While organizing writers for USA Ultimate’s Regionals coverage, I was put in touch with Ari Weitzman, a former University of Chicago player that spent his final year of eligibility with Pittsburgh. He and I had a few conversations about the various levels of play and intensity that he experienced throughout his college career. One of them was about spiking, and Ari had an interesting take. Read on…
-By Ari Weitzman, UChicago ‘05-‘09, Pittsburgh ‘10
I arrived at the University of Chicago at an interesting time in the ultimate frisbee team’s history. Up to that point, the program had been developing under the gregariousness of Zahlen and Xtehn Titcomb (of Five Ultimate fame). In my freshman year of 2005, the older brothers were gone and Vehro was the only Titcomb left. The team was a lot like him: receptive of long-haired players wearing skirts, infatuated with the color pink, in love with drinking games, but also laden with a lot of skill, potential, and competitive edge. The program was building and the team was developing into a competitive sports team from a group of players having fun. This presented some tension in terms of how we approached tournaments, practices, etc. To put it another way, I remember clearly before 2006 Sockeye tryouts Vehro saying to me that he was very conflicted over how he wanted to dress for the occasion: bright colored spandex or dark toned under amour.
This is a common tension among smaller and growing ultimate programs all over the country. How do we become better and more competitive at the game we love while keeping it the game we love? For a lot of people we make the concession that trying harder at the game and training doesn’t make it worse or different than the game we were introduced to, but vestigial cultural affects linger sentimentally that we don’t have the heart to leave behind; you name your team something strange and you come up with lewd cheers, you don’t foul on the mark and you don’t ever spike the disc.
This game is becoming a sport, which means we train for it and we take it seriously. We use sport as a medium for transcendence, for those moments where we are evenly matched with an equally capable opponent. We use our opponent as a meter by which we measure our own abilities, and on grander stages to gauge and form our own greatness. We push ourselves to become as much as we possibly can, and we gain from it respect from ourselves and from our peers. We strive for moments of glory. In tough games and in extreme moments of celebration spiking the disc is cathartic, an act of revelation in glory.
I don’t mean to wax overly poetic about it, but the fact is that when the stakes get higher the game changes. Ultimate frisbee, like any other sport, is appreciated by all kinds of players at all different levels of play. Unlike other sports, there are deep sub-cultural implications about how a player is supposed to act towards an opponent based on “Spirit of the Game.” At different levels, this means different things. I interpret “spirit” to mean honoring the game and my opponent by how I act. At a pickup game or during a blowout, I think it is unspirited (and pretty awkward) to play physically or spike the disc. At a certain level of play, where we are all friends playing to just have fun, ignoring sliding heels on pivots and catching blading backhands two handed against our chests, the “spirit” of that particular game is not to call travel, and it is not to spike the disc. But the game is also a sport, and it can be both, but it changes based on the players. This means that when we play the sport rather than the game, the “spirit” of that game changes and the way we honor the game and our opponents changes accordingly.
If I’m in a tough game, the score is close, and I’m in the middle of a game-long one-on-one battle that is evenly matched and competitive, if my opponent scores on me I want him to spike the disc. In this situation it is the spirited thing to do. If he’s playing at his highest level and putting his heart in it, then the moment of success for him is one that allows him to appreciate it in a way befitting its magnitude. Him spiking the disc in this situation is a way of honoring the effort it took for him to succeed, and as such it honors me that he would view besting me as momentous. The last thing I want in such a situation is to receive consolation from my opponent in his moment of triumph, him condescendingly assuming that I need to be let down easy or arrogantly thinking that the first person I want to talk to might be him rather than a teammate. There’s a time for recognizing your opponent’s effort and exchanging shows of respect, and it is later.
Because that moment is his moment, it does not nor should it have anything to do with me. In preparation for this article, I was thinking back on the times that someone has gotten most upset about another person spiking the disc and I noticed that all the most contentious occasions were younger people getting upset. I think this is because young people are by nature more self-centered and tend to interpret the actions of others as being directed towards or related to them. It is egotistical to assume in your opponent’s moment of victory, in their consummate moment of success during which they have about 5 seconds to bask in their accomplishment, that they are thinking at all about you. Sometimes the spike sends a message, but that message is directed to the world at large and not to the opponent in particular: I have succeeded. It’s not “you suck” or even “I have beaten you,” but “I have succeeded.” It has nothing at all to do with you.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, players will spike the disc intending to embarrass the other team. This type of celebration happens all the time. Maybe someone will hit their opponent with the disc when spiking it or throw it far too close to them. Sometimes a player will whisper something at their opponent or make eye contact or point. There are a lot of ways to spike it at someone, or to celebrate like a dick. Large, orchestrated celebrations often come off as cocky and unfocused and edge down spikes taco the disc, but this is the minority of spikes. And even in situations where my opponent is spiking the disc on or at me, I have to keep in mind that he is not spiking it at me as a person, but more at me as perceived adversary in this moment in this game.
I have heard from more than a few people that spiking the disc is not an a priori neutral act, that it does not follow naturally from increased levels of competition and that in moments of celebration it is always classless. I would argue to those who hold these views that this perception is culturally vestigial, that it is not about you and that you should not take it personally. And to the not uncommon reply that “no one spikes the disc in Sarasota,” my reply is: Really? If you want to celebrate a moment of triumph with a deserved cathartic release, try grabbing that disc with your thumb on the top and driving the flat top of it into the ground with full force. It’s incredibly satisfying, it pumps you and your team up, and if you want to show your opponent that you respect him enough to show that the moment is meaningful and that you aren’t worried that such an act will cripple him emotionally, then it’s the right thing to do.