Hi, my name is Lena and I started playing Ultimate about a year ago.
Like so many others, I was introduced to the Ultimate world by a friend, I liked the people and, after a few weeks of joining mostly for drinking practice, I eventually also started to take the “real” practice sessions and games more seriously.
However, for several reasons, it is quite surprising that Ultimate has become “the sport” for me. First of all, I’m not a “natural”. I’m not one of those people who just pick up a disc for the first time in their lives and throw a perfect flick, catch the disc like they’ve dipped their hands in glue and read that long, floaty throw like an open book. Nope, not me. Basically, Ultimate is the perfect combination of the four things I’m not naturally gifted for or good at:
#1: Team sports
Where I come from in Germany, playing sports competitively is not part of the school curriculum or the school culture. We don’t have interschools, we don’t get sports scholarships to go to varsity and most parents don’t really care whether their children do sports at all. If you want to play soccer or do athletics, you can join a sports club and practice there after school. If not, that’s also fine. That being said, it’s not that I wasn’t interested in playing sports as a child: I played tennis, I did horse riding, swimming and acrobatics, and was generally an active kid. But joining a sports team just never seemed like a good idea to the slightly socially awkward teenager I was. I would even fake my mom’s signature and skip the 2h PE class that was the only form of physical exercise we got at school, just because I so strongly disliked the concept of running around on a field or in a hall, chasing a ball with my classmates. Long story short: When I started playing Ultimate I had never really played a team sport before. Ever.
#2: Field awareness
If you’ve been playing hockey, rugby, soccer or netball since primary school, you know where to position yourself on the field, when to cut and how not to be in someone else’s space. It’s natural for you to keep an eye on the person you’re marking while simultaneously watching the disc, to anticipate passes, to see open space and cut into it, to clear out after a cut, to co-ordinate your moves with our teammates… the list goes on. You have internalized these things and when you’re on the field, you don’t even have to think about them. Or, again, you get the “naturals”. The ones who are born with the ability to be in the perfect position on the field at all times. And, again, I’m certainly not one of them.
#3: Throwing and catching
This is probably my (least) favourite one. It’s not that my hand-eye co-ordination is particularly bad: I can hit a ball with a tennis racket, I can play three instruments (not at the same time though) and I haven’t killed myself or anyone else while wind- or kite surfing. But for some reason, my brain does not seem to be able to cope with the challenges of “propelling something with force through the air by a movement of the arm and hand” (throwing) and “intercepting and holding something which has been thrown, propelled, or dropped” (catching). Just to give you an example: The one ball game they made us play in PE class I actually liked and was good at, was dodge ball. Why? Because you could survive on the field until the very end of the game, without ever having to touch, catch, or throw the ball. And, given my strong dislike of having to deal with flying objects, I usually ended up being the last player on the field – which I thought was pretty awesome. However, I also realized that if you’re the last man standing and you can’t catch or throw the ball, there is no way you can win the game, which made it considerably less awesome.
One of the things I noticed when I came to South Africa was how the South African society is divided when it comes to sports: Either you’re slightly or dramatically overweight and don’t exercise at all, or you are and look extremely active. And those runner’s legs in short shorts you see everywhere, especially now that the cold season is over…! Somehow, a disproportionately large number of South Africans, no matter of which race or colour, seem to be born (and passionate) runners, which is something I both admire and envy. I was a pretty fast runner when I was younger, but, let’s face it, I’m not built like a runner and, on top of that, I don’t particularly like running. I have what someone once described as a “ladybody”, so not only do I lack those long, skinny runner’s legs, but I also have to carry around the extra weight of those female curves, which contributes to my natural aversion of running-related activities, like, for example, Ultimate.
So why the heck do I still like this sport so much? How can something that combines everything I suck at be so much fun? And why does someone as competitive and easily frustrated as me still refuse to throw in the towel on Ultimate?
Out of the many reasons I can think of, the most important one is probably this: It’s a challenge, both physically and mentally. Physically, because it is a physically demanding sport, and mentally, because at every practice and at every game, I have to do things I don’t actually like doing and deal with the frustration that comes with not being particularly good at something. But what I’ve also realized is that you don’t necessarily have to be the best in order to enjoy something or to be part of a team or a community. And facing these challenges not only teaches you how to throw a hammer and how to break your mark, but it also teaches you to come to terms with your own weaknesses, to deal with frustration and failure and to have perseverance and patience with yourself. And, most importantly, to never give up just because something doesn’t come easy to you.
I sincerely hope that Ultimate will continue to teach people around the world this and many other lessons and that all of you will either start or continue to challenge yourselves in your own ways, both on and off the field.
By Lena Gronbach