Kalu Yala knows me as a Biology team intern, but I also moonlight as an Ultimate Frisbee addict. Before arriving in Panama, I joked about bringing some discs down with me, distributing them throughout my travels, and teaching locals about a new game called “Courtney.” Fortunately (or unfortunately, given my plans for inclusion in the Panamanian vernacular), the sport already has a growing presence by the way of Panama Ultimate, a group lead by some incredibly passionate people from a variety of nationalities. Yesterday, I participated in the Skirts Savage tournament – an annual event to kick off the tournament season in the organization’s schedule.
As an advocate of competitive Ultimate, I feel compelled to dispel the my-dog-plays-that-“sport” and Burning-Man-attendees-engage-in-recreation myths that still frustratingly come to mind for generations not familiar with the game’s current state of affairs. It’s a serious sport, replete with an arsenal of well-respected college varsity programs, Patagonia-sponsorships, and a recently-formed professional league, the AUDL. It’s a game that attracts many driven athletes, often recruits from other mainstream sports, while nurturing younger generations of new players hoping to make their new high school varsity Ultimate team.
This is a sport that deserves to thrive internationally and gain a larger presence in sports education throughout the world. It’s a cheap sport to play – all you need is a disc and a playing surface. Like soccer, it’s simple enough to teach to any age, you don’t need any protective gear, and it’s feasible for almost any climate (beach ultimate is a personal favorite). While taller players have certain advantages, there’s also a lot of room for skill sets of any types. I’m a smaller-sized, quick player, and I felt right at home settling into a mid-range cutting position.
Earlier this semester, I reached out to an organization called “Ultimate Peace” – a remarkable nonprofit dedicated to promoting conflict resolution through mutual respect and Spirit of the Game in areas of need. They’ve been involved in the Middle East, hosting summer camps in Israel and the West Bank, bringing together Palestinians, Israeli Jews, and Arab Jews on the field. It sounds crazy, but it works on an inspiring, grassroots level: each year, Israel sends three teams to the Junior Worlds tournament, and last year for the first time, Arab youths participated on all three teams (more about that story here, an audio interview with UP CEO David Barkan) Ultimate Peace also has a large presence in Latin America, and I’m working on bringing an Ultimate clinic to San Miguel toward the end of this semester as an outreach initiative.
Unlike other mainstream sports, Ultimate has a unique practice of self-officiating; it’s no wonder that Spirit of the Game – the guiding principle that players subscribe to, committing to play fairly and respect their opponents – is an excellent method of conflict resolution, on a large societal scale, but also on an interpersonal, human-development measure. You call the fouls, and you contest calls you don’t think are fair. It teaches self-advocacy, responsibility, and peace-building. It’s also simply a sport you can’t play alone, promoting socialization and collaboration. As it’s against the rules to run with the disc, you rely on your teammates to help move down the field.
Yesterday, I was personally interested in seeing how Ultimate acquired a subtly different flavor in Panama. As a former soccer player, I noticed a lot of short lateral passes and sharp, weaving cuts to move the disc typical to the possession-based style of Latin American fútbol, rather than the big, dramatic aerial plays favored in US Ultimate (perhaps owing to greater influence from American football). Just like there are regional differences in the style of the game in baseball or basketball, the sport of ultimate is benefiting from a larger variety of people playing, with different backgrounds in sports and athletic preferences. Yeah, maybe George Stubbs of Harvard, Callahan winner of 2011, can release a perfect flick huck down the entire field with a simple flick of the wrist, and maybe US National team veteran Beau Kittredge can catch a disc while jumping over a guy, but my teammates from Coclé were able to easily break the defensive “cup” structure with a few short swings of the disc revolving around a center-midfield “playmaker” type. Believe me, that is no easy matter – and the opposing team of gringos was wiped out chasing the disc after a few minutes. I was impressed and inspired to take develop that innovative tactical movement into my own game.
My time at Kalu Yala has been training me to think about more comprehensive solutions – to focus on shifting the paradigm entirely rather than breaking it up into more modest pieces of work if we want to enact any change that garners international attention and support. One of my high school classmates, Seth Priebatsch, is a technology innovator and CEO of social media tool SCVNGR; he has a runaway idea to, in his words, “build a game layer on top of the world.” He’s hosted a TEDTalk in which he advocates for harnessing innate human tendencies to compete for both successful business strategies (his domain) and overcoming development hurdles. He says that if we can motivate people to perform tasks using traditional game strategies, we can enact positive social change more effectively by modulating which tasks are incorporated. Well, we already have a wildly fun, addictive game in Ultimate that, as a byproduct, teaches players a variety of valuable, community-building characteristics. Soccer, as the world’ sport, fosters active living, pride in community and nation, and a democratic meritocracy of earned skills. Ultimate, to go a step further, adds to these values by instilling a specific sense of responsibility and respect for opponents. This is a game that I passionately hope will gain international support as a mechanism for social change and improvement worldwide.