Tuesday Tips: Keep Ultimate Strong By Getting Involved Beyond Playing

Return to play takes more than just playing, and the sport needs more of us to step up.

Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Tuesday Tips are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

We all miss ultimate. We miss playing it, we miss watching it, we miss our teammates and the rest of the community.

In an effort to be thoughtful and equitable in our return to widespread play, ultimate has taken a slower path to resuming on-field competition than many other sports, and that deliberate approach may well have been the correct one. Now, though, we’re finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel with various governing bodies putting out tentative plans for gameplay in 2021.

Still, we need to work to ensure that this intentional caution isn’t to the detriment of our sport’s long-term growth. It won’t be easy to reconnect with — never mind expand — the universe of players who were engaged with ultimate prior to the world shutting down last spring. Whenever leagues and sanctioned competition get up and running again in earnest, it won’t be enough to just return to play — those who love this sport will need to step up and offer more.

So as leagues and organizers around the country move toward a return to play, it’s time to consider ways you can go beyond playing to help build the next chapter of ultimate. Here are six.

1. Coach a team.

Maybe the most obvious way to get your ultimate fix without lining up on the field is taking on a role as a coach.

Don’t feel like you have the correct expertise? If you’re playing on a team right now, it is almost guaranteed that you know more than someone else out there who could benefit from your knowledge and experience. Recognize also that coaching doesn’t have to be about Xs and Os and that there are loads of ways you can be impactful as a team leader.

For elite players, there is an obvious pull to coaching at the highest level possible, applying your advanced knowledge with teams that have the skill and athleticism to put it into practice. At the same time, there is also a real need for youth coaches who can teach the game at an introductory level — especially now.

That elite college or club program in your city is going to survive whether or not you offer your services as a second assistant coach. The same might not be true for the newly founded middle school program that had their star parent-coach graduate to coaching the high school team when their child aged out. If we’re ever going to capitalize on the growth potential of the sport, we need dedicated coaches in positions to sustain existing programs that are at risk of disappearing post-pandemic, as well as creating new playing opportunities as a natural part of the sport’s expansion.

Find a school that needs a little help and a stabilizing presence to build or maintain a new program, and you can leave a lasting impact that goes well beyond your on-field coaching.

2. Host a Learn to Play clinic.

Don’t have the capacity to commit to a full season of coaching responsibilities? Make the commitment more discrete by limiting your involvement to a single weekend or day of coaching.

Lots of organizations, at both the national and local level, have programs designed to introduce new players to the sport. They are almost always looking for more volunteers to staff existing clinic or camp offerings, and would surely offer more if they had the volunteer capacity in more locations. There are ready-made curricula and other resources available, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Reach out to your local disc organization to find out what it would take to help organize a clinic; it’s a much less daunting a proposition when you can tap into existing local infrastructure. If you can leverage relationships with friends or family who work at schools or other youth-serving organizations to open the right doors, even better.

This may also be one of the most impactful ways to make an immediate difference on the issue of accessibility and equity. Intentionally designing a program or placing it in specific locations can attract participants that might not otherwise have a way to find and engage with the sport.

3. Volunteer as an organizer.

USA Ultimate has plenty of opportunities for you to dedicate some of your time and passion to helping the sport operate at the local level. Committed Sectional or Regional Coordinators at all age and competition levels have a huge impact on the experience of playing in the USAU Series — plus those positions often come with a free annual membership or even a small stipend! Apply to be a part of the Spirit Committee. Run for one of their elected volunteer positions, whether that’s as a player rep to the competition committee or even for a seat on the national board.

The same kinds of opportunities are also often available through many local disc orgs. If you don’t have one, consider starting one! At very least, step up and volunteer as a captain or organizer for your local seasonal league. Someone always has to get to the site early to set up the cones and have the field reservation talk with the pickup soccer players who are encroaching on your time. Maybe it’s time for you to take on that role.

Increasing the organizing capacity in your area is a great way to create new playing opportunities that you won’t have to travel for, (someday) bring in event revenue, put the issues you care most about into practice locally, and make the sport more visible to your town or city beyond its existing ultimate subculture. All of those things are valuable resources that will improve the quality of play in your region over the long term.

4. Plan and run a tournament.

Ultimate players love nothing more than complaining about the quality of the tournaments they attend — except perhaps avoiding helping run one.

If coaches are the number one infrastructure need in order for the sport to grow, committed event hosts might be close to a number one-B. There’s a reason major tentpole events in the sport keep cycling through the same few locations year after year, and it’s the same reason some local events have remained cult favorites over many years: it takes practice to get good at hosting high-quality tournaments. The organizers who have committed themselves to consistent event planning are a boon for their local communities as well as key pieces of the sport’s national infrastructure.

Have strong feelings about seeding, round lengths, tournament formats, field quality, and cost? Step up and run an event of your own. Recruit a team of helpers so it’s not a one-person job. If you run a strong enough event, you can charge enough to put some money back into your team’s coffers, fundraise for a good cause, or even compensate yourself for the work.

As we come out of the pandemic, we may already have to rethink the traditional weekend tournament structure that has been the backbone of the sport since its inception. Use this time as an opportunity to experiment with new or nontraditional types of events, with different formats, trial rules, or smaller venues. Start practicing the craft of tournament hosting so we can create more local playing opportunities now, as well as build up the bench of great event organizers around the country for the future.

5. Engage with the community online.

While there’s no doubt that Twitter and Reddit can at times be rough environments to have productive conversation, it is possible to make meaningful connections or contribute to the community in positive ways online.

Want to help record and illuminate the happenings of the sport? There is no shortage of stories to be written about the people, teams, leagues, and history of ultimate, plus outlets willing to publish them (and compensate the work).

Want to learn and contribute to a better understanding of how the game is played? Join the Women’s Ultimate Frisbee Film Study Group on Facebook or join Keith on the UltiworldTV Twitch stream as they break down game video. Not only will you likely learn something, but you have the opportunity to add your own perspective and expertise to the conversation.

During the pandemic, we’ve also seen passionate individuals bring together subsets of the community to address issues that matter to them, including mental health and racial equity. The ultimate community is not a monolith, and you can easily find a niche within our niche sport where like-minded players can engage on topics that could make a meaningful impact on their experience in the community. This work will remain important long after the current pandemic is over.

6. Become certified as an observer.

This one may be hard to accomplish in the very near future, but it’s something to have on your radar for whenever these trainings pick back up.

There’s a reason we see many of the same faces in orange at all of our major events — the current pool of great observers isn’t huge. Not only that, the existing crew won’t all be around forever. Now’s a great time to help replenish that talent pool, as you may never have a shorter path toward getting assigned to some of the sport’s highest-level events.

Maybe you have never played at the level to take your competitive career to the sport’s premier events. Maybe the year off has forced you to reconsider how much athletic effort your body can put in each season. Either way, becoming a certified observer is one way to get or stay involved on the game’s biggest stages. Even if you’re still in the midst of your prime, going though the observer training process will at the very least improve your rules knowledge and make you a better player and teammate.

As a sport, ultimate has always relied on its players to be more than passive participants who just show up and throw their cleats on. It was players who coordinated events and media coverage in the game’s earliest days, and it was players who founded a national governing body to take on more of the organizing burden as the sport grew.

Thinking optimistically about ultimate’s post-pandemic future, continued growth in the sport will create opportunities to reach new communities, and we’ll need a core of engaged advocates in order to make the most of that momentum. If ultimate ever reaches the Olympics and hits the big time, we’re going to need coaches and competitive infrastructure prepared to manage the intake of a slew of newly interested parties. This work has been necessary before the pandemic, and it will continue after our recovery from it.

But as Pat Stegemoeller eloquently articulated in February, ultimate needs everyone in the community to do more if the sport is going to be in a position to make a strong recovery from its forced hiatus. It’s going to take focused work from its players. And while many of those players may be as unplugged from ultimate as they have ever been, as it becomes possible once more to get involved in the work that sustains the sport, there has never been a time ultimate has needed them more.

  1. Steve Sullivan
    Steve Sullivan

    Steve Sullivan is the Executive Editor of Ultiworld. He began playing in 2001 at Boston University, helped found and then played 14 seasons with Slow White, and most recently competed with San Francisco Blackbird. He has volunteered as a college Sectional Coordinator, a club Regional Coordinator, served three terms as a player-elected representative for the Mixed division on USAU's Club Working Group, and is currently an At-Large rep on the USAU Board of Directors. He has previously written for the USAU magazine and The Huddle, and was editor of the book "Ultimate: The First Five Decades, Vol II." You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@sjsully21).

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