History Perspective on Ultimate
by Joe Seidler (2006)
(with a lot of help from a number of early players)

I am the father of a son who has been playing Ultimate for over 12 years starting in college and then on a 'club' team. I am also publishing a history of Ultimate. When people talk about grass roots sports, Ultimate should likely be number one on the list. I am constantly amazed at the sheer number of worldwide participants playing at all levels. These players do so on their own volition, as sponsorship and notoriety are not the hallmarks of this sport. For those new to the sport or looking for information about its development, I hope this little write-up helps.

One thing I have learned by attending many dozens of tournaments over the past 12 years and discussing the sport with both old timers (players from the '70s and early '80s) and those playing today is that Ultimate has divided into two tiers. There are those that still play the game just for fun, camaraderie and exercise; and there are those that play it very seriously.

In the second group, the wild parties and laissez faire attitudes are long gone. Instead it's a regimen of almost daily conditioning for 3-6 months prior to the championship series. And it's practice 8-12 days per month (or more) limited only by the player's school requirements or job since no one makes any money playing Ultimate... in fact it becomes expensive for those that make it to the National Championships and even more so if you attend the World Championships (last few in Scotland, Hawaii and Finland). So in this group the number of quality teams has gone up, while the amount of "colorful" antics has decreased. This may be the reason you can now see Ultimate on ESPN2 and CSTV every once in a while.

I would guess the group of elite players is only about 20% - 25% of the total people that play the sport, but that amounts to about 20,000 athletes in the US. And this group began to evolve right from the beginning of Ultimate. Even while some players were using the sport as an excuse to 'get wild', there were many players in the late '70s and early '80s who played to win (e.g., the '81 Santa Barbara Condors and '76 Michigan State teams practiced 5 times per week plus intramurals). Keep in mind that the USA Ultimate (previously UPA) College Division did not start until 1984, so prior to that, tournaments included both club and college teams. After 1984, college teams began playing only other college teams and wilder times resulted in some cases. However, even the party teams began getting 'intense' in the early '90s with such anti-culture traditions as guys wearing skirts and the use of drugs often being replaced with hard workouts and practice 3-5 times a week.

As for any difference in the quality of play 15-20 years ago compared to now, here are a player's comments that has played then and now: "There is a lot more depth now in terms of quality throwers, and the athleticism is at a higher level. There might have been some people that worked as hard as the top teams do now, but generally only individuals not whole teams (with some exceptions). The defense was just as good man to man, but the complexity of the defensive zones is now completely different. The offensive schemes that teams now run are much more complex as well."

The biggest topic among Ultimate tournament directors and players today is whether to use observers. Ultimate has always been mostly self-officiating and the players are proud of their Spirit of the Game. From a spectators point of view this has its pluses and minuses. When a player calls a foul, the other player either agrees or contests. If it is contested, a delay generally ensues while they discuss it; and more often than not the disc goes back to the previous point and is played over. Some Ultimate tournaments today use observers to call out-of-bounds and keep play within the regulated time limits. And if either player in a dispute desires, they can ask the observer to make the call. I favor the use of observers. The issue of using observers/referees or not goes back to the beginning of the sport in 1968.

I think the sport has also had a tremendous impact on women athletes. Up until recently, after college there were few places women athletes could continue to play a sport. So Ultimate became one of the beneficiaries. The nature of the sport lends itself to both all women's and mixed/coed teams, and both have been growing rapidly in popularity.

I encourage you to take a look at USA Ultimate (previously the UPA). What you will find here is a robust national organization charged with growing the sport of Ultimate while maintaining its classic roots in good sportsmanship and fun. What you will also find are thousands of teams around the country and the world, and hundreds of leagues in cities of all sizes. You'll also find information on the highly competitive Club, College and Junior/Youth Championship Series.

Ultimate is an awesome sport to watch when serious teams are playing. Any USA Ultimate tournament will reward a spectator with top notch athleticism, beautiful throws of arcing discs, and wonderful people to get to know. Ultimate players are some of the few remaining athletes that play their sport solely for the enjoyment and will to win. The lack of money in the sport has allowed/forced it to stay 'pure', and I often think of Ultimate players as what the original Olympians must have been like. I encourage you to attend a Regional tournament (College in May and Club in early October) or the National Championship (College late May and Club late October). Some say this is a sport waiting to truly be discovered... I'm not sure if it hasn't already achieved all that it needs to for the players.

Oops, I was wrong about the parties being totally gone. On Saturday night of any major tournament, all of the players (except those that will be playing in the finals the next day) can be found at the tourney party. And they still have boat races.

Emails from Players:

[The above] seems like a well balanced portrayal. As an occasional player during the 90's I found the club team I played with consistently ratcheting up the pressure each year to become more competitive. As someone with two kids and a wife who wants me home most of my non-working time, I found it difficult to fit into the practice/tournament game schedule the team aspired to. The last time I tried to play with them in 2000 they spent over half of my available time doing warm-ups and drills before beginning a rather disciplined practice. As a player from the old school, I didn't find it much fun.

If I hadn't moved a half hour away I still might have considered going there occasionally, but I also didn't feel very welcome without giving a large commitment of time to the team.

Ed Summers
Tufts co-founder/co-captain '72 - '77 (took a year off)

Going to the '86 Nationals as a spectator was a huge thing for me. I was hooked on playing high level Ultimate after seeing that. It was the reason why I moved to LA in '87. I wanted to be able to play Ultimate year round and living in Illinois that was not possible. I guess I was like a few other current Condors in that I just moved to California to play, and then I figured out where to work, where to live, etc.

Brent Russell
Santa Barbara Condors '97-'02

My team, Michigan State, practiced 5 days per week (including drills, wind-sprints, the whole deal) fall, winter, and spring, from as far back as 1976. (And, indeed, much to my chagrin, my team had almost no partiers on it!) We played to win. Having poor disc skills, we employed other strategies to compensate. We had, imho, by the end of the 70's and early 80's among the best man-to-man defenses in the country, and, again, imho, set a standard in the Mid-West that was not matched until Windy City came along a few years later. Another strategy we employed, which I think CVH mentioned that Windy City also did, was that we ran like crazy on offense -- never resting in a stack position, etc. -- we had a team rule that if your foot was on the field and the disc was in play, you had to be running hard or else get subbed out next point. The goal of this was, in part, to tire the other team's defense out, because we were in better shape than every team we played, and because our offensive skills were our weak point.

By the spring of 1979, we came within one point of making the UPA finals. The Condors beat us 11-10 in a come-from-behind victory (a loss that [and the only loss that], to this day, still haunts me). TK had told us after that game, that it been the first time the Condors had been behind at halftime in almost two years.

Sholom (Eric) Simon