Eytan Deener-Agus is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. He has played ultimate for 8 years and is currently Penn's Spirit Captain.
Sports are great for children. They’re fun, they keep their growing bodies in shape, and team sports create an outlet for children to make new friends. Some might go as far as to say there are certain values and life lessons like hard work, teamwork, and commitment that can best be taught through sports at a young age.
These are all great reasons for having kids play sports. But unfortunately, most parents or teachers end up relying on traditional sports like basketball, football, and baseball to achieve these goals. I’m here to suggest that instead of automatically falling back onto the Pop Warners and little leagues, not only should we consider ultimate frisbee as another legitimate sport for children to play, but that ultimate frisbee might be the best sport for children to achieve all these goals.
What Is Ultimate Frisbee?
I know you might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t frisbee that sport that hippies play at barbeques” (not anymore) or “Isn’t frisbee just another way of playing golf?” (nope, that’s frisbee golf, a completely different sport) or worst yet, “Isn’t frisbee something you throw to a dog?” (we can agree that dogs are great, but they have nothing to do with the sport ultimate frisbee).
In the past 50 years, the sport of ultimate frisbee has grown from a backyard hippy hobby to an international competitive sport played from local middle school leagues to high school all the way through college and club teams across all ages and genders. Sometimes simply called “ultimate,” the game is a team sport where teams of seven try to throw and catch a plastic disc in the opposing team’s end zone. It has a similar feel to football but incorporates the athleticism of soccer, high-speed cutting of basketball with the intricate plays of lacrosse to create what we might call the “ultimate” sport.
While it might not be the first sport to come to mind, let me show you why ultimate frisbee is the best sport for children to play.
Spirit of the Game
What makes ultimate frisbee unique from other sports is the first rule in the handbook, Spirit of the Game. Spirit is a guiding principle, an ethos of the sport that requires all players to act as their own referee, calling their own fouls and settling disagreements on the field.
That means that whenever you think a player commits a foul, it is your responsibility to yell, “Foul!” then everyone freezes, and you discuss with the alleged fouler whether or not they committed the foul. If both players agree there was a foul, play continues as if the foul did not occur; if disagreement persists, the disc returns to the moment before the alleged foul, and the game resumes there like a “redo.” In both situations, the game does not resume until some solution is reached.
Hard to imagine NBA players negotiating amongst themselves over fouls, right? Not the case in ultimate!
Spirit Teaches Values
In other sports that rely on referees, mastering the game often includes learning how to exploit fouls and the referee to each team or individual’s personal gain. Think soccer, where huge flops and fake injuries are commonplace, or baseball, where if you disagree with a call, players or managers have a tendency to storm the field in dissent. Are feigning and floppery really what we want to be teaching our children? Just complain, whine, and fake problems to authority so you can get what you want?
Instead, Spirit permeates the hearts of ultimate frisbee players on and off the field, going on to determine players’ attitudes and values. Self-officiation teaches ultimate players that they must stand up for themselves against adversity. No one is going to babysit them anymore. It instills in players values such as honesty, respect, and integrity. What better way to teach these values than through a sport?
Spirit Makes Ultimate Safer
Spirit of the Game has this ability not only to teach values, but sociologists suggest that it moderates the negative effects of hypermasculinity that is pervasive in other sports. Think about how in football, basketball, and hockey, a large part of the culture surrounding the sport involves aggressive, sometimes violent acts like chest-beating, nasty trash-talking, and sometimes homophobia. Instead, in ultimate frisbee, players report a mitigated masculinity both on and off the field.
Whereas other sports allow for if not encourage a win-at-all-costs attitude, often considering the other team as the enemy, subtly if not sometimes overtly allowing for acts of violence, researchers identify that ultimate players emphasize respect over abusive behavior. Instead of overplaying injuries for personal gain, for example, if ever incidental contact occurs in ultimate frisbee, it is almost always understood as through attempting to play the disc instead of injuring an opponent. Further, players are known to show genuine concern when opponents are injured.
These are all clearly features that we would want in a sport that we are teaching our children to play.
Spirit Makes Ultimate More Welcoming
In addition to making the sport physically safer, Spirit of the Game makes ultimate frisbee one of the most welcoming sports.
First of all, mixed-gender ultimate is universally played at all of the highest levels from middle school all the way to grand-masters club tournaments. Embedded in the culture of ultimate is the value of mixing genders in play.
In addition to creating opportunities for all levels to play together at the highest level, perhaps more importantly, research shows that because of Spirit of the Game, ultimate teams are uniquely welcoming to different gender identities. When the first rule of the sport requires that you hold yourself and others accountable, what follows is a sport where players hold each other to a higher personal standard. You get players who are intentional about their words and actions. This all leads to an increase in inclusivity on and off the field, making ultimate frisbee the kind of sport anyone should feel comfortable singing their children up for.
…with ultimate frisbee, you get massive, athletic plays on the field together with caring and thoughtful teammates off the field. No other sport can so effectively teach life values like integrity, respect as well as inclusion while still being exciting and fun. This is the best sport for children to begin playing this year!