Some thoughts on Ultimate and different levels of play

I don’t like playing on the same field as casual Ultimate players. Is that a bad foot to start this post off on? Let me clarify – I’m not talking about beginning players who are learning or about mid-level players who are happy where they are. I’m talking about players who aren’t interested in the competetive side of Ultimate and don’t care to learn.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for casual pick-up players. I fully support everyone’s right to play Ultimate at the skill and strategy level of their choice. I would however argue that casual players don’t belong on the same field, and that includes pick-up fields, of competitive players (and vice versa).

Now I realize that this idea is basically the antithesis of all things Ultimate. The Ultimate community and pick-up games are built on the premise that everyone is welcome, but just bear with me while I go through my reasoning. I would argue that my perspective as a female ultimate player puts a bit of a different spin on the subject then the typical surface level reason.

On that surface level that I was just talking about, it’s true in any sport that playing with people of similar skill, strategy and competitiveness levels will make the game more fun for everyone. My reaction, and the reactions of other women I’ve talked to, comes from a different place though.

Put 7 players of a mid to high skill level on the field, and even if they don’t know each other, certain things will happen automatically. Two or three handlers will hang back. The rest of the field will organize into something that sort of resembles a vert or ho stack. And even if a stack never really emerges, everyone will make similar vertical cuts in and out from the center of the field to the handler. Most “casual” level players eschew this strategy, typically saying it takes the fun out of the game for them, but for competitive players it’s key to why we love the game. It adds organization to the field, and everyone knows more or less where they should be in relation to other players on the field. We know how to clear space and make room for more cuts. We understand the field and the space around us.

Now add a “casual” player into the field and watch them ruin that flow. By nature Ultimate is a team sport, and by nature “casual” players don’t understand how that team works. They don’t understand  how the space on the field should work, or how to play well with others. Most cut in a madly haphazard, horizontal pattern across the field, never clearing out, blocking up space, cutting off other players, and dragging defenders into space that they shouldn’t be in.

That’s a pretty good surface level of analysis of why the two groups don’t mesh well on the field from a purely competeive Ultiamtate player’s perspective. Now however I’m going to break it down further, to why I don’t like it from a female Ultimate player’s perspective.

In an ideal situation there’s an even girl to girl match up during pick-up games, and that’s great, but a lot of time it doesn’t work out that way. Invariably in the cases where there’s an uneven number of girls, the solution is to match the girl up with newest, greenest, most “casual” player on the other team.

Side note on casual players, in my experience, most are not athletic. They are older, overweight or at least out of shape, and not the type to exercise frequently. I’m not trying to stereotype, and it’s not true in every case, but in general that’s how it works out.

So with that in mind, I understand why the first impulse is to match the experienced girl up against the newer guy. Most of them will underestimate the girl, and a good female ultimate player with sharp cuts can be extraordinarily effective against a newer player. However, as the female player in question, at about 5 foot something and 120ish lbs or so, I don’t want to be anywhere near that player.

Why exactly do I say that? Because in my mind that person just became the most dangerous person on the field. I don’t mean dangerous in a cutting, is going to score kind of way. I mean, that literally I see that person as a physical danger to my being. As I mentioned in my side note, most of them are older, overweight, out of shape. They are much larger than I am (or any of the other female players on the field), and because they are out of shape they don’t have a good gauge on their reaction times.

Ultimate is a non-contact sport, and although contact happens occasionally, competetive players understand how to play responsibly. They know when to bid all out for the disc, and they know when to pull back and not risk injuring others, and most of them are very conscious of their smaller, lighter female counterparts on the field. Prime example today, I heard a newer player ask a more experienced player ask how much contact you could get away with on the field. The experienced player laughed and said, “It depends on the play,” and then after a pause added, “except if you’re marking up against a woman.” The newer player didn’t say anything and the experienced player followed up again, “No, I’m serious. We play mixed and you have to be careful not to hurt the women.” Even if it means never touching the disc, I would much rather mark up against that highly athletic player, than his newer counterpart.

It’s nothing personal, but I just don’t trust “casual” ultimate players. Because they don’t understand how to cut right, they are constantly running into people, or cutting them off. And because they don’t always understand their own bodies, they cut it too close when stopping, or cutting close to other players. When I step onto a field with a “casual” player my immediate priority changes from playing the game, to not getting hurt.  Especially if I’m marked up against that person I’m not aggressive in pursuing the disc, I don’t cut hard, I stay back on defense. I stay out of their way. Every move I make is defensive, not in terms of playing hard D, but it terms of keeping myself out of harms way.

Call me paranoid if you want, but I’m sure other women can collaborate this. I have one specific example in mind. I was playing a league in Florida, marked up against a “casual” player. He was older and overweight, but he’d also been playing for years. More than long enough to understand strategy and field space if he wanted. He poached a little too far off me, and I made a hard cut to the line. The disc came to me, and he decided he had enough time to D it. He miscalculated his speed and stopping time. The result was knocking full speed into me and putting his knee through mine. By the time the point was over I had a black, blue and yellow bruise the size of an apple on the side of my knee, and I consider myself lucky. With a little more force, a little change in direction and that could have been an much worse injury.

So there’s my personal reasons for not wanting to play with “casual” players, but in regards to the subject at large though, I stand by my original argument. If you assume that every pick-up game has a core group that started it, that group is either made up of competitive players or casual players. Although the tenant of pick-up games is that anyone can play (and it’s one of the best things about Ultimate), I think it’s important to understand the community you’re playing with and play by their rules. If you’re playing with a bunch of competitive players, learn a bit about the strategy. It’s the responsible thing to do. On the other hand, if you’re competitive and playing with “casual” players, the same applies. Learn the spoken and unspoken rules that are played by, and make sure that your style of play isn’t endangering other players on the field. Besides being responsible, it’s the spirited way to play.

Ok, for real now though, I’m stepping off my soapbox. Any other thoughts on the subject?



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