Observers: The Future of Ultimate

by | May 10, 2011, 6:00am 0

The views in this article are entirely my own and do not reflect those of the USA Ultimate governing body, Skyd Magazine, or the Observing System. As an Observer, I strictly follow what I was taught to do. As a writer and opinionated member of the “media,” I am confident in my ability to separate my opinions on Observing from when I actually Observe.

With the college restructuring process finalized and the game growing at an incredible pace, there is not a tournament that goes by where the role of observers are not discussed. From beach tournaments that are all about fun in the sun to both College and Club Nationals, where the game is at its highest level of competition, Observers are playing an increasing yet still unspecified role in keeping the sport honest and competitive.

After attending Lei-Out in Los Angeles and watching an entire tournament go by without the need for observers, other than two calls during finals that got a plethora of boos from the crowd, I remembered that Observers are not a requirement for Ultimate to work. However, for the sport to advance to a level where it can progress from a “hippy game played with dogs” to a truly captivating, national pastime, the role and function of Observers need to be made a priority for the development of the game.

Observers Today

As a writer for Skyd Magazine and an all around social wanderer of the Ultimate community in the states, I have had the privilege of speaking to countless players, both male and female, young and old, about their opinions of Observers and how Spirit of the Game affects their on-field decisions and calls. The vast majority all agree that Observers need to have a bigger role: active stalls, immediate referral for travel, and the ability to assess PMFs and TMFs more freely. The most frequent complaint about the current Observer system is the overall lack of experienced Observers. While championship games always manage to get the most experienced Observers, often the game leading into it, like semifinals or quarterfinals, have less experienced crew. The games leading to finals matter just as much as finals itself. This situation is improving as more clinics are being run to train Observers, but often new Observers have been out of the game for some time or have not played at an elite level. They lack big game experience, as either Observers or players.

What do Observers do now? They actively call whether the disc was in or out of bounds, whether the disc was caught in the end-zone, and are responsible for all time management issues and the misconduct system. They do not call travels, up/down, call injuries, or immediately rule on foul calls. The objective of the Observer is to maintain flow and encourage spirited play throughout the game.

The Importance of Observers

First and foremost, are Observers a necessity to make Ultimate work? New USAU Board Member and Certified Observer Colin Mcintyre says, “No. Necessary is a strong word. The vast majority of games work fine without Observers.” However even he agrees that “Observers do provide a great benefit.” Mainly, they keep the game moving at a quicker pace. That is better for both players and spectators. Even in the most spirited of games, disputes can arise where, even though neither person thinks he/she is wrong, a third, neutral party arbitrator would make everything smoother and more enjoyable for those on the field and those watching the game. There is nothing worse, and we can all agree, than watching a great game stop due to disputes on the field.

Most people who play Ultimate play because they are competitors. Even the most honest competitor can have his or her view skewed by their will to win. The largest problem with not having Observers in those highly competitive games, like Regional and National championships, is the often seen honest disagreements about a call. In a game that is for fun, I will often not care, or at least care significantly less if an opposing team member makes a call I think is wrong or contests a call I made. In a Regional final game though, I will not back down, and odds are neither will my opponent. That’s why all major sports have some sort of officiating. It is not to stop cheating necessarily, but more to help keep the flow of the game moving and to bring a neutral, non emotional clarity to the game and help both teams by making the correct call.

Everyone knows that when a disagreement comes up about a call in an unobserved game, the result is, according to the rules of the game, a do-over. When the sport was being played by the counter culture youth who started the Ultimate movement, this was a perfectly acceptable outcome. Phil Hale, the head coach of Holy Family Catholic High School, and I had a great argument about the idea of a do-over. He said that a do over is a perfectly acceptable outcome and should be encouraged. To counter that, I brought up that when he was a young(er) man playing the sport the people playing it were simply different.

How many Ultimate players today started off playing sports that were officiated? Most whom I know played soccer growing up, and have never been empowered to make their own calls. To the new generation of Ultimate players, a do-over does not exist. There has to be one right call for any given play. That is the crux of the current issue with Observers and Ultimate. The consensus from players I’ve heard is that the foul/contest is less acceptable than it used to be. Phil and I both agreed that if you take out the players who clearly violate the rules, call every single travel, and purposely foul on the mark, you are still left with a void of clarity when a legitimate call comes up.

Does anyone want a do-over to decide the outcome of a Nationals’ final game? More importantly, does anyone want the 5 minute argument that tends to follow in a heated, close game? An argument that stops all momentum and excitement?

If everyone were honest, Observers would still help keep the game moving and make it more exciting to watch. Is everyone honest though?

Player Misconduct

At the Chicago Invite High School tournament, I received my USAU Observer Certification. After 8 hours in a classroom, one lightning delay, and possibly the cleanest game of High School Ultimate I have ever seen, but I officially became an Observer. One of the major topics covered, besides your standard rules and hand signals, was the use of the TMF and PMF, known as the Misconduct System.

I had the privilege of playing for the University of Wisconsin Hodags during my college career, so I can safely say I know the difference between legitimate plays like marking aggressively, making hard plays on the disc, and making legitimate travel calls, and what is simply put, just cheating. I am not going to call out anyone here, but in College Ultimate, some teams have strong reputations for going past the gray line that is physical Ultimate into what is no longer part of the sport. My biggest complaint with the Observer system was that it actually took way too much to get a TMF. This is changing thankfully.

I have gotten so many warnings about, “next time, it’s a TMF”. The funny thing about TMF’s is that the first two are actually warnings. Only on the third TMF does anything actually happen. I was delighted to hear my Observer trainer describe the Misconduct System and how it should be implemented. Simply, if it looks like it should be a TMF, it is a TMF. No warnings for the warnings. The Observer still has discretion on whether to issue one, but the Misconduct System is not designed to include tons of warnings. I was pleased that the Observer training provided clearer guidelines on when a TMF should be issued. Is the first sideline warning for a team going to be a TMF? Probably not, but you better believe the second one very likely will be now. Is the first poor travel call going to get your team a TMF? In some situations, yes, it will. Same with overly aggressive marks and an overall lack of sportsmanship.

Personal Misconduct Fouls (PMF’s) are issued to individual players for particularly egregious misbehavior or a pattern of misbehavior. Each PMF also counts as a TMF for the team. Two PMF’s in a game and you get a two half suspension. Three in a tournament and you are ejected from the tournament.

This is absolutely the right direction to take. If you establish within the first few points of a game that poor sportsmanship will not be tolerated, then the Observers might not be needed for the rest of the game, which is actually the point. They are there to maintain flow of the game and encourage spirited play.

What about the future and what new responsibilities will Observers have? I would encourage immediate referral on travel calls. While not active, if one is ever called, instead of the players arguing about it, the call immediately goes to an Observer for final say. The only caveat is that the player calling the travel has to say what the travel was. Up/down should go to being an active call made by the Observer since it will help keep the game moving. Having played in an experimental “refereed” game, I can reassure you that having Observers call fouls will never work unless you have 7 Observers to watch each set of players. Part of Spirit of the Game will always place the responsibility for calling fouls and not fouling on the player, and since USAU and most players still say SOTG is important, that aspect should always remain with the players. However, if a foul dispute lasts longer than 20 seconds it should then go to an Observer (this is essentially what happens now).

A few final thoughts:

I was the head Observer at Great Lakes Regionals and was impressed with all of the players for a very high level of clean play. I am proud to say I did not give out a single TMF, nor were any given that I am aware of, for poor play. Sideline infractions, on the other hand, were a huge issue. We Observers understand that all players want to be as close as possible. I never gave out a TMF for the first infraction. However, when there are a line of cones set up to clearly display the 3 meter boundary around the field and a team still insists on ignoring it, TMF’s will come out quickly. Do not yell at an Observer for getting a sideline TMF as that can, but did not this last weekend, lead to another TMF. The first and second TMF’s are warnings. Do not explode and start cursing at the first one. Also, try not to get angry when a foul you call gets overturned. You might think you got fouled, but if it’s overturned, you did not. Simple as that.

I believe Observers give Ultimate the ability to still be a unique sport where fouls are called by the player, disputes are handled quickly, and the game can still be fun to watch for a spectator. For the future of the sport, gathering a fan base and making the sport enjoyable to watch are critically important and with a slight tweak to the current system easily attainable. If you have any comments please post them or feel free to contact me at

Photos by Kevin Leclaire ( and Andrew Davis

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