For our family, the melting snow heralds in Frisbee season. Jacob is an Ultimate Frisbee enthusiast, hopes to make the club team in college and has signed up for a weeklong Ultimate Frisbee camp as soon as school ends. He learns new Frisbee moves by watching You Tube and can rattle off the names of the world’s premier players in the sport—and yes, Ultimate Frisbee is a sport with its own governing body and premier players.
I did not see this coming.
Jacob began his athletic career with lots of variety as a young child-- baseball in the spring; swimming and tennis in the summer; flag football, soccer or cross country in the fall, and basketball and skiing in the winter. Table tennis was his year-round indoor sport. I watched many of his early grade school games with a toddler on my hip and a preschooler at my side. Taking Jacob’s younger brother and sisters to watch his interminable little league games was especially brutal. It was like taking them to church, but longer, without the distraction of music, and with the hazard of foul balls.
While many of my friends’ children eventually showed a special talent in one sport, and began to specialize, joining club traveling teams, Jacob remained stunningly average at every sport he tried. He enjoyed all of them, but didn’t have a true passion for any of them. Even in high school, not good enough to play soccer or basketball for Dominican, he continued to play on a rec soccer team one season, and a parish basketball team the next. He played JV baseball for a couple of years and then switched to tennis for junior and senior years—all while occasionally playing dodgeball, ping pong and other random sports.
When Jacob was introduced to Ultimate Frisbee in gym class and quickly signed up for a Milwaukee Ultimate league, I was impressed with his initiative, but didn’t think it would turn any more serious than any of his other sports.
Ultimate Frisbee (actually known simply as “Ultimate” because Frisbee is a brand) is played by two teams of seven on a football field. It is a fast-paced running game with similarities to football and soccer. Teams try to score by passing the disc to open teammates into the end zone. No contact, picks or screens are allowed.
Jacob’s athletic history of jack-of-all-sports fits perfectly with Ultimate. Few young children are groomed to toss a Frisbee, and by college, the serious athletes are off riding scholarships for their serious sports, allowing a medium athlete like Jacob to have a shot at the ones below the radar.
But the element of Ultimate that I appreciate the most—and fits the most for Jacob—is what the USA Ultimate national governing board calls “The Spirit of the Game.” Strong competition is encouraged, but should never get in the way of the joy of playing.
Ultimate’s focus on their trademarked Spirit of the Game is woven through the board’s official rules. Recognizing it’s not enough to simply tell people to play fair, the national governing body gives ten specific guidelines of how to play within the Spirit of the Game. Their first point is the golden rule: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Shortly thereafter, the authors acknowledge that many athletes have thick skin, and amend the rule to: “Treat others as you wish your mother to be treated.”
Point two tackles containing emotion under pressure and point three explains the difference between good-natured heckling and mean-spirited taunting. The ten points are so beautifully written and complete that they could be a guide for any sport—indeed, for any activity in life—not just Frisbee. “Be generous with praise,” the governing body advises in their eighth point. “Compliment an opponent on her good catch. Remark to a teammate that you admire his honesty in calling himself out of bounds.” Perhaps the best direction is given as part of point six, titled simply, “Breathe.” The guideline says, “After a hard foul or close call, take a step back, pause, and take a deep breath. By giving yourself just a bit of time and space, you will gain enough perspective to compose yourself and concentrate on the facts involved.” The full document of The Spirit of the Game reads like an inspiring homily.
In the The Spirit of the Game, I see Jacob’s spirit, as well. A love of sport combined with a healthy sense of competition-- wrapped in a perspective that running, passing, diving and catching are fantastic parts of life, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Once Jacob moves on to college, Bill and I will still have three other young athletes in the home. We have almost another decade of dribbling and jumping; bumping and hitting. Another decade of moving toward the Ultimate goal— The Spirit of the Game.