In ultimate, Self-refereeing & Spirit of the Game (SOTG) is the most basic and fundamental underlying principle that allows the game to function as a fun and safe sporting environment. The WFDF definition of spirit can essentially be summed up in one short statement: “Play Hard, Play Fair”.
As an ultimate player at all levels, as well as a WFDF Game Advisor, I have seen many examples of spirit; the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we discuss spirit, it is very easy to define what bad spirit looks like: it’s not knowing the rules; it’s making bad bids at the disc and putting other players in danger; it’s not being willing to discuss a call and see the opposition’s point of view; it’s getting angry.
Good spirit is much harder to see, but it is much more common than bad spirit. The games where a solid spirit score of 10 is given (a 2 in each category) just because there were no calls may mean that it was one of the better spirited games that you played. If nothing happens in a game, then neither team broke a rule, both teams avoided fouls and body contact, both teams enjoyed the game, and both teams played fair, why is this only deserving of a 10?
Games that are given good spirit scores are games where there are calls to discuss; that is, games where there are rules broken, fouls caused, and discussions had. After all, to receive a 3 in any category something must happen. Recently, a player at World Masters Ultimate Club Championships (WMUCC) told me that in order to get a good spirit score they are very apologetic for any call made against them and if it doesn’t make a huge difference they automatically accept the call against them. Another player told me that they make bad calls and then listen to their teammates when told to retract the bad call to receive a 3 in Fair-mindedness. These are cases of “gaming” SOTG scoring.
It is time that we re-think how we view spirit and how we score spirit so that spirit scores reflect the level of spirit across the whole game. I was lucky enough to game advise at WMUCC, and there was one team that stood out to me as the best spirited team I have every had the opportunity to see play; The Master Men’s team, Colombia Masters, stood out from the start of the tournament as the team with the best spirit at the tournament. They used a few simple tools that made them stand out:
Colombia Masters came to every game with the truest intention of having the most well spirited game of their lives, the desire to make the game the most well spirited game that their opposition has ever had, and they made this intention known to the opposition. It was discussed between captains at the toss, it was discussed between spirit captains when they met before the game, and it was an evident intention in every single Colombia Masters player when they introduced themselves to the opposition and shook their hands before the first point.
When players prepare for a game or tournament at high levels there is now a huge emphasis on mental strength and mental training that often involves intention setting and visualisation individually and as a team so that we can perform as our peak physical selves. Why can this not also be a tool for playing at our peak spirit level? By letting the opposition know what level of spirit you intend to play with, they can choose to take your calls and discussions with that prior knowledge of best intention in the forefront of their minds.
During a game, bad calls are obvious and when made can boost spirit scores once retracted. While acknowledging that a call is incorrect and withdrawing it admirable, the act of deliberately making a bad call with the intention to retract it is not well spirited, does not promote good spirit and is not deserving of a good spirit score. Games are deserving of high spirit scores are those where only calls that matter are made, and where minor infractions that do not affect the play are discussed after the point or during a stoppage in play. A simple “hey I didn’t call it because it was a beautiful open side throw but just a heads up that you travelled enough for me to notice” can do wonders at improving everyone’s following of the rules in a way that doesn’t interrupt the game unnecessarily.
When these calls are not made, it is important that spirit captains are informed so that this information can be shared across the team and so that any underlying issues can be resolved, and the issue nipped in the bud. Not having the ability to correct issues as they arise is not a reason to then deduct spirit scores and communicating issues between spirit captains should reduce the number of calls being made as both teams are better able to follow the rules as the other team expects.
Besides only making necessary calls, it is also very important that calls are made consistently, both across the players in the team and across the whole game, tournament or league, regardless of the score, or of prior experiences with teams or players. The opposition need to know what is considered something that affects the game and what doesn’t, so that they as a team can play to the level that is expected of them; this could be taking a step back on the mark to avoid marking infractions, or setting an acceptable level of physicality on downfield defence.
Reacting to Calls
When people begin discussing spirit scores, the most memorable part of a game is the conversation that comes with a call. Having the instant reaction of anger or shock that a call has happened is the easiest way to escalate a call from a simple conversation between two players who are trying to follow the rules, to a heated debate where no one is listening to their opposition, and where the call will be remembered as a bad discussion. There are a few, simple steps that can diffuse any bad vibes that might arise from a discussion;
- take a breather
- believe that the opposition is trying to follow the rules
- believes their call is legitimate
This sets up discussions to flow nicely and to take 45 seconds or less, the recommended amount of time in which is needed for a call to be resolved.
There are two things that not only are well spirited, but let the opposition know that you are actively trying to be well spirited. The first is congratulating good plays by your opponent when they happen; for example, if someone gets a layout block on you without making contact that’s an amazing play and instead of being visibly annoyed that your team turned it over, if you help your opponent up from the floor, compliment their play and give them a high five, it can do wonders for inter-team dynamics and show your intention to play with great spirit. The Colombia Masters did this amazingly well, and not only did they remain positive when they were being scored on, but they managed to congratulate their opposition through a language barrier by using one word; “WOW”.
Valuing Teammate Perspective
When I play ultimate there are times when I am certain that the disc was in my hand or that I felt contact on my arm before a dropped catch, sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I am wrong. This is my perspective and being a game advisor has taught me that everyone has different perspectives on the same play, and that those perspectives can be different from the perspective of a neutral third party or the sideline. Across both WUCC and WMUCC events, many teams had different ways of offering their perspective to the players on the field. Some of the ways of doing this are inherently bad spirited, the intrusive sideline yelling or pushing their opinion on the players involved. Instead of these aggressive methods, there are some very good ways of telling your teammates your opinion without breaching the discussion between the players involved.
Hand signals are an important part of conveying a call to our sideline from the field, so hand signals can also be used to convey messages from the sideline to the field. Your team can also come up with your own hand signals; for example, arms crossed can mean that you made a good call and that you should stand your ground, while arms behind your back or out to the side could mean that they don’t think the call was worth making and that you should consider retracting. This is great not only for making good calls on the field, and policing your own team but also allowing teammates to have these discussions with or without their teammates perspective as desired.
Valuing Opposition Perspective
It is also very important to remember your oppositions perspective is very different from yours. These perspectives do not have to match, and nobody must change their perspective against their will. Accepting an opponent call or retracting a call based on an opponent’s perspective are not always examples of good spirit especially when it doesn’t allow for an equal discussion.
One of the teams at WUCC who I game advised had a poor spirit score, and set their intention to avoid discussions in the pre-game spirit captain meeting. They felt that the language barrier between teams would negatively affect them so said they would make their decision about how to react to a call without understanding the oppositions perspective. This made their opposition feel that they were never able to have a good discussion which impacted their SOTG scores.
To avoid this, players from both teams need to be able to share their perspective first. If, at that point, no one is willing to change their mind, a contest is not a bad option. When game advising, there are two very important things that are employed; firstly that two people moving into the same space doesn’t have to be one person’s fault, players don’t like admitting fault and therefore an offsetting foul where no one takes the blame is a good result that is treated like a contest. Secondly, if something is too close to call, contest is a good result. If we can’t tell if the disc is up or down, in or out, a strip or not, then send it back and try again. Recently, contest has been viewed as an argumentative response and poorly spirited call, but it simply means that two perspectives do not match, and “contest” is an important part of self-officiation.
It can be very difficult to remember these poorly or positively spirited moments when we later discuss spirit scoring as a team. During games, many teams keep statistics on block, scores, assists, passes, and turnovers. Why not also keep statistics on calls, discussions and results? This can help us make informed choices when determining what spirit scores to give a team and to leave comments for the opposition to know what evidence scores were based on. This also allows us to compare spirit across games so that games are put in the context of the tournament or league and accurately compared.
There is a trend emerging across the world to do spirit scoring before the spirit circle. This simple change in the spirit process has allowed teams to discuss spirit more immediately after the game, collect a team perspective on the spirit, and give the opposition meaningful spirit information. At this point if communication between teams has been successful, nothing that is said and no score that is given should come as a surprise. Take some time to honestly consider if the lack of calls could be because of good rules knowledge and use, avoidance of fouls and body contact, or good communication between spirit captains that caused no issues to arise.
Spirited ultimate is the same as good quality ultimate and we can practise good spirit just as we can practice good ultimate. Spirit and communication are things to be learnt and developed the same way that we develop our throws and learn a new offensive structure. If we all continue to try and have “the most well-spirited game we’ve ever had” then the amount of enjoyment we can find in playing ultimate will only grow as we grow.
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