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  • Writer's pictureZaags, Club Director

The Better Way: Why Ultimate Frisbee is the Perfect Sport for Youth

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

There has to be a better way to do sports. I was sitting on the sideline of a middle school basketball game and I saw parents up in arms screaming at the ref. I mean, I guess I didn’t think it was a foul either.

What was even more strange was that everyone was okay with their screaming. Could it be that the ref really had it out for her son? Are we teaching our 7th graders that it’s ok to scream if we don’t get our way? I bet ref is a totally cool person!

There has to be a better way.

What if I told you that a youth sport could develop social skills, respect for different perspectives, and gender equity? And that your child could play this sport for half the cost of a typical soccer club?

There is one sport that out-does them all in its value towards a child’s development: Ultimate Frisbee.

On an ultimate field, boys and girls compete together.

You may be asking yourself, “Frisbee? That thing with the baskets in the park?” or, “Isn’t that just for college hippies?” If so, you are not alone. Ultimate is a team field sport, with field dimensions similar to a soccer field, and scoring endzones similar to a football field. Players cannot run with the frisbee, and therefore may only advance the disc by completing passes to teammates

While ultimate is one of the fastest growing team sports in America, it is still a relatively uncommon activity for organized competition. However, the reasons for its recent, massive growth in youth participation are crystal clear to anyone who does their research: ultimate is better equipped than any other sport to teach valuable life lessons that apply far beyond the field. There are many ways in which the structure of ultimate promotes critical development for Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in children. Before we can understand that, though, let’s learn what exactly SEL is.

What is SEL?

Social-Emotional Learning is defined as “the process through which children acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” When you hear educators, administrators, and policy-makers reference developing soft skills, noncognitive skills, or character building, they are often referring to SEL.

Schools are investing in SEL as well: in 2016, Chicago Public Schools spent $11.2 million on SEL resources. There is well-established research that SEL contributes to positive outcomes in both school and later in life. According to a 2011 study, students in SEL programs saw an 11% improvement in academic achievement compared to students not in SEL programs. After graduation, a 2015 study revealed that SEL decreased the likelihood of students to receive public welfare, live in public housing, or spend any time in a detention facility. Additionally, a survey of corporate executives showed that 92% said problem solving and communication was either more important or equally important as technical skills.

How SEL Relates to Ultimate

Clearly, SEL is a vital tool for any parent that wants the best possible future for their child. But how does ultimate fit into this picture? What makes it different than any other team sport in building these crucial life skills? Simply put, the rules of ultimate are unlike other sports in some major respects: chief among these is the fact that there are no refs. The game is purely self-officiated: from City Middle School to Team USA. On an ultimate pitch, the players themselves are responsible for calling their own fouls. Resolving foul calls calmly and respectfully is the best example of SEL in ultimate.

After a foul is called, play stops, and the players involved must have a discussion and come to a resolution between themselves. If both players agree that a foul occurred, the aggrieved player receives the disc, and play moves on quickly. However, if the players have different opinions, then they must each present their own arguments and consider their opponent’s perspective, all while maintaining a respectful attitude. If no agreement can be reached, the disc is sent back. But often, after each player makes their case, one player will concede to the other, despite the competitive advantage that the ruling may cause for the opposing team.

The 5 Components of SEL

All 5 components of SEL are demonstrated in this foul-resolution scenario. Calling a foul requires self-awareness, and the opponent accepting or contesting demonstrates self-management. The ensuing discussion builds relationship skills. Players show social awareness by coming to quick resolutions to keep the game moving for everyone. And by making fair calls and admitting when one has fouled someone else, players practice responsible decision making.

After games, teams gather together to form a “spirit circle,” a practice that is extremely similar to the classroom-setting SEL exercise of “restorative circles,” where students discuss issues, consider alternative perspectives, and come to peaceful resolutions. In a spirit circle, players stand beside members of the opposing team, discuss the highs and lows of the previous game, and honor one player from each team as “Spirit MVPs.” Players practice self-awareness and self-management by reflecting on the emotions of the game. Having a calm and peaceful discussion about these emotions builds social awareness and relationship skills. The bestowing of Spirit MVP encourages responsible decision making.

This sounds great, but does it actually work?

Come and see a game for yourself. It is amazing to see two 4th grade teams made up of boys and girls be able to self-regulate themselves in a competitive game. And every time, after the game, they get together to congratulate each other, laugh, and have fun with each other.

Where can my child play?

Across the country, local organizations provide playing opportunities for youth in ultimate. In our own Grand Rapids/West Michigan area, Zig Zag Ultimate hosts leagues throughout the year for (nearly) all ages. 4th-8th grade leagues, high school leagues, adult leagues, camps, tournaments and more. And none of them have a single ref.

If you are not from the Grand Rapids area, do not fret. Check here to find the nearest local league to you.

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