Ultimate Frisbee’s Fresh Take on Sports

Ultimate Frisbee’s Fresh Take on Sports

1969 was an eventful year. It was known for Woodstock, the moon landing and—if you looked close enough—the first Ultimate frisbee game. Ultimate was invented in a time of change, and it shows through the game’s rules and community. The majority of team sports have referees, but Ultimate is self-officiated, relying on the players to make calls on fouls and turnovers. 

Because it is self-officiated, Ultimate stresses the importance of fairness and good sportsmanship. This is called ‘spirit of the game’ and is another unique part of the sport. The philosophy is a huge component of Ultimate and can be a drastic change from more mainstream sports such as soccer and basketball. Abigail Freund, captain of our school’s girls Ultimate Frisbee team and coach for middle schoolers, has witnessed this transition.

“We’re getting kids from other sports and sometimes that’s difficult… recognizing that spirit of the game is more important, and we can’t just push each other around on the field,” Freund said. 

Many players do not start the sport until high school or college, so there is no expectation for new recruits to know the sport. Henry Mehan, a player for our school’s boys frisbee team, felt this sentiment. 

“I was playing basketball a little bit before, and I was just not that great. I played frisbee, and I’m still not great, but I feel … I could join in high school rather than having played my whole life,” Mehan said.

Ultimate frisbee is unique not only in its spirit but in how it tackles gender division. It is one of the few sports that has had mixed gender teams since it was invented, such as the mixed club team Espionage. 

“When you get older, more adult leagues are typically mixed, and so people play a lot of mixed frisbee,” Espionage player Abigail Austin said. 

Club Ultimate is one of the highest levels to play in the United States. It has women-matching, mixed and open (men’s with the option of other genders) teams at most tournaments. Mixed teams approach gender in a way many other sports do not.

“I’ve had teammates who are transgender, and they really only feel comfortable on mixed teams, because it allows them a space that doesn’t define who they are,” Freund said. 

In club games, players are integrating hand signals made across the field that say if the player is women-matching or male-matching during matchups. This is done so others do not assume their gender identity. There are ongoing discussions in mixed teams about how to better adapt to modern views of gender.

“Ultimate doesn’t feel stuck, it doesn’t feel like it isn’t willing to evolve. It’s willing to change; it’s willing to take different steps,” Austin said. 

This doesn’t mean there aren’t still changes to be made. In mixed teams, 74% of catches and throws are done by men, with only 26% done by women. This shows how female players are rarely the first option their teammates look to in games.

“Every time I walk on the field, I feel like I have to prove something to somebody,” Freund said. 

She has been playing Ultimate for seven years.

There is also a large gap in the number of players on the team depending on their gender. Our school’s boys team has around 50 players according to their captain Joseph Dokken, but our girls team is under half that number, coming in at 23 members. 

“[Middle school Ultimate] was very guy-dominated. I think that was mostly because we didn’t get the word out to girls,” Freund said. 

Ultimate is spread through word of mouth. With more boys joining earlier, whispers of the sport spread faster than with girls. Austin is a coach for the WACCtown team, part of the Youth Ultimate League of Arlington (YULA), and has noticed this mystifying pattern. 

“It’s a question that I know YULA is trying to figure out,” Austin said. 

Freund finds it difficult to instill the attitude that Ultimate can be fun and casual rather than a huge commitment. Because of this, only around half of her teammates join her at games. These small numbers can cause trouble for our school’s girls team each coming fall. 

“It’s this rebuilding every year, and unless you have a program that’s really built around frisbee and the community that it can provide, it seems constantly viewed as something that’s just, ‘I’m never gonna do that, that’s just not going to be a thing for me,’” Freund said. 

Middle school is once again a large link in this pattern. HB-Woodlawn has a strong Ultimate division, partially because players can start as early as 6th grade.

A large team does not always mean perfection, though. The number of players on our boys ultimate team and the limit of seven players on the field does not always contrast well.

“Sometimes people do get fed up a little bit with the amount of playing time they get,” Dokken said.

Ultimate as a whole has taken leaps and bounds to create a welcoming environment. However, this does not mean it is picture-perfect from publicity to gender imbalance.

“[Ultimate’s] really good and at the same time has so much to go,” Freund said.

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About the Contributor
Lily Dezfulian
Lily Dezfulian, Illustrator
Lily Šekarić Dezfulian is a junior entering her second year on staff. Besides playing for the Yorktown Ultimate Frisbee team, Lily rock climbs and plays volleyball and basketball outside of school. She continues her epic battle against the Montenegrin language and its seven cases. Her favorite book is I Who Have Never Known Men and she enjoys sketching strangers.

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