Tuesday Tips: Advanced Advice for Observed Games

Don't predicate your game plan on observers, but make sure you understand how to get the most out of their presence.

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

As we discussed last week, certain elements of an ultimate game come into sharper focus when playing with observers. Being aware of what observers will or won’t do is an important first step, but for those already familiar with these basics, there is still a lot to be learned about how to make the most of the opportunity to play with observers.

It is important to note, first and foremost, that your attitude toward the game should not fundamentally change just because there is a third-party on the field; it remains incumbent on players to know and play within the rules, make calls fairly, work to settle disputes amicably on their own, and — vitally — uphold Spirit of the Game. Playing with an observer does not absolve players of this responsibility. However, here are some things to remember in terms of how to use observers to help you do so while moving the game along efficiently and fairly.

Observer Rules You Don’t Think About: Misconduct Fouls

The Player Misconduct System is not typically top of mind for many players unused to competing in games with observers. But this system can come into play in critical moments — as we’ve seen as recently, and as high profile as at Club Nationals 2015.

The system is made up of three different components: Technical Fouls, Player Misconduct Fouls (PMF), and Team Misconduct Fouls (TMF).

Technical Fouls are for minor conduct violations that do no affect the competitiveness of the game, such as encroaching on the sidelines. The first two instances are issued as warnings, but repeated offenses can lead to TMFs. These rules and any special points of emphasis at a specific tournament are typically reviewed at a captains meeting, so it is important your team has a representative there to be informed.

Personal misconduct fouls are the most obvious elements of the misconduct system and also the most avoidable. As stated in the observer manual, PMFs are for “particularly egregious conduct or a pattern of such behavior; a PMF is a formal warning for unacceptable behavior…” Hopefully, your team shouldn’t need any guidance in this area; they won’t run into any problems or penalties provided they play the game cleanly and safely.

If one of your teammates does receive a personal misconduct foul — a yellow card, just like in soccer — remind him or her that no matter the cause (even accidents can occasionally result in PMFs and they can be given even if an opponent does not call a foul) or result, they should adjust their play and take the first warning seriously, so as to avoid serious consequences later. A second PMF within a single game comes with an ejection.

Also important to remember — a player misconduct foul automatically translates into a team misconduct foul.

Team misconduct fouls are perhaps one of the last things that squads think about during observed games (especially teams not used to observers), but they pop up fairly often, especially in physical or chippy games where teams are not doing a great job addressing repeated infractions themselves. It is not uncommon to see a team receive multiple warnings or a yardage penalty from an observer before the message really gets through.

Team misconduct fouls usually result because of the following:

  • Charging the field too early after a goal
  • Creating too much contact on defense or the mark
  • Showboating/taunting/spiking
  • Swearing

Similar to some of the issues we discussed last week — like going offsides or taking too long between points — these things tend to happen frequently in ultimate. A lot of teams charge the field or spike or swear in dramatic or emotional moments without even realizing it; many believe that it is harmless or acceptable behavior. Observers enforce the rules and utilize the misconduct system to maintain a safe and civil game environment.

The good news (or bad depending on your perspective): it takes three team misconduct fouls before warnings are replaced by yardage penalties or other disciplinary action. Take the warnings seriously and communicate them to the full team so that everyone is aware.  Then, emphasize a change of behavior and have team leaders self-enforce. Captains and coaches have grabbed players to stop them from charging the field or spiking the disc; annoying, it might be, but it is better than letting the other team start at your brick.

Observer Tactics: How to Gain Small Advantages When Playing With Them

Observers’ primary role is to create an environment to help players uphold the rules and Spirit of the Game on their own. However, because they can be asked to make rulings as an unbiased third party, observers are in a position to influence the game.

The most obvious places that observers get involved in games are contested fouls. In instances where players cannot come to an agreement on a call, they have the option to ask the observer for a ruling — and are then bound to the observer’s decision.

While some may see this as a failure to uphold the Spirit of the Game, because the involvement of the observers in these situations is at the players’ discretion, there is a subtle strategy to using observers and dealing with contested foul calls that allows you to gain small advantages.

The general rule of thumb when you cannot not reach an agreement on a call with an opponent is: on offense, send the disc back, rather than to the observer; on defense, send everything to the observer. On offense, if you feel sure you are right in your call, it is better to have a “do-over” and keep possession than taking a chance that an observer could rule against you. On anything close, try to get your opponent to agree to just “contest and send it back.” On defense, the opposite holds true. If you feel sure that you cleanly got a D, ask the observer for a ruling, with the hope that the observer will rule for the turnover.

Travel calls are another place where some people forget that observers can be asked to make rulings — or impose misconduct fouls for offenses related to repeated infractions or bad calls. When on offense and believe you haven’t traveled, ask an observer to make a ruling — it could result in the play standing. Worst case scenario, the disc will come back to you anyway, as it would have if no observers were present.

Finally, one of the best places to ask observers for help is with spacing; positioning on the mark or in a zone and resetting after a foul or pick call has been resolved are some of the most common places where the rules are bent or broken, either intentionally or not. Most veteran players can relate to the frustration of a zone that creates a double team — yet without observers is almost impossible to stop. Instead of arguing bitterly over spacing (which is often a difficult concept to come to an agreement on as we don’t have yardage lines on fields) and creating unnecessary bad blood between teams, go to the observer. Observers again offer unbiased judgment on an issue where bias clearly leads to close and disputed calls, and can resolve disagreements or implement the misconduct system to discourage excessive fouling, bumping, or double-teaming.

You should be able to rely on all opponents to know and follow the rules, as well as be willing to engage in reasonable, fair conversation about disagreements about how the game is being played. Unfortunately, there are some teams that continually or intentionally bend or utilize nuances in the rules to gain an advantage in a game and may not be willing to adjust their behavior. In this instance, having an observer involved in the game allows you to address these problems. You can still make your calls, still make your case to your opponent clearly, but now you have someone to back you up and (hopefully) enforce the rules, forcing a change.

Don’t be afraid to go to the observers early in the match over these issues; again, TMFs take a while before they really become impactful. Many teams receive warnings, few receive serious yardage penalties before the game has either gotten out of hand or ended.

Final Point: Remember, Observers are Human

Observers generally want to do what their job title says and “observe” but stay out of the way. From their perspective, as with most officials, the less they have to be involved in the game, the better. As players, many of us agree. However, observers, just like referees and players, are humans who have emotions, opinions, and biases. Ideally, observers have no stake in any game they are observing and can be rule-following robots, but we all know that this isn’t the reality.

As with any human, observers can form opinions about players or teams, although this isn’t true in the majority of cases and most observers are good about avoiding situations where they may have a bias. But personal opinion does matter; if you are involved in many contested decisions, arguing excessively, behaving rudely or disrespectfully, people are going to notice.

You, as a player or captain, need to recognize this and keep your wits about you. Don’t let your team whine or complain excessively to try to take advantage of observers; continue to play hard, and prioritize talking directly to your opponent to resolve conflicts. When you do need to go to an observer, stating your case or your frustrations clearly and fairly is the best way to avoid earning a reputation that could hurt you in future decisions. Don’t worry about your opponents trying to call their way back into the game and don’t give them excuses or reasons to complain to observers because of your calls; beat them cleanly.

Finally, remember, observers miss things or sometimes make bad calls. It happens to everyone, everywhere and you have to be prepared for it to overcome that adversity. It can be especially frustrating when observers miss something and send the disc back without making a ruling. On the one hand, this is an admission that the observers really failed their job title on that particular play. On the other hand, it is refreshing honesty; after all, sometimes the best spectator or referee misses something because a view was blocked. The key is not letting your frustration get the best of you.

Don’t predicate your game plan on the hopes that observers will always enforce the rules perfectly or get everything right; as mentioned in Part 1 of this series, you don’t want to build your strategy around observers. As much as possible, plan to play the game as if the observers weren’t involved and work to uphold the Spirit of the Game.

Preparing for Observers

Some people love observers, others hate them. No matter what your stance on the matter, be prepared to play with them and make sure your team is equally prepared.

As with anything, practice makes permanent, so work to understand the rules of the game and apply them equally every time you play. As a team, be conscious of rules like timing, sideline space, and yes, even swearing while at practice. If you can, especially if you have a younger squad and know you’ll play with observers in the future, get observers to come to a scrimmage that you run or have a veteran or coach act as an observer or two. Have them emphasize the points of focus which will come up when observers are present so they become second nature. This can not only be a fun way to elevate a scrimmage to a more serious level, but can get the basics down pat and get your team used to working with the observers.

The final piece of advice is the most obvious: play cleanly and fairly to avoid having to rely on the observers for anything. If you do need observers, hopefully it’s for the reason they were created: to solve an honest and open disagreement and not because you or the other side is bending the rules.

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    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, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. 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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