Ultimate frisbee is trying to fill a quirky gap in the sporting market, attempting to shed its image as an activity solely for slackers and those with limited athletic ability. Instead, there has been a concentrated effort to establish Ultimate’s credibility in sporting circles. Meanwhile, there is always the danger that in becoming a serious sport, ultimate frisbee runs the risk of being too professional, to such an extent that it alienates those with less developed skill sets. After all, the relaxed atmosphere and emphasis on inclusivity have always been the sport’s unique selling points.
However, at an outdoor training session on a bright September evening outside the Pav, it is clear that in Dublin University Ultimate Frisbee Club (DUUFC), enjoyment is paramount. Successful and stunning catches are met with cheers and the odd clap, while gaffes and blunders are simply laughed off. Men’s Captain Paul McDonough explains that the laidback nature of the club’s first training sessions is important for enticing new players: “We are aware that a lot of people won’t have really played the sport before and are tentative to try it. If you say on the first week that, ‘you have to commit to this amount of gym and that amount of training’, you’re going to scare people off.”
“We are aware that a lot of people won’t have really played the sport before and are tentative to try it.”
Of course, while there are naturally going to be newcomers to the sport, the club must also cater for more competent players whose knowledge stretches far beyond the basics: “For our more experienced players, we’re looking for more emphasis on gym work. We’re fortunate enough to have a few people in our club that do physio that will take our warm-ups and design fitness plans for us throughout the season. The focus at the start of the season is on strength: being able to jump higher and become a more explosive athlete. Towards the later half, we turn our attention to cardio and being able to outrun opponents.”
Founded in 1995, DUUFC owes its existence to the pioneers across the Atlantic, as McDonough reveals: “It started with people in the States throwing a frisbee around on a college campus. Eventually the students began to organise themselves into teams and play against each other. From there, proper rules were laid out and the USA established a governing body, and it just spread from there across the globe.” Ultimate frisbee borrows heavily from American football and Olympic handball in regards to its format and rules. The aim is to pass the disc to a teammate standing in the opponent’s end zone, which scores you one point. However, the player in possession cannot move, only pass. Teams are generally made up of seven players on each side, but five or six player games are also common. Matches can be played either to a score limit of between 13 to 17 points, or a time limit which can be up to 100 minutes.
“There is a competitive scene emerging here in Ireland – people are training hard and there’s a proper sporting attitude developing among players.”
Of course, there is a stigma attached to the sport – that it is predominantly played by students who are uninterested in academic studies and see it as the ideal way to procrastinate. McDonough confesses that this is still an issue within the game: “Certainly, that dynamic is still around – [there are] people that enjoy a relaxed lifestyle and love the social element of it, which is great. But there is a competitive scene emerging here in Ireland. People are training hard and there’s a proper sporting attitude developing among players, who see it as a way to stay fit. People are also beginning to choose it over other sports, which is great to see.”
There was a time when ultimate frisbee was seen as a staple of the lazy college experience. It attracted plenty of players on campus greens and looked quite enjoyable, but was dismissed as something that anyone can do, and therefore a waste of time and effort. Ultimate frisbee has risen from this lowly status, forming governing bodies which intend to enhance the sport’s reputation. It has slowly crept into popular culture, and although names like Brodie Smith and Oscar Pottinger may not mean much to the general public, their insane catching and throwing abilities have received huge acclaim through videos on social media. Gradually, the sport has gained an acceptance in the sporting community.
That being said, ultimate frisbee still transcends the conventions of sport. For instance, matches are not officiated by any form of referee or umpire. Instead, the sport thrives on a “spirit of the game” policy, where players call their own fouls and decisions are only disputed if the player genuinely feels that the offence did not occur. This allows ultimate frisbee to accurately and consistently promote the values of fair play and sportsmanship and sets a precedent to other sports that fall well below the mark.
“The competitive side of it is great, as is getting out and exercising, but my absolute favourite part is the social life.”
The popularity of the sport in Ireland is constantly growing, with more and more people picking up a flying disc. According to the Irish Flying Disc Association, there are seven teams in universities and colleges across the country, as well as nine clubs which train and compete regularly. There are Irish representative teams from U-17 to senior level. In recent years, Irish mixed teams have collected two silver medals at European Championships on grass and beach, respectively. Ultimate frisbee is also popular in secondary schools, and is frequently incorporated into PE curricula.
There are many reasons to join DUUFC: it is a fun way to get exercise, it accommodates players of various skill levels and insists on the principles of fair conduct and respect. However, when asked why people should sign up to the club, McDonough cites one aspect above all else: “The competitive side of it is great, as is getting out and exercising, but my absolute favourite part of this is the social life. 99% of my college friends were made through ultimate; we go out together, we travel around the country playing matches together, and they’re just some of the best friends you could ever hope to make in college. The sport can be great but it’s the people that really make it.”