Spirit of the Game is a core concept in Ultimate. Although vital, Spirit of the Game can be a tricky thing to define or describe to those who have not experienced it. On the surface, Spirit of the Game is a framework for rules enforcement, it requires each player to do their best to look objectively at situations in an ultimate game that they are involved in and to apply the rules correctly, regardless of the effect that their decision will have on their own fortunes in a game. Put into practice, Spirit of the Game forces players of ultimate to look into themselves and decide how they are going to respond when they are called to personal responsibility.
Ultimate is Fragile by Design
In the extreme, a single player who rejects Spirit of the Game has the power to make enough calls in their own favour to guarantee a win or at least a tie for their team; I imagine that most ultimate players realize this is an option at some point in their career, usually sooner than later. When I first realized this I wondered how a sport that was so vulnerable to abuse of the rules could possibly function, but over time I came to see this apparent weakness as a strength.
A Happy Accident
The happy accident or subtle genius of a sport that crumbles under intentional cheating is that it requires those who choose to play it to defend the sport they love or watch it crumble. There is little room for apathy. Practically this means that team captains will often bench players that make bad calls in their own favour and apologize to their opponent. In cases that a team captain refuses to control players on their team who intentionally cheat, bids to tournaments can be withheld and often new players will refuse to join for fear of acquiring the reputation of playing on a team that intentionally cheats. There are some counterexamples to this but in general our system of informal community-based rule enforcement creates an environment that many players find refreshing when compared to the refereed field sports.
Not for Everyone
A second side effect of Spirit of the Game turns some potential players away. Playing league ultimate successfully requires a level of rules knowledge and mindfulness that some find intimidating and stressful. While some look forward to the need for personal responsibility and mental challenge of being their own referee, others will find the sport overly complex and preachy. Other aspects of ultimate raise early barriers for new players. Learning to throw a disc is hard and requires a level of body control greater than kicking or throwing a ball. The fitness requirements of the sport can be immense and ultimate tournaments feature massive amounts of play over a single weekend (often 7 games in 2 days), rarely seen in other sports. All of these barriers add up to a difficult time for new players. While it is possible to teach yourself to play, the best way to learn the sport is to find an experienced mentor to take you on their team and teach you to throw and how to apply Spirit of the Game. As a result, and by design and by evolution, most players that do succeed in the Ultimate are well immersed in its culture before they are effective enough to claim positions of leadership for themselves. We sacrifice speed of growth in exchange for quality of community.
An Experiment in Progress
Ultimate is an ongoing social experiment. As the sport has grown over the past 50 years, the Ultimate community collectively agreed that we would attempt to answer the question: “Is it possible to have a competitive team sport that enforces its rules solely by personal responsibility of the players?” It is still unknown whether our sport can or will continue to progress, driven by the principles of Spirit of the Game. Will we see pockets of rife, unchecked cheating or dangerous play when the stakes get high enough or will our community rise up to stand for something better. I believe we continue to grow with Spirit of the Game as our guiding principle, but to do so will require new generations of leaders to continue to commit to the hard work of mentorship and action.
The experiment is continues.
Written for International Spirit of the Game Day. Learn more at http://www.spiritofthegameday.org/