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Updated: Oct 22, 2015

Ever since Ultimate (aka that game I’m probably playing tonight) was recognized by the International Olympic Committee—this breakthrough was covered in the New Yorker, The Globe and Mail, Time, Sports Illustrated, Quartz, The Washington Post, and of course, VanCityBuzz 😊—people who know me but don’t know much about the sport have been asking me about it afresh. 

Unfortunately, the concept that still seem to be most associated with the sport is marijuana, instead of the thing that truly sets Ultimate apart from every other sport I’ve played or watched. I’m referring, of course, to frisbee-catching dogs

No! I’m referring to “Spirit of the Game,” sometimes shortened to “SOTG” and often referred to by Ultimate players simply as “spirit”.

SOTG is the first and (arguably) the last rule of Ultimate (11th edition). It’s something that’s deeply important to those who have played the sport seriously, but if someone hasn’t heard of Ultimate, they definitely haven’t heard of SOTG.  For a long time, I was satisfied that, in aggregate and with exposure, the concept of SOTG would percolate through to new players organically.

However, this sudden broad coverage of the sport—and the paucity of mentions of Spirit of the Game in stories about the sport—prompted me re-examine and clarify in my own mind what SOTG is, and what this milestone really means.

These years are probably peak years for the growth of the sport—Ultimate will grow ever larger, but not at this rate. And because of the influx of new players, I believe that unless long-term players like me work deliberately as ambassadors to spread the word about SOTG—how it makes Ultimate distinct and special at every level of competition—there’s a distinct risk of losing that which makes this sport unique.

However, here’s the problem: even long-term players like me have a hard time explaining what SOTG is. I often hear it described with phrases like, “self-officiated,” “sportsmanship,” “hippy-culture,” “play fair,” “make sure everyone is included” and so on. But none of these compactly and fully encapsulate SOTG.

In its essence, Spirit of the Game is one of those terms, like “honour,” “love,” or “salad” that is hard to convey in just a few words. Even the current Wikipedia entry struggles and falls short, in my opinion. But whenever I got asked to explain what this “spirit” was and why it was so important, I was unhappy with my own inability to explain clearly to other. So I made it a goal to be able to explain it to myself.

Then, I figured, as long as I’m cleaning up the inside of my head, where this concept has been percolating since I first started playing (in 1987!) in the manner many do, as part of a group of energetic and slightly confused kids telling each other a muddled version of the rules on a big grassy field at lunch time—I figured once I had a definition, I probably ought to write it down somewhere permanent and shareable. So here we are.

Before I try to share my definition of SOTG, I want to clear up two small messes.  First of all, I think Ultimate players do themselves a disservice by shortening Spirit of the Game to simply, “spirit.” When I shorten it in writing, I try whenever possible to use SOTG instead, to make clear I’m not simply talking about fun and energy. The Spirit of the Game that Ultimate is built on, it’s not about cheering loudly at a pep rally or showing general enthusiasm.

And secondly, I want to stop hearing some of us say that SOTG is the same thing as sportsmanship. If that’s all that SOTG means, there’s already a well-understood word that we all could be using. (Hint: It’s “sportsmanship.”)

Spirit of the Game is a powerful, all-encompassing concept - more so than many players realize. It’s almost always spoken of in the context of a game, but I find it so broadly applicable that I find myself relying on it more and more widely in all parts of my day: how I deal with clients, how I treat family, how I behave in crowds, how I make decisions about how to live.

But enough stalling (7, 8….), here’s the definition I came up with:

Spirit of the Game is a living joy. It comes into existence when the Ultimate players come together, and it ends when they go their separate ways.  To practice Spirit of the Game, is to create, share, nurture and protect joy, in a mutual effort by each person involved, for the benefit of everyone involved.

So: a living joy.  Now, it is self-evident that joy is precious—there’s less of it around than there should or could be, that’s for sure. French philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”  In any group, joy can be coaxed into existence through co-operation, but it can easily be spoiled by the actions of just one person. As the expression goes, “A teaspoon of sewage will spoil a barrel of wine, but a teaspoon of wine will do nothing for a barrel of sewage.”

In order for there to be shared joy, we must behave in certain ways. We have to play fairly, of course - that’s sportsmanship. But more importantly, we also have to assume fair play from others. There have been times I have been “a good sport” playing against “a bad sport” and felt in myself a certain pride (or arrogance) in being “the better person.” But there was no joy. Having to play against a team that we suspect would cheat if given the opportunity, means playing with suspicion, doubt, hesitation. We can’t feel free to create joy if we believe that another person might knock down what we have built.

For joy, we have to play safely as well. Joy ends quickly when a player suffers an injury—especially if that injury keeps them from playing more Ultimate (just ask several of my teammates this year). Many of the rules in Ultimate seem like they are based in safety, but I think we can go back further, and root them in Spirit of the Game.

There is joy starting a game on time, with enough players of the right skill level, excited and ready to go. There is joy in the opposing team showing us that they are so excited to play that they are all on time as well. There is joy in sharing snacks, drinks, or space under a tent in hot or rainy weather. There is joy in simply getting to know the other team—playing against strangers is nice, but playing against people we know often feels better, results in a higher level of play, and creates… more joy.

SOTG is the protection and development of joy for *everyone* involved. Players on the sideline contribute to SOTG by celebrating any player who makes an amazing play, regardless of which team does it. At one of my games last week, a player on the opposing team made a punishing one-handed layout catch in the end zone that brought several of my teammates to their feet, cheering for him. Yes, cheering itself is spirited, but it’s in support of SOTG that they were genuinely joyful at the other player’s bravada.

As a point of comparison, how often do you see the other team in baseball high-five a player who has scored a home run, compared with how often you see Ultimate players congratulate each other after a tightly contested goal?

One of the primary ways SOTG is manifested and explained, is in the self-officiated nature of Ultimate. There’s a lot of confusion about this point, especially among non-Ultimate players. The usual question is, “how can that possibly work?” but the second question is the opposite: “So what, why is self-officiating a big deal?” Because it’s true that there is a lot of sport that get played without referees.  Every game of street hockey, of pickup half-court basketball, of kids playing any game ever, is self-officiated.

What makes Ultimate different, is that this isn’t just the casual vs. organized difference.  It’s made explicit and permanent in the rules, and thereby gains an power that affects the entire way the game is played.  If we look at self-officiating with SOTG as the base, we can see why that decision was made.  SOTG makes each and every player responsible for protecting joy, and doesn’t delegate it to on-field referees, which I feel allows a “not-my-responsibility” mentality that would be worse for the creation of joy overall.

With the guidance of SOTG, we ask for a bold assumption: We agree that not only can we supervise each other to play within the rules, but that we also agree to believe that no player is willfully trying to break any rule. It’s a sport that deliberately outlines a moral stance: that none of us are cheaters, and we won’t treat each other as if we are.

From this, interesting outcomes happen. For instance, there is no rule in Ultimate about how to eject a player for bad behaviour. It’s not covered. An ejection rule would have to assume that a player was playing with ill intent.

There are also no penalties in Ultimate. None. Why would we have penalties if every player is assumed to be trying to play within the rules?

How is this SOTG? There is less joy in playing against a possible cheater, so SOTG says, let’s focus on the joy of playing and play as though we are all good and noble people. When a call happens on the field, we simply determine the outcome of the play absent the behaviour that violates the rule, and restart play from there.

As an example: in Ultimate a player is not allowed to knock the disc out of someone else’s grip. So if we are both trying to catch the disc, and you accidentally knock it out of my grasp just after I caught it, then I call “foul” on you. If you agree, I just pick up the disc and we play on as though there was no interruption. If you disagree and think I hadn’t caught it yet (you “contest” the foul), we simply revert the field back to the last known state where there wasn’t disagreement about the situation, and play restarts. There’s no penalty.

This is more than just a subtle difference in culture, this goes to the heart of many other sports.  In soccer, the flop, to act more seriously injured to draw a penalty, is part of the game. In basketball, it’s common to foul someone if it gains more of an advantage than the foul might lose. SOTG would abhor that behavior and calculus - where’s the joy for all involved if one person’s slam dunk gets denied by a cold-hearted foul?

By placing responsibility for honest play in the hands of the players, SOTG serves joy. By contrast, how was joy protected for all involved when Diego Maradona, one of the most famous soccer players of all time, scored the Hand of God goal? In Ultimate, Maradona would have called a penalty on himself for that play - and that’s not just rhetoric.

I have seen players make fantastic layout catches, hurling their body at full tilt to capture a low-flying disc. Though they appear to have caught it, getting cheered by every spectator on the field, they stand up and put the disc down, knowing that they didn’t actually complete the catch and the disc belongs to the other team. SOTG: There is more joy in a point earned fairly.

SOTG is most visible to outsiders in the crazy costumes, cheers, sideline games and antics of Ultimate players and teams. And sure, playing a fun game or a cheer after the match allows teams to mix and mingle and reminds players that all competition is secondary to the primary purpose of Ultimate—to protect the joy of play for all involved.

But what outsiders and beginners don’t realize, I think, is how some of the other aspects of Ultimate are also rooted in and shaped by SOTG. The fact that most Ultimate is coed… That’s SOTG, plain and simple. Excluding someone probably denies them joy, and excluding someone from Ultimate, doubly so!

I sometimes go to play Ultimate when I’m stressed, unhappy, worried, lonely, distracted. When a spirited game finished, I always go home happier than I came, win or lose, rain or shine, whether I played short-handed or with too many people on the sideline. If everyone involved played with SOTG, I go home feeling joyful.

But now I’m worried.

Because it seems to me, that as much as we should be excited about the sport growing, we should also be concerned that with more coverage, more players, and more popularity, Spirit of the Game isn’t keeping up. We have less SOTG these days, not more. We should see joy everywhere on the field, with so many games going on and so many players around us.

SOTG is a hard concept to get across, but it’s core to our sport, and it needs to be protected and taught, so that it doesn’t morph into something less or something different. If we teach SOTG as something bigger than what happens on the field, as a philosophy that can shape rules, that can shape events, that can shape people, I think we can create a better world—a world where good intent is assumed and protected, recognized and valued. A world where joy is more common, and where people work together when something goes wrong, or when people try to find a the best possible outcome.

Politics played by Spirit of the Game would be different indeed. Contract negotiations. Dating. Child-rearing. Splitting the bill at lunch. SOTG is a philosophy that can have a truly profound influence on how we as a culture treat each other—and ourselves.

Sure, getting into the Olympics is great. Who doesn’t want to see an Ultimate player on a box of Wheaties?  But we have to think about what we’ll be when we get there.  Without Spirit of the Game, we’re just chasing a tin plate around a park.  With it, we’re playing the best sport ever invented. After all, it wasn’t named Ultimate by mistake.


“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?




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