Coaches Corner Above all: safety in physical play by John McNaughton

Be active in making player safety the highest priority for your team. Emphasise it, train for it, and reward behaviour that protects it. "Zero preventable contact injuries" may be a company-style mantra, but that could genuinely be our goal.

Physical contact in Ultimate can be a joy to play and watch. Watching athletes do battle with care and control is a real treat. That changes instantly when careless or reckless contact causes injury, and this occurs every day around the world. Our sport has no referee to act in games, and no tribunal or judiciary process for sanctioning players afterwards. It rests solely in the hands of players and coaches to proactively take this out of our sport. This is a call for our community to make player safety our highest priority on the field.

What is happening?

Players get injured in a variety of scenarios. Sometimes bids are just bad: reckless decisions with no regard for another player. Some situations are misjudged, where a player thinks they have a reasonable play, but is wrong for one of several possible reasons. Sometimes, it’s really just bad fortune, such as two players unaware of each other’s movement downfield.

I think it’s truly rare that players are malicious, or that teams are directly condoning this kind of play, and I’ll exclude that from this article. I believe that the greater issue is that we’re not proactively working on safe on-field behaviours (and in turn, against unsafe behaviour), and are therefore unwittingly creating an environment where these plays will continue to occur. Here’s why I think this, and some potential responses.

The environment we create

Please note: I have primarily played in Australia, as well as some time in the USA, but have only had brief exposure in several other countries. This section is therefore biased by my experience, and your local situation may differ.

First, teams are approving of physical contact within a non-contact sport. Defences are being urged to be touching their match-ups, and to use their body to win spaces and deny movement. While it’s entirely possible to use physical positioning this way, I see two concerns:

  1. A great majority of players don’t have the necessary movement skills to do so legally; rather than winning a position first, we frequently see pushing and bumping as a player fights for a space they have already lost.
  2. As our own referees, Ultimate allows us to negotiate our level of physicality, but this has created a culture in some teams/players where the approach is to play with high physicality until their opponent asks them to stop. I feel it’s worth including WFDF rule 12.8a: “All players must attempt to avoid contact with other players, and there is no situation where a player may justify initiating contact.”

Secondly, heroes in sport are defined by media, and the main media we watch is US club and AUDL. These competitions accept relatively high levels of contact, both in general play and when making bids, and therefore we see spectacular athletic plays from players we look up to, which are sometimes heavy on contact and unsafe. This then becomes our accepted gold standard for the level of play we seek to achieve.

In the first version of this article, I referenced differences between WFDF and USAU rules. Following internet discussion, this may have been inaccurate, but I believe these differences are valid:

  • WFDF rules allow for “dangerous play” calls with no contact, whereas some contact must occur in USAU rules
  • There are a couple of areas where WFDF wording is slightly firmer or more explicit that contact is not allowable or a foul, but the core rules are similar
  • In my experience, there is still a common view in the USA that contact after the disc is caught/blocked is not a foul, but it appears this is an interpretation (and a wrong one)

Finally, we need to recognise that bidding is a technically difficult skill, and it’s a skill that very few players train. We don’t expect that players can innately catch a disc while running at speed; we train and develop this skill… so why do we not train the skill of launching your body to extend past/around another person and touch a disc? The answers are simple – it’s physically strenuous (and painful) and very difficult to replicate – but we reap what we sow. Players, including at the very elite level, are mostly novices at an extremely technical skill, and therefore we cannot be surprised when we see it go wrong.

In summary: players are in an environment where physical play is encouraged, contact is normalised, and our sports media glorifies some high-contact plays. Although no team trains to make dangerous plays, we don’t actively work to distinguish the importance of clean, safe plays when contesting the disc, nor are we training the technique of making plays without contact.

What can we do?

1) Recognise that it can happen to you, and be proactive

The majority of players haven’t caused injury through contact, but any person is just one moment of high-intensity misjudgement away from a bad mistake. Causing an injury is a horrible feeling, and one that permeates through a team – don’t wait for this to happen before you prioritise player safety in your team.

2) Change your priorities in attacking the disc

Too often, our first priority when a throw is up is “get the disc”. This is usually fine, but when multiple people think they can get there first, neither player safety nor the rules of Ultimate can support this mentality. Instead, the first priority must become “win the space”. This means a space to run up, to bid, and to land without contacting someone who is already winning that space. If you don’t have a space, you don’t have a play.

2b) Be aware of the level of play, and consider adjusting your play to match

This is a small but valuable extension of point 2, and it’s more about consideration of other people than actual rules. Take into account the experience and ability of those around you, and consider changing your aggressiveness and spatial buffer if needed. At elite level, players operate with very small time/space margins (e.g. pulling out of a bid very late), and generally have the ability and common understanding to do this safely. At a lower level, this approach can intimidate and scare players who are still finding their feet, or in the worst case, can create injury when a newer player does something unexpected. For the sake of player safety and providing a positive environment for newer players, I’d encourage you to consider altering your margins and approach to contests when playing below your level.

3) Explicitly prioritise player safety in your club, and recognise and reward actions supporting this on the field

Despite this article’s focus, we see far more instances of players correctly avoiding contact than causing bad plays. Actively look for these moments, and deliberately recognise and respect players for their actions, both from your own team and the opposition. Two examples from the tournament that prompted this article: Elliott Cook (grey #1), and Tim Hayes (green #23). Both players have attacked a contest with awareness of the other player involved, and pulled out after recognising they couldn’t make a successful bid without contact. If you see behaviour like this, don’t let it fall by the wayside, even if it costs your team strategically. A personal comment lets the individual know that they are seen and valued; further, publicly drawing positive attention to such behaviour either in person, or later online, is a great way to reinforce similar habits in younger players.

4) Actively train techniques of contact avoidance

Some drills will soon be added to the Flik library to assist in this. Fundamentally, these drills will all have a similar approach:

  1. Set up an in-game situation which can frequently lead to dangerous plays or contact
  2. Begin the drill at a slow and simple level with the sole, exclusive rule that contact must be avoided
  3. Gradually increase the speed or complexity of the drill, but retain the avoidance of contact as the number 1 rule above all else
  4. Eventually, finish with the most intense, full speed, game-like competitive situation you can create, but still retaining that rule for contact avoidance

Bad bids typically come when players have some combination of over-excitement, fatigue, and pressure to perform, any of which can overwhelm better judgement. The more you can replicate this in training, the more transferable your skill practice will be to a big tournament.

5) If something bad happens, Act!

First of all, if someone screws up and makes a bad bid… recognise it! As that player, an immediate apology helps acknowledge that you’ve screwed up. If you hurt someone, show concern for them – you can discuss the rules and reactions later, but take care of the player on the ground first. It goes a long way to calming a situation to show that you’re not actually a jerk who likes to hit people, rather it was a mistake that you want to fix.

If you’re a captain/coach of someone who makes a poor bid, you have a responsibility to act appropriately. Sometimes it needs nothing – perhaps a first time/infrequent offender who clearly shows they recognise the error. Sometimes you need to act immediately, whether as a teaching point for your own team, or to show the other team you genuinely care about being a good opponent; this may require benching a player, and instructing your team to actively set greater margins of safety, even if that reduces your potential defensive pressure.

If you are captain/coach of a team where this is happening against you, again, you should act to protect the game and your team. Early, active communication between captains and spirit captains can often nip issues in the bud, as two teams align how they want to play. If this isn’t enough, I strongly advocate teams to see Spirit time-outs as a reasonable and appropriate choice. I believe they’re heavily under-utilised thus far, seen as the controversial “nuclear option”, but are actually a highly effective way to show that teams consider an issue to be in serious need of change, and for everyone to receive the same message (difficult with sideline chat). They’re well worth the 2-3 minutes, and are more effective before emotions are heavily flaring.

I also encourage following up with an opponent after a bad game. This can help them to recognise when they need to work on something; it will also help your own team to believe that the next game against that opponent won’t see a repeat of those problems, and avoid the potential for bad blood to develop.

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