disc is hard to see any gap with the ground, which is why you’ll often see observers kneel, even lay down in extreme cases when near a crazy low catch, to see that space between if it exists.

Vertical Space

The Principle of Verticality: All players have the right to enter the air space immediately above their torso to make a play on a thrown disc. If non-incidental contact occurs in the airspace immediately above a player before the outcome of the play is determined (e.g., before possession is gained or an incomplete pass is effected), it is a foul on the player entering the vertical space of the other player.

– 11th Edition Rules

Some of the best plays in our sport come from big skies and crazy overhead layouts. But at what point does jumping over a guy become a foul?


People are entitled to the space above them if they jump straight up.  If they are running and jumping, it becomes less clear as two players jumping to the same spot can have equal rights above them as they reach the same spot.  A big misconception is that any contact above a player is always a foul.  If a defender catches or D’s a disc in a way that there is no possible second effort, any contact after that is not a foul as it doesn’t affect the outcome.

This of course excludes all “dangerous plays” that happen during the play.

Adam Ford, a long-time observer, added another simple way of thinking about it: “It comes down to one player not impeding the ability of another player to make a play by jumping. Anyone can reach over or have their body above another player, but can’t do it in such a way as to thwart the jump. It’s kind of like stepping in front of a cutter to stop their cut.”

The big rule of thumb here is that any contact after you make the play isn’t a foul, unless a second effort can be made by the receiver.

The Pick Call

A pick occurs whenever an offensive player moves in a manner that causes a defensive player guarding an offensive player to be obstructed by another player. Obstruction may result from contact with, or the need to avoid, the obstructing player.

A pick can be called only by the obstructed player and must be announced by loudly calling pick immediately after it occurs.

If play stops, players reposition according to XVI.C.4. In addition, the obstructed player is then allowed to move to recover the relative position lost because of the pick.

– 11th Edition Rules

For years, there has been confusion about where players should go when a pick is called. Should the offensive player stay where he is and the defender make up the ground? Should the offensive player return to the spot of the pick?

The rules are actually very clear.

After a pick in which the disc goes back to the thrower, players return to their positions on the field at the EARLIER of:

– The time of the the throw, OR
– The time of the call

In general that means that the offensive player returns to where the defensive player was picked, and the defender makes up any lost relative position at that point.

If the pick call did not affect play and a pass was completed to another player, then players return to the location they were in when play stopped, with the defender making up any lost relative position.

The New Card System

At College Nationals in May, USA Ultimate unveiled a new card system for infractions that was again used at Club Nationals in October. Ultiworld gave Mitch Dengler an opportunity to explain the rules and benefits of this system as a representative of USA Ultimate.

“The misconduct system is poorly understood, and it’s just as much our fault for where we put it,” he said. “It’s not in the rules; it’s in the observer manual. Players (or anyone) has access to the manual on the USAU website, but players shouldn’t have to read the manual to be exposed to something they’re held to.”

Dengler said that by having the card system in the observer manual instead of the official rules, it was much easier to modify quickly should a problem with the system arise. He continued on to explain the system. Here are the various cards and calls:

Exploding T (the old symbol for a TMF) is now a technical foul. These are basically given for conduct issues that affect the presentation of the sport: General swearing not directed at anyone in particular or being across the player sideline (but not interfering with play or an observer). Three Technicals are a yardage penalty (reverse brick if on offense; to attacking brick if on defense). There are other outcomes, but this is the general result.

Blue cards are given for Team Misconduct Fouls (TMFs).  Hard fouls, repeated violations, taunting, swearing at an observer, etc. Three TMFs and a yardage penalty is given as described above.

Yellow cards are Personal Misconduct Fouls (PMFs). Dangerous play, shoving, intentional fouling to stop play, grabbing a jersey to impede a player, egregious swearing directed at an observer, etc.

Red cards are an ejection. Like in soccer, two yellow cards equals a red card (we mimicked soccer for yellow/red on purpose).  PMFs count as a TMF for yardage penalty purposes. You can also get a straight red for throwing a punch, striking or spitting on a player, or spiking and hitting a player intentionally.

Players can read a more extensive description of the Tech/TMF/PMF split in the observer manual. Dengler moved on to explain the benefits and misconceptions of the new system:

We went to the cards to help make it more apparent when a misconduct foul was called and who was receiving it. By far, the most confusing part of the system is that a TMF is only issued when play is stopped, so often we are issuing them at a different time than when the infraction happened. This at least lets us hold up a card over the infracting player.

Two years ago in the Revolver/Sockeye open finals (before cards), we issued a TMF to Revolver for hard marking, but the call was “contact” so play didn’t stop.  They turned it, then a stoppage happened a minute or two later, we issued the TMF to Revolver, and the ESPN announcers talked about Sockeye getting a TMF and how their marks were illegal even though it was Revolver.

PMFs are less confusing in that we stop play to issue them.  It’s certainly not a perfect system, but I do think it’s clearer and will get better as players get used to it.  In the semis the night before, a Sockeye player got a PMF, but because the hand signals were similar, they thought it was a TMF.  Color is more distinguishable and that confusion is mostly resolved.

The misconduct system in general… we as observers have to get more consistent game to game and across the various divisions in implementation of the system.  What constitutes a TMF/PMF (which are judgements) needs to vary much less from observer to observer.  Obviously, it shouldn’t vary it all, but there’s no way we are going to be perfectly identical, but it has to improve and that will come from training.


– Any on-field player can have best perspective, but the player making the disputed play is unlikely to have it.

– Both players have the right to the space around the disc when jumping for a disc. Incidental contact in the air is common and not usually a foul.

– After a pick, players return to their positions on the field at the EARLIER of A: The time of the the throw, or B: The time of the call.

– There are technical fouls (swearing, sideline violations) denoted by Ts, TMFs (repeated fouling, hard fouls) denoted by blue cards, PMFs (intentional fouls, grabbing jerseys) denoted by yellow cards, and ejections (two yellows, spitting on a player, throwing a punch) denoted by red cards.

READ MORE — Team Orange: The Comprehensive History Of Observers

  1. Preston Thompson

    Preston Thompson has been a staff writer for Ultiworld since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama where he played for four years. He started playing ultimate in the AFDC in Atlanta, GA in 2009. You can reach him by e-mail ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@pston3).

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