I started playing ultimate frisbee towards the late end of 2011.  I started playing with the objective to keep fit and get some physical exercise but  I had no clue that I’m about to experience the highest level of sportsmanship I can recall while part of team sports.

For everyone who on hearing ‘frisbee’ cannot think beyond a jumping dog!

That image is not  even in the same universe of what ultimate is about or how it is played. This might help you change that image about ultimate frisbee in your head.

Mind you I have played a range of sports, I consider myself quite athletic and like to try out anything interesting. If not all I’m quite well versed with cricket, football [that is Soccer for my American friends] basketball, volleyball, hockey, paintball, tennis etc. Point being, having experienced all of sports in an amateur or professional setup I had never experienced a sport where “spirit of the game” or so talked about and respected. My teammates had  me convinced during the three weeks since I started  that:
a) Ultimate Frisbee isn’t a game just for American hippies and
b) that my skills in soccer and other sports translate well to this game.

Though I havnt been playing professional tournaments but into my first HAT tournament was in Delhi organized by the Delhi Ultimate team.  A HAT tournament is basically  where participating players are allocated teams depending on skill and experience to give every team a fair chance to win. So, there I was all by myself playing ultimate frisbee with a bunch of stranger who were pretty ecstatic about having new players join them. Very friendly people I must mention.  Our first match ends in a win and I’m happy that I didn’t make any major bungles.  After the post-match handshake my team assemble towards a corner of the field and sits down, and so does the other team. I followed like the rest as I had no clue what to expect. Usually as this point in any other sport players  usually roam about in order to cool down but not in ultimate.

This post-match ritual has a name – the spirit circle. Teams come together and sit in a large circle making sure each person is seated next to a player of the opposite team.

Our spirit circle begins with the opponents’ captain speaking about what we did well and what we can improve on. I can’t quite understand what’s happening; is the other team really giving us pointers on how to play better against them next time around? Then my team’s captain does the same. I think to myself, at least it’s even.

Next up are the spirit captains – team members who represent the spirit of the game best – who discuss each team’s level of sportsmanship during the match. We discuss one point during the match that could have been handled in a more positive way, and the players involved acknowledge this and give each other a knowing smile.

I say to myself – is this really happening? I later realize that this type of discussion makes perfect sense as Ultimate is a self-refereed game and playing with a spirit of fairness ensures matches run smoothly.

In all my years of competitive sports I’ve never thought to speak with the other team about how they could improve or if their level of sportsmanship was up to snuff. More startling was that the opposite team’s captains were so genuine in talking to us about the game, thanking us for playing and allowing them to get better. What was going on here? Where has all the aggression and snobbishness disappeared to?

After the captains’ discussion, MVPs and MSPs are selected.  I was familiar with MVPs but MSPs – Most Spirited Players – was a new one for me. To select MVPs and MSPs one team stands, forms a circle and closes their eyes while the other team stands behind and silently points to the male and female MVPs. Once MVPs are identified, the same is done for the male and female MSPs. The team is asked to open their eyes, the MVPs and MSPs are announced and gifts – anything from wacky cute things smiley badges and bandannas to team water bottles  – are presented to the winners.

After the gifts are passed out the other team’s spirit captain shouted, “Okay, time for a spirit game!” The spirit captain explains the game to us – After a few minutes I find myself participating in a cowboy shootout using a frisbee. For this two players stand facing each other with their legs wide apart, with a firsbee each. Instead of shooting guns both players have to swing the frisbee around  their finger thrice and shoot the frisbee between the opposite players legs.  We play until two people remain who are declared spirit game winners. The rest of us clap and shout for the winners.

The match seems like it’s in the distant past. The teams walk off the field together laughing and joking, another first for me. “Shootout” is just one of hundreds of spirit games played; no matter the choice of spirit game, teams interact in a playful way, strengthening the bond between players and teams.

I think back to myself about the numerous competitive games I have played and how the post-game interaction would have been different if we had a tradition of spirit circles. Instead of slicking our hands, we could have told the other team during the spirit circle how upset we were about their aggressive style. Or maybe the other team, knowing they’d be sitting next to us post-game, would have avoided unnecessary roughness. I like to imagine that if we had spirit circles in soccer when I was a teenager, instead of the game ending in spiritless handshakes like it did, we would have danced off the field together as one team.

As Ultimate is a self-refereed sport, maintaining spirit of the game is essential to making the game work. And good spirit makes the game more enjoyable.

“Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.

Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior are contrary to the Spirit of the Game and are avoided by all players.  Players who play Ultimate understand the difference well  and never have I seen more humble and helpful bunch of sportsmen.