It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment that I got hooked on Ultimate.
It may have been when taking a boat from Maputo to Xefina island on an early Saturday morning to play a beach game on its off-limits shores. It might have been when an anonymous naked body wearing only the head part of a Caltex bunny costume ran across the finals of my second Nationals tournament. Or, it may be the many, many moments during national tournaments when I meet up with old friends and team mates and connect as if no amount of time has passed in between.
These are certainly times that remind me why so many of us love Ultimate, and love it passionately. But, that cannot be the whole explanation.
There is something about Ultimate being synonymous with Spirit of the Game (SOTG) that inspires a particular devotion to the sport and its tribe. But to explain and cross-examine what SOTG is, is not an easy task.
Perhaps let me start with what I think SOTG is not:
Working with the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) on SOTG has challenged many of my own beliefs and practices on SOTG. I have learnt that SOTG is not about playing against a fun, colourful or zany team. It is not whether a team hosts the best parties, or can drink the most beer. It is not whether the team has the most creative cheers, or the best kit. The coolest dance moves, the most women on their mixed team, walk to the field with matching bags and hats, play eccentric games with prizes after the Huddle, or who leave the party last. SOTG does not relate to how athletic the opponents are or whether they executed a perfect Callahan or the World’s Greatest. Many of these elements are of course why we play Ultimate and play it with such zeal.
But this is not SOTG.
For me, SOTG relates narrowly to what happens on the field between the first pull, and the last word in the Huddle. What happens between team mates and their opponents in the heat of the game. Seen in this way, awarding a high SOTG score to cheer up a new team who lost far in the game, does that team, and the other teams in the tournament, a disservice. Spirit is not a consolation prize.
So, what is SOTG then?
For me, SOTG consists of four essential elements: integrity, honesty, self-discipline and communication. As a self-refereed sport, one’s calls have to be honest, fair and come from 100% integrity. Every player has to be self-disciplined to learn the rules by heart, and know the various nitty-gritty technicalities well. Calm and respectful communication between players in good will, particularly in tense moments in games when a call has been made, is key to moving the game forward in an equitable manner. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think Ultimate is more “moral” or exemplary than other sports, and Ultimate by no means has a monopoly on these four qualities. The clincher is that in other sports, if a player foregoes these responsibilities, a referee or umpire calls her out, and the game can continue regardless of the boo-boo. But for those of us in the game of running down plastic discs, this is not possible. Ultimate is dependent on the social contract between players – the understanding that everyone will uphold SOTG under all circumstances, and a mutual trust that we will do so at all times. Perhaps therefore the fierceness with which we guard SOTG?
I recently played in a hotly contested game between two rival teams with some history. We were trading points, the weather was dour, and people were playing hard. Towards Soft Cap with an equal score on the scoreboard, one of our opponents put a hard-hitting hammer – somewhat off-target – down to his teammate. His team mate turned 180 degrees mid-air and dived to try and scrape the disc off the ground. The dive was split-second fast and athletically spectacular. Everyone cheered when he uncurled from his feat with the disc in his hand. Yet strangely, he placed the disc on the ground and said “Down”. People looked confused, and some of his team mates asked him urgently if he was sure. He started walking away to defend his player, and said matter-of-factly “I dropped the disc in the roll” (invisible to all of us). I went to him after the game, and said it was one of the most impressive displays of SOTG I had seen, particularly in the context of the pressure of the score and the pressure by his team. He looked at me somewhat puzzled and said “I dropped the disc. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself afterwards”. This incident is etched into my mind, but for the life of me I cannot remember the score or who had won.
Perhaps that is why I play Ultimate.
The most coveted achievement in Ultimate internationally is to win the tournament and to be awarded the SOTG trophy. To work towards this ideal, it is vital that every team stays committed to safeguarding their own SOTG, and to score their opponents’ SOTG without fear or favour. In South Africa, we haven’t yet had a team who has been awarded both trophies in a national tournament.
But we are getting closer by the day.
– Marlise Richter
Marlise is the current Spirit Chair of the South African Flying Disc Association (SAFDA). SAFDA recommends that every team selects a Spirit Captain, and that every Ultimate committee designates a specific portfolio to promote SOTG.
See the following WFDF resources:
● Spirit educational materials can be found at www.wfdf.org/sotg/spirit-education-a-improvement
● Spirit score management and Spirit Director guidelines can be found at www.wfdf.org/sotg/spirit-rules-a-scoring
- SOTG Conference that was held during WUCC2014 in Lecco – http://skydmagazine.com/2015/05/managing-spirit-of-the-game/