“The ‘anti-sport’? That’s a bunch of bullshit,” Kent State Ultimate Frisbee player Ronjon Siler refutes. He doesn’t seem angry or offended by my questioning of ultimate Frisbee’s reputation for being an “anti-sport” of sort, rather just not surprised to once again be addressing the subject. Ronjon has been in Kent for four years now, and is fully aware that he will usually be dealing with a great deal of ignorance when discussing the sport he holds dearly to his heart. He knows that it is not a matter of disrespect, but instead a matter of the masses being uninformed. Like a slicing backhand toss from a handler to the outside flats, Ultimate Frisbee flies rather low in the sports sky.
The sport of ultimate Frisbee originated in the town of Maplewood, New Jersey in the late 1960’s. It was born as a game that featured rules similar to touch-football. The rules were rather loose in nature, as there were few specific guidelines as to how games were to be organized and played. “The game was what one might describe as freeform early on, with no strict limits on how many players should be on each side, with as many as 20 to 30 players being allowed per team” (Griggs). As the game continued to be played, order was slowly brought to the game. In 1968 the students of Columbia High School in Maplewood played the first organized Ultimate game. The game was a success at the school, and soon there afterwards students Joel Silver, Bernard Hellring and Jonny Hines crafted a formal copy of the rules and distributed them as thoroughly as they could.
Eventually the rules of this emerging game made its way onto college campuses. This lead to the next milestone for a sport that just a few years earlier was a much more unorganized affair. In 1972 the first intercollegiate game took place between Princeton and Rutgers University. Within two years there were already teams and leagues popping up in different countries, such as the Swedish Frisbee Federation.
The sport spreading directly led to a formation of a set of rules that have changed very little since their inception. A game begins with the opening “pull”, which is where the defending team throws the disc from their end-zone to the offensive team at the opposite end of the field. The regulation size for the playing field as defined by USA Ultimate is 70 yards long and 40 yards wide with 25 yard end-zones. The pull is very reminiscent of a kickoff in American football.
After receiving the disc, the offense must advance the disc across the field exclusively through passing. It is an illegal maneuver to advance with the disc in-hand, as the player is only allowed to move their feet in the form of pivoting to make a pass. If the offensive team is able to get a player with the disc into the defense’s end-zone they are awarded one point, and then proceed to pull the disc for the other team.
None of this happens, of course, if the defense is able to force the offense into an incomplete or intercepted pass. While much is made of the offensive aspect of Ultimate, having a disciplined and dependable defense is essential to a team’s success. Becoming a good defender means learning how to properly guard a passer as well as a receiver.
The act of defending the passer is known as “marking”, thus making these defenders “markers”. When marking the passer, the two main objectives are to get into solid defensive positioning, and establish “the force”. The force refers to which direction or type of throw you are trying to entice as a marker. The most common forces are “home” and “away”. “Home” refers to the one’s own sideline, and “away” the opposition’s. The rules state that a marker must provide the passer with at least a disc length radius in which to operate. Good markers seem to have varying perceptions of the length of a disc, as they often end up mere inches from the passer they are defending. A key to a good marking includes but is not limited to good positioning. While marking the passer it is important to move with the passer without compromising your balance. This means that the marker has to avoid lunging by staying square to passer by moving their feet, not torso.
When it comes to the other aspect of defense, guarding the receiver, the buzzword is triangulation. “Triangulation refers to keeping three points under control. The three points are (1) where your offender is, (2) where the thrower is, and (3) where the pass you’re guarding is likely to be thrown” (Parinella and Zaslow 70). A player should form a triangular formation with the longest of side lengths being the hypotenuse between passer and defender. This entails the defender to keep the receiver in front of him at a distance where he can react to both the receiver’s movements and the disc in the air. It is not always easy to find balance between the two, as it is imperative that the defender properly analyzes the receiver’s speed and distances himself accordingly.
While it may seem like a lot of these nuances are subjective to each individual player, what makes this even more notable, is a fact that separates ultimate from most other sports and is arguably the essence of the sport. Ultimate Frisbee games operate without any officials or referees. All calls and violations must be owned up to by the perpetrator. All disputes on the field have no other option but to be worked out by the players. This requires a sort of honor system, as a player might have to at times acknowledge the fact that he committed a foul. While situations that arise during a game are unique, USA Ultimate (the country’s governing body on the sport) has in their official rule book a creed that Ultimate players are expected to abide by called “The Spirit of the Game”. It goes as follows:
“Ultimate has traditionally relied upon a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate adverse conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting of opposing players, dangerous aggression, intentional fouling, or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players.”
The Kent State Ultimate team is an example of this creed carried out. There is a balance in the joy they have playing the game with the respect that they show for it at the same time. This is true in not only their adherence to the rules, but the way they go about practicing and training for competition.
For a bunch of guys who supposedly live free, hippie-like lives, the practices they run are more regimented than one might expect. While none of these Ultimate players would be confused for Vince Lombardi in their seriousness, the veterans that run the show command respect with their focus and attention to detail.
Before practice officially begins at 9:30pm, players mingle in the southwest corner of the Kent State Field House as more and more of their disc-throwing comrades gradually trickle in. While very few of this team of 21 knew each other before joining the squad, it feels like they’ve all known each other for years. Many of them hangout frequently outside of Ultimate related activities, and there are now multiple “Frisbee houses” throughout Kent. “Frisbee party Friday!” is heard more than once as the players chat and prepare for practice to start.
The giant digital scoreboard clock on the wall reads a few seconds after 9:32 when the Club Lacrosse team finally begins their exodus from the artificial turf field. This movement signals the start of the night for the ultimate players, and they slowly rise and make their way around the perimeter of the field in a group warm up jog. Standing in the west end zone, the players look like small figures as they make their way around the opposite end zone, a reminder of the 120 yard length of the playing field. To cover such distances as players, being in good cardiovascular shape is essential. And while it is blatantly obvious that this is not a very strenuous jog for the players, their almost non-existent level of fatigue upon completion suggests that they take decent care of themselves. Even the players that admit to have been slacking in their commitment to working out appear to be in pretty decent physical shape.
The first throws of practice take place as the players break into groups of threes and assemble in triangle formations across the field. While the intention of these throws is to shake off any rust and loosen up, it also becomes apparent rather quickly that this is the unofficial time for players to tweak and try new things with their throws. This element of athletic freestyle is aesthetically pleasing as a spectator. Players try quirky looking throws, seeking the proper balance between creativity and functionality in their tosses.
There is grace in the player’s tosses. The more experienced players stand out the most, the disc departing their hands into crisp arced trajectories. Their accuracy is sniper-like, as if they are equipped with Terminator-like robotic vision that aligns their targets in crosshairs. It is evident that through years of practice they have developed the ability to translate the pass they envision in their minds to the pass that they make.
The weakest players are also quite easy to spot. Inaccuracy and awkwardness distinguish them from the rest of the crowd. They chase after missed catches like young Little Leaguers who haven’t yet learned the premise “keep your eye on the ball!” As they turn and run after their discs, looks of sheepishness and slight embarrassment are visible.
“Try keeping your arm below an imaginary bar,” veteran player Ian Dukles advises his throwing partner who is trying to better develop his “flick” toss. Ian is holding his arm out at about waist level, trying to give a visual aid in order to teach proper technique.
The flick is a necessary skill for a player to master. While many casual players may be much more familiar with the backhand toss, the flick shot is of equal importance to an ultimate player. Tight defensive position often restricts a player’s movement and dictates for them what type of throw they make. Quite often that throw is of the flick variety.
“The first year of being on the team, unless the kid is legit, is getting throwing down proficiently,” Ronjon says in between tosses that cut through the indoor air like the blade of a miter saw. “From there it’s just developing over time.”
The players are called to attention by the rather loud voice of Colin Dukles, younger brother of the aforementioned Ian Dukles. Through observing his teammates as he spent time in the thrower’s role, it has come to his attention that the majority of the players are executing the drill incorrectly. Instead of counting one catch in both directions as a single repetition, most of the players are counting each catch they make as a rep.
“I have a hard time believing that even if you are going your absolute hardest that anyone should be done yet,” Colin yells out to a crowd that is a mix of confused and embarrassed faces. “It is not one rep to go down to the end catch it. It’s ‘boom’ one (catches the Frisbee, tosses it back and begins sprinting in the opposite direction) and then ‘boom’ two (extending his arms at the last second to make the catch),” he says, slightly out of breath.
It is notable that it is Colin making this announcement to the team. Often outspoken and in most regards a classic example of an Eddie Haskell-like troublemaker, Colin transforms into a much more direct and serious version of himself. There is still a rather heightened level of sarcasm in his demeanor. In a sport that that requires a certain amount of creativity in its players, the most colorful characters shine.
The position that calls for the most creativity is “handler”. A handler’s main responsibility is to run the offense; they are responsible for making calls and advancing the disk by navigating the disc to open receivers. There are two types of receivers typically, “poppers” who run routes over the middle of the field and “wings” who try to get open for a pass near the sideline.
Offense in Ultimate, called “stacking” invariably comes in two general flavors: vertical and horizontal. A vertical stack consists of a dense line of four cutters placed about fifteen yards downfield from a well-spaced lateral line of three handlers. The essence of “vert” is space efficiency, with cutters cutting from the stack and into the two spacious lanes on either side of the stack. The handlers work among themselves for uncontested opportunities to throw the disc to the cutters, who make sprint-like ‘in’ or ‘deep’ cuts in order to create more options for the handlers. These cutters break in single succession and if unsuccessful return to the stack.
When asked about the core philosophy of Kent State Ultimate’s offense, Ian Dukles elaborates, “We use the horizontal stack to maximize the possibilities for disc movement. With four cutters ideally cutting within four distinct lanes, we have four big play threats.”
When the first scrimmage breaks out, the philosophy is transformed into execution. The team has been practicing as the current squad since the beginning of the semester. The scrimmages bring out more mental lapses than physical mistakes. Overall the mood of the practice lightens, as to the team captains it is clear that the group, despite some small hiccups here-and-there, is coming together just in time for the season to begin. “Baby steps,” Colin Dukles describes of the team’s progress.
As the scrimmages carry on, players waiting to sub-in roam the sideline. Amidst the typical college-age banter is an air of excitement arising from this generally friendly competition. Any trash-talk is largely in jest, with players throwing just as many zingers at each other as they do discs. It is refreshing to see in a sports environment.
It is here, as the giant scoreboard clock creeps up on 11pm that the essence of Ultimate, shines through. Young players exchange tired high-fives with the veteran players that are substituting in to play one last game against each other. It is first-to-two-scores game; win by two. The opening pull takes place with less than five minutes remaining before the scheduled conclusion of practice. As the field house maintenance workers emerge from their quarters, the action on the field takes place like the last few minutes of a summer night for a child before being called in by their mother to eat diner. Despite the level of fatigue the game is lively. These are friends relying on their last reserves of energy and adrenaline to prevail and provide them bragging rights. The competition is more focused and controlled than it is fierce or aggressive. The defense is clean and close calls go by without deliberation. At about two minutes after 11:00pm poor defensive communication on the “Shirts” team’s part results in a victory for “Skins”. It is a tough way to lose a game, but beyond the initial 20 seconds or so of disappointment the defeat is history and it is just one team again. While this is a team that is out for victories, they don’t get caught up in the chase.
Perhaps part of this unity between camaraderie and competition is product of the players, who are a mishmash of eccentric and easy-going characters. But what really brings these players together closely as a team is an approach instilled by a creed that that they abide by. The Kent State ultimate team is a representative microcosm of a sport that’s legacy and legitimacy is a product of its players. While not yet mainstream, ultimate is a sport that not only showcases athleticism, but aesthetic beauty in the art of competition with its demand for not only creativity, but honor in its players.
Dukles, Colin. Personal interview. 18 Feb. 2013
Dukles, Ian. Personal interview. 18 Feb. 2013.
Griggs, Gerald. “The Origins and Development of Ultimate Frisbee.” Sport Journal: 12.3: n. pag. Web. 24 Feb. 2013
Johnson, Stancil. Frisbee: A Practitioner’s Manual and Definitive Treatise. New York: Workman Publishing, 1975. Print.
Parinella, James, and Eric Zaslow. Ultimate Techniques & Tactics. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 2004. Print.
“Rules of Ultimate.” USA Ultimate. USA Ultimate, 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
Siler, Ronjon. Personal interview. 18 Feb. 2013.