Tuesday Tips: A Beginner’s Guide to Playing with Observers

Whether you agree with their presence or not, it is becoming increasingly important for ultimate players to understand how observers influence games and how to deal with that.

Photo: Kevin Leclaire -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Despite what some would like to claim, observers change the game of ultimate.

The current observer system is intentionally designed to not simply mimic referees; ideally observers are there to enforce existing standards around timing, identify objective infractions, and serve as arbiters in subjective player calls, rather than being empowered to actively make the subjective calls on their own. While the degrees of involvement can differ based on level of competition, whether you are an elite player or someone just learning the game in college, certain elements of the game play can be different when observers are present as opposed to when they are not.

Some of the observer roles are small and should have a relatively low-impact on your team’s game plan — or at least seem low-impact until they come up at a critical juncture. Others, however, can offer key advantages and disadvantages to those that understand the system, depending on the situation and the flow of the contest. Either way, you as a player need to be aware of the important differences that observers bring to the field and need to be knowledgeable and confident when working with these third parties in your game.

Today’s article deals with the basics of playing with observers and how to get your team ready for them, which is a great overview for all players, but especially useful for players new to observers. Part 2 of this series — coming next week — will be more advanced and go into further depth on the strategy of playing with observers and more specific tips to remember when using them.

Regardless of your opinion of third-party officiation, or your stance on Spirit of the Game, every player — rookie, veteran, or elite — needs to be self-aware of how to play the game of ultimate with observers.

Meeting the Observers: Getting Them and Understanding Their Role

Unless you’re playing at a high-level event like Nationals, chances are you won’t even know if you’ll have observers until the day of your game. Some tournaments won’t have any observers, some will have them designated for specific games or fields or rounds, and some will have observers available upon request.

If you’re a team that aspires to compete at high-level tournaments where you are likely to see observers in meaningful games, it’s typically a good idea to request them whenever you can as a chance for your squad to get used to playing with observers together. It can also be of value in games against an opponent with whom your team has bad blood from past encounters. In either case, you might as well request them as the worst case scenario is that you’ll be turned down.

Once you learn that you’ll have observers for a game, you need to start thinking about how you are going to communicate this to your team, so you can convey what it means without putting added pressure on the younger players or completely distracting your normal warm-up and pregame focus. Hopefully you’ll have taken the chance to practice with observers in a scrimmage in advance1; at the very least, your team should have knowledge of the rules and a basic understanding how observers work prior to the day of the tournament. If not, you will need to make sure you recognize the situation for your own playing benefit.

In a game with an observer, the first step is an important one — send a captain or coach to go talk to the observers and find out exactly what they’ll be doing for your game. Some players may not realize this, but not all observed games are created equal.

Some observed games don’t feel observed at all, with nothing more than a single orange-shirted person officially keeping the time and tracking the score. They may be merely training and practicing themselves or do not have enough of a crew to confidently insert themselves into the game and will defer to the captains on their level of involvement.

In other instances, however — such as highly competitive tournaments or high-profile spectator games — observers can be active participants, encouraged to get involved to move the game along quickly, fairly, and efficiently. Sometimes, observers may even be empowered to use the full extent of their authority to really have an impact on the game.

When playing in an observed game, it is critical that you understand at what level they anticipate being involved. For example, observers may intend to play a role in any or all of the following:

  • Keeping track of time (overall round time and time between points)
  • Watching for and calling offsides
  • Applying immediate rulings on close in/out calls for sidelines and endzones
  • Making rulings on disputed player-initiated calls if no other agreement can be reached
  • Implementing the misconduct system if the rules are broken egregiously or repeatedly
  • Enforcing event-specific rules or points of emphasis (ie, foul language)

Be sure you know the specific rules that they are willing or planning to enforce, actively call, or rule on. Often this will be dictated by the event officials in charge of the game, but in some instances it can be negotiated between the observers and captains. There are numerous variations of how observers can influence the game, all depending on how many observers you have and what they are comfortable with, but each creates its own unique situation.

Observer Set-Up: The Rules, the Flip, and the Pre-Game Huddle

Once you know you have observers and what role they will be playing in the same, you can get the game and your team ready. Remember, even if observers are only willing to do small things like keep time and make in/out calls, it can impact the flow of the matchup.

Knowing the rules and having a copy of the rulebook here will be your friend throughout the matchup. After all, one of the great things about observers is that they can be “the rules experts” for newer teams and can be overseers who are (generally) impartial and unbiased.

Most observers will provide clarification on disputed rules, even if they aren’t willing to actively get involved in solving contested decisions. Also, observers are great for laying out and keeping track of the game logistics, such as the round-time, the score, and the number of timeouts used/remaining. This can be great to avoid little dust-ups that can sometimes turn into big arguments between teams revolving around strictly objective things that the players, captains, and coaches — who are usually very focused on the gameplay — might forget. It can be like having a tournament director right there at the fields following along with you.

Going over the rules with the observer before the game is important (especially tournament specific rules like timeouts and cap or points of emphasis dictated by event officials); confirm all this information when you go to flip for possession and meet the other captains.

Another tip: observers work to start games on time and therefore will likely handle the flip earlier than a non-observed game (observers are very time and efficiency focused, remember). Conducting the pre-game flip shouldn’t change much with observers — other than the fact that it might be earlier than you are used to.

If you can, call your pre-game huddle with an extra two minutes to make sure your whole team is on the same page. In the huddle, quickly go over what the observers will and will not do in this particular game and talk about how you as a team want to interact with them. It is often a good idea to designate one or a few players as team spokespeople — preferably who have played with observers before — who will handle communicating directly with the observers when your team has a question or concern.

Get the observer stuff out of the way and then get back to your normal game plan and focus. Remember, observers do change the game, but not drastically enough that your strategy should change — unless your team is one whose strategy is to bend the rules often2. In other words, don’t focus on “this is an observed game” to the point that your entire strategy or mental effort revolves around them.

Remember, observers are not players,  they are third-party officials; often they feel best about themselves — and players might agree — when they get involved as little as possible.

Observer Basics: Time-Keeping, Offsides, In/Out

While some elements of the observer role can change from game-to-game (as discussed above), there are a few places where observers are almost universally involved: time keeping, offsides, and in/out calls. These are the small impacts will you immediately see and hear about in an observed game, both from the observers themselves and from your own teammates.

Timing is probably the most obvious thing that will be discussed, largely because most teams are pretty casual about it throughout the course of a normal game, taking as much time as they want between pulls. In observer-run games, time between points is rigidly enforced with penalties which can certainly increase the stress for an unprepared team.

To avoid problems with timing you need to:

  • Be organized
  • Possibly have predetermined lines: i.e. “O1, D2, Zone 1, etc.”
  • Set up lines that are “on deck” for the upcoming point, while the current one is in progress
  • Jog quickly to the line and have one voice call out the play and/or defensive set

Rushing to the line and feeling pressed for time can frustrate and fluster a team; at the minimum this will be an annoyance, but maximally can extend to missed matchups, broken plays, or badly run points in general. Having a coach or captain designated to handle line and play calling goes a long way to keeping the team calm and organized to avoid timing penalties.

Off-sides is another issue that will come up a lot as teams tend to go off-sides a large amount of the time in unobserved games. Naturally, this means you and your team should get into the habit of paying attention to this little detail at practices and in all games, regardless of whether observers are present or not. Know the rules and follow them.

For offense, it is easy: each player must have one foot on the line until the pull is released. Simply keep that foot planted, take the extra breath to watch the disc fly, and then move to get into your offensive set.

For defense, here’s a tip: tell your players to take two large steps backward from their normal “running position.” This way, they still get their running start as the pull goes up, but are beginning it in the back-middle of the endzone instead of the front half to avoid leaving before the disc does. Remind them that gaining one step at the start of a pull is not worth an off-sides call — which can eventually lead to yardage penalties.

Finally, the active in/out calls that observers make will generally only make things better, by both removing the burden of focusing to much on this from your teammates and opponents as well as by minimizing any argument that could come from a disagreement. Most of the time, the observer will make the right call or, just like in non-observed ultimate, will send the disc back if it was “just too close.”

Whether you agree with the decision of the observer or not, the main point to emphasize to your team is to play on. The observer is there to make things smoother and faster; arguing about a call will not only drag out the painful process, but also do nothing but delaying the inevitable and creating a much less enjoyable experience for all involved. Accept the call, move on, and play hard, even if you were unhappy with the result.


No matter what our roots as a sport, playing with observers is becoming a more and more common occurence for teams that wish to play competitively. Knowing even these minimal points about what observers do and how you should adjust your game in an observed situation can go a long way to ensure that both you and your team are prepared to play games with observers.

Coming next week, a more in depth look at what to avoid in observed games, how to take advantage of specific elements of observed games, and how to practice for them.

  1. As will be outlined in Part 2 of this series 

  2. For shame! 

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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