Ultimate Frisbee: Ultimately Fun, Ultimately Jewish
By Benji Joffe
Sitting on my bed on a Wednesday afternoon, I was itching to walk out the door into the spring air. That night, I, a freshman at the time, thought about ways I could be more active; my school’s spring sports include baseball, tennis, and track, all three of which I was not interested in playing. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense: why not try to start a high school ultimate Frisbee team? I immediately began to ask my friends if they’d be interested in joining the potential team. Their affirmative responses buoyed my hope to play ultimate. With too many spring sports teams sharing one soccer field, the athletic director understandably denied my casual request for an ultimate team. Nevertheless, I was still able to form a club. I easily secured the minimum eight names required to establish a club, but I still needed an advisor, and that’s when I approached Rabbi Lev, who has since been our adult leader and coach.
At first, a bunch of my ninth grade friends and I met only once every few days at lunch out on the soccer field. We would chuck the disc to one another without rules or strategies. Gradually, we got more and more structured. The following spring, my tenth grade year, we held a few Sunday practices and two afterschool games. Some juniors joined the team in addition to my sophomore friends. In eleventh grade, we held more practices and more games, and we even competed in two tournaments, with kids playing from all grades. Although we’ve learned some offensive formations and defensive tactics, we have preserved the casual and fun spirit of our original team when we were just playing out at lunch.
Ultimate seems to be especially popular in the Jewish community, and I don’t think that is totally coincidental. When I think of a male Jewish teen, I picture someone relatively similar to myself: a skinny, lanky, brown curly-haired kid whose mother’s worries have engrained in him the dangers of physical sports like football or hockey. That kid is pretty much built to play ultimate. Though he may not be lightning fast or tremendously strong, he probably has high stamina and is able to run for the long distances that ultimate games and tournaments require. His awkward body proportions and long arms are for once conducive in sport, enabling him to snatch the disc in the air above those with shorter, less lanky arms. His mother is more than willing to give her permission for him to play ultimate due to the non-contact nature of the sport. And since the players themselves are expected to make fair/foul calls, the honesty and humility that his mother taught him thrive in this trust-based sport.
Serving in my role as co-captain, along with my teammate Alec Cohen, has been tough. Our second game in tenth grade against Abington Friends was a close one. Since the score was tied late in the game at 10-10, my team was on edge, nervous about the other team’s momentum that might produce an unfavorable outcome. It was time for substitutions, and I was the one who needed to decide who was to play and who was to sit on the bench at this critical moment in the game. I hesitated, trying to balance fairness with a desire to win. This brief lapse of decisiveness allowed one particularly loud player on the team to try to make the decision that I, the captain, should have made. As a result, arguments erupted among the players about individual skill levels, and the team lost its organization and chemistry that the intense situation demanded.
What’s challenging has been not only lacking the authority that a true captain who coaches younger players usually possesses, but also coming from a small Jewish private school with limitations. Often, other teams hold practices, games, tournaments, or organizational league meetings on Saturdays or on weekdays. In a small school with only 60 students in each co-ed grade, athletes who play other spring sports must also be permitted to play ultimate to maintain an otherwise unsustainable team. Since many of our team members are busy with their other sports after school on weekdays, and since no one can do anything ultimate-related on Shabbat, we are usually restricted to schedule events for Sundays only. Despite the scheduling difficulties and leadership challenges, I have thoroughly enjoyed helping form our enthusiastic ultimate team.
By Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston (“Rabbi Lev”/Coach)
Our two-hour game of ultimate Frisbee came to an end as the sunlight began to ebb on the Class of ‘16 ninth grade springtime shabbaton. Benji and Alec, their classmates and I had spent the afternoon out on the field on that beautiful early May Shabbat afternoon and it was time to come in for Minchah services and the final gradewide activities before making Havdalah. I hadn’t anticipated that chaperoning the Shabbaton would be so much fun out on the field, and as Benji and Alec, their classmates and I walked back into the building, they asked me if I would be willing to help them start up an ultimate Frisbee team. I knew it would be a rich experience, and I also knew that I would have a steep learning curve ahead of me.
I was a cross-country and track runner in high school and college, but I hadn’t played a team strategy sport for many years until I began playing ultimate Frisbee as a teacher when I began supervising students outdoors at a weekly lunchtime duty. I played ultimate Frisbee with my students for a decade without paying much attention to the rules, so when I told Benji that I would be willing to coach the team, I also made a commitment to learning the game. Since then, I have come to appreciate that the values guiding the sport of ultimate Frisbee are right in synch with the values that guide our school. I have to be careful not to talk too much about ultimate, though, because my head of school may think that I’m planning to give up my day job as director of Jewish studies!
Ultimate Frisbee is played like other field sports, in which the Frisbee moves down the field to an end zone. It is a rapid-moving game with constant movement going up and down the field, frequent turnovers as each team gains and loses possession, and eyes directed skyward, tracking the disc in flight. Unlike any other sport, however, “ultimate,” as it is commonly known, is guided by a concept known officially as “the spirit of the game,” a positive outlook on play that requires honesty and integrity. Ultimate is different from other sports because the players on the field are the only ones who can call a foul; there are no outside referees, so everyone has to play by the rules and be effective self-advocates if they feel they have been fouled.
At Barrack, I serve as the Derech Eretz Council faculty advisor, and when the Council—a mix of students and teachers—identified six values to serve as a foundation for our school’s honor code, we could have been planning for ultimate Frisbee because the sport embodies those same six values. These are our school’s six values and their relevance for ultimate.
Honor—kavod—because we honor spirit as much as skill;
Honesty—yosher—because we are trustworthy in the absence of outside referees;
Humility—anavah—because we can always improve our game and because we are willing to accept an opponent’s call if we foul;
Community—kehillah—because the Spirit of the Game brings teams together and players even join an opposing team if they don’t have a full team because a spirited game is better than a forfeit;
Fellowship—havruta—because friendships form across grades when everyone has a hand in moving the disk forward and because good-natured heckling, high-five-ing the other team, and snarky, funny cheers are all part of the Spirit of the Game;
Modesty—tzniut—because no single player can dominate the team.
Ultimate Frisbee captains play unusually significant roles, even on youth teams, so I seek to nurture the leadership skills of my captains. I have worked with Benji and Alec on calling for practices and scheduling games, sometimes at 8:00 AM on a Sunday morning! When we are out on the field, the captains determine who substitutes for whom, calling plays and strategies. As Benji implied in his essay, captains have to play a moral role as well when they have to make difficult choices. I have had more than one conversation with captains about whether or not to remove a teammate from the field if the teammate is acting in poor spirit and bad faith.
Chasing a flying disc across a field might look frivolous, perhaps no more frivolous, though, than chasing a soccer ball or swatting a baseball. The beauty in ultimate Frisbee can be found not only in the aerodynamic disc as it gets launched down a field into the sky, but also in the simplicity of equipment—no pads, no helmets, just shirts, shorts, cleats—and in the broad green expanse of the field.
As a coach, I find that I can reach several students in ways I never would in the classroom, especially when I jump into a game and play, jostle, push, get pushed, and match wits and strategies. We all try to keep the language clean, and the informality means that even though I’m their teacher or rabbi, I’m also just another player while we’re out on the field. They see me try and make the catch and throw a successful pass sometimes and then miss the catch or miss a throw on another play. I also see the best in their character when they persevere, give time to the team, lose with grace, and win with spirit. Unlike the classroom with its clear authority structure, the field allows for joking around, silences, shared interests and relationships that feel more informal and even familial.
As my students began to improve their skills and play in official games and tournaments, I began to miss the games we played together at recess, so I signed up to join an intermediate level summer league so that I could play with some kids my own age and improve my skills as a player. When the summer league season came to an end, I wasn’t expecting to earn MVP, but I did feel a little proud to receive the Most Improved Player award. When I shared my award with the director of athletics at my school, he encouraged me to tell my team because we can’t all be MVP, but we can all strive to keep improving our game.
After all, the beauty and excitement in athletics from youth leagues to professional levels lie in working hard, playing hard, being part of a team community, and being modest and humble enough to know that after every point we are fortunate to gain, we eventually have to return to the starting line, back on defense with a strategy to move forward. Each new game of ultimate Frisbee, like each year of studying Torah in our Jewish schools, offers a fresh start.