What is Ultimate? How does the sport work?

Wikipedia ‘defines’ Ultimate as a team sport played with a flying disc. The object of the game is to score points by passing the disc to a player in the opposing end zone, similar to an end zone in American football. Players may not run with the disc, and must keep a pivot while holding the disc.

As with trying to understand any new sport, it is important to wrap your head around the basic rules. I’ll try to keep it succinct for the sake of the broader audience. The best way for anyone new to learn and interpret the rules is to get out on the field and start playing the game.

The basic rules can be explained in a couple of minutes.

Ultimate Frisbee is a non-contact, co-ed, team sport that is played with a plastic disc (Frisbee ®). Two teams of seven players compete on a rectangular playing field.

Field layout and dimensions

Grass field layout and dimensions. (Source: WFDF Rules of Ultimate 2013)

Ultimate in 10 Easy Rules (adapted from USA Ultimate)

  1. The Field: A rectangular shape with end zones at each end. A regulation field is 100m by 37m, with end zones 18m deep.
  2. Initiate Play: Each point begins with both teams lining up on the front of their respective end zone line. The defense throws (“pulls”) the disc to the offense.
  3. Scoring: Each time the offense completes a pass in the defense’s end zone, the offense scores a point. Play is initiated after each score.
  4. Movement of the Disc: The disc may be advanced in any direction by completing a pass to a teammate. Players may not run with the disc. The person with the disc (“thrower”) has ten seconds to throw the disc. The defender guarding the thrower (“marker”) counts out the stall count.
  5. Change of Possession: When a pass is not completed (e.g. out of bounds, drop, block, interception), the defense immediately takes possession of the disc and becomes the offense.
  6. Substitutions: Players not in the game may replace players in the game after a score and during an injury timeout.
  7. Non-contact: No physical contact is allowed between players. Picks and screens are also prohibited. A foul occurs when contact is made.
  8. Fouls: When a player initiates contact on another player a foul occurs. When a foul disrupts possession, the play resumes as if the possession was retained. If the player committing the foul disagrees with the foul call, the play is redone.
  9. Self-Officiating: Players are responsible for their own foul and line calls. Players resolve their own disputes.
  10. Spirit of the Game: Ultimate stresses sportsmanship and fair play. Competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules, and the basic joy of play.

Too long / Didn’t read? Got a minute? Watch this fantastic video on the basics of Ultimate. Sums it all up very nicely.

A self-refereed sport

There are no referees in Ultimate – Players on the field make their own calls when violations occur. Ultimate relies upon the ‘Spirit of the Game’ that places the responsibility for fair play on every player. If there is disagreement regarding an incident, the play is simply redone without any penalties.

I quote directly from this amazing post to explain why there isn’t an imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence – “Punishments will not eradicate bad behaviour, they will merely control some of its excesses. And the price we pay for this is that those same punishments legitimise any behaviour that is ‘worth it’. They turn the cheat-or-not decision into an economic one, and we know how humans respond to incentives in those situations. 

Economic arguments offer us that excuse we’re looking for. Instead of saying, “Yes, I’m a filthy cheat!” we can say, “Look how clever I am, I got a net benefit out of this! The rules are stupid, man, and I beat them. I win.”

Punishments in Ultimate will allow people to think that way. That’s not rational, but it is human.”

A co-ed sport

The non-contact nature of the game makes it co-ed friendly. Women feel equally appreciated for their exploits on the field.

In fact, like one of the players puts it – “The level of athleticism in elite women Ultimate players relative to the general population, or even other sports, is higher than it is with men.”

Check out this amazing play by Maggie Ruden in a women’s division game.

National and international tournaments host a mixed division to encourage not only equivalent participation between the sexes, but actual co-ed play, even at the highest levels. The co-mingling of sexes, on a level playing field, is a huge part of the sport’s appeal.

This video should give you a fair idea about how a game at the highest level looks.

A little bit of history

Ultimate is said to have been founded in the year 1968 at Columbia High School in New Jersey. The credit of co-creating this awesome sport is shared by Jared Kass and Joel Silver (Trivia: He is more popular as the producer of movies such as Die Hard and The Matrix!).  Its collegiate roots can be traced back to the first ever game played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1972.

One of the fastest growing sports!

The World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) serves as the international governing body of all flying disc sports. Since WFDF was founded in 1985, the development of the sport has been quite rapid. Today, it is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, due to the simplicity of the basic rules, the speed of the game, it’s self-officiation, and appeal with young men and women. It is estimated that more than 7 million players enjoy playing the sport in more than 80 countries! This year, ultimate frisbee took a big pivot-step forward into the realm of professional sports with the founding of professional leagues in the US, that been featured on ESPN. The sport is already a part of the world games and looking good to be included in the Olympics soon!

Note: Sometimes people refer to the sport as Ultimate Frisbee and other times you hear it just called Ultimate. The name of the sport is slowly changing from ‘Ultimate Frisbee’ to Ultimate because of the registered trademarked Frisbee® that is the name of the disc manufactured by Wham-O. (The reason isn’t simply to abbreviate the name of sport.)

Sources: Mostly from the amazing WFDF rules site & USA Ultimate page, and a couple of other pages that I unfortunately can’t remember.

Written by Abhinav Vinayakh Shankar

Indian player on a personal mission to keep Ultimate fun and Spirited, his proudest moment in the sport, justifiably, came at The World Championships of Beach Ultimate 2011 (WCBU ’11) in Italy, where he represented India in the open division and they won the Spirit Award.

Abhinav serves as the Secretary at Chennai Ultimate Frisbee Club, the largest club in the country. Every October, he helps conceptualize and run BULA certified tournament Chennai Heat (A 7v7 co-ed Beach tournament on full size flood-lit fields that draws crowds of over 5000 people!)

He trains with fitness coach Arvind Ashok (co-founder of The Quad).