Higher Aim: Sam O’Brien on PAUC 2011

by | December 27, 2011, 1:53pm 0

Sockeye went to the Pan American Ultimate Championships to play in a sweet tournament. We returned with perspective. As players who spend bundles of time and money traveling to compete, we already take the sport seriously. Answering the question of “Where is your dog?” is something Sockeye has practiced on many international flights. We don’t ever expect, however, to be treated with a sense of celebrity – nor had we encountered so clearly the potential of ultimate to be important as a social tool. We had moments of awe as individuals and as a team – some predictable, many unexpected. We wanted to share with the wider ultimate community some of the most remarkable points.

First, the predictable. Second, the unexpected.

Seth Wiggins is interviewed by the PAUC production team.

Predictably awesome: our experience in Medellin was worlds-tournament atmosphere. As a WFDF sanctioned event, PAUC 2011 had the excitement of representing not only your team, but being an ambassador for a nation. Fury was representing the US on the women’s side, sadly Revolver was unable to attend at the last minute. The tournament was open to the top club teams from all nations in the Americas. The sharing of food, cultural, cheers, playing style, clothing style and sweet slang in translation lends a feeling of extra fun at a big WFDF tourney. It’s like the olympics, for disc. Ceremonies for opening the tournament included speeches, national anthems, large flags carried by each country. Pomp and circumstance, put into ceremonial context, really gets a team psyched up.

Also remarkable is the notoriety teams in the US and Canada get from the work of Ultivillage, NexGen, Brodie Smith & Everything Ultimate, and anyone taking legible video footage of Frisbee that ends up on the internet. As my teammate Phil Murray put it,  “…you and anyone who has scored a goal on film are known in remote corners of the world. Anywhere they play disc and have the Internet. You may not think your play is inspiring people but truthfully it is.” What became clear to me is that the internet has connected ECC, Labor Day, Easterns, Stanford Invite, Trouble in Vegas, and the USAU championship series to everyone in the world who cares to learn about ultimate. Every coach and organizer I spoke to was familiar with each team that attended USAU nationals for the past 5 years. Whew. If you want notoriety, get your videos on the net. All this was awesome, but not totally unanticipated. Traveling to play in other nations is a great, and a perfect way to connect with people from another culture. (See Skyd post about tournament in Ireland for just one example of a possibility.)

Now, the less expected – 3 major points (each of which could have it’s own article):

A) visibility=legitimacy=authority=responsibility

Sockeye had the privilege of working with Ultimate Peace to deliver a clinic for approximately 300 youth in the Medellin area, as well as coaches from the attending countries. This series of clinics was supported by INDER – Medellin’s public programming authority for sports. This was the equivalent of having a governmental body sponsoring our work. Our sense of ambassadorship ratcheted up immediately. We weren’t just delivering a day camp for a kids and coaches, we were experts brought in to deliver legitimacy. This was awe striking – and gave us a sense that the visibility we experience from YouTube translates to legitimacy. In the eyes of each coach who uses clips of Ultimate to learn about the sport and show their kids how to play, we were the people on the videos. We also witnessed that legitimacy = authority = responsibility. We had legitimacy from our videos, leading to authority when we gave advice, meaning we had to have some responsibility with what we were saying. How do you grow a sport that aims to be fundamentally different from other sports?

Scenes from Ultimate Peace in Colombia

I think Ultimate is moving from the childhood stages of our sport into our adolescence. We’ve been young and small and counterculture for 40 years – now we have more youth signed up as USAU members than adults. Our growth is going to feel exponential in the next 10 years and we will be needing instruction – especially among youth who need instruction. My take home message: authority in our sport has to be used to build a framework that is easy to explain and understand. This is most obvious for me in explaining the importance of SOTG, but also applies to strategy and skills. Teaching ultimate to kids (in any nation) needs a curriculum.

B) Ultimate As a Social Tool – the potential to practice peace through playing

Spirit circle at PAUC 2011

At a WFDF meeting pre-tourney, organizers from each country reported on their experiences growing the sport. We heard from people organizing youth clinics to teach ultimate as a way of building a more peaceful society. Coaches and organizers in places like Jaurez, Mexico City and throughout Colombia who are working with kids who experience violence as a concrete part of what impacts their life and family.  Mario O’Brien, a Portland player who was with us for the trip, eloquently said “Ultimate is a sport I can be proud of playing because it has higher aims than Basketball or Football.” What occurred to each of us during our stay in Colombia is that “Spirit of the Game” can be much more abstract and distant in a culture where we don’t directly encounter violence. For many of the coaches I met, using ultimate to build civility in their relationships meant talking to kids in their elementary days about competition and self-control. Those same kids will/would be facing choices about participating in violence, retaliation and coping with the effects of violence in their lives. Ultimate really does include a higher aim that I have taken for granted as a ‘hippy concept’ in our sport. However, relationships are at the center of our game – agreement between opponents and teammates establish the baseline for our rules of play. (This is a concept I hope to flush out concretely in future articles, but at the highest level of play our concept of spirit and our lack of refs – even in UOA – separates Ultimate from other sports.) This means that as a social tool for violence prevention or anti-bullying, we have a sincere opportunity. We need to get better at articulating ‘espiritu del juego’ (spirit of the game)  – in any language.

C) International Ultimate needs support from those who carry high-level information

With regard to growth of our sport in Central and South America, I heard two things – from the tournament organizer – that stuck with me:

  1. The International Rugby Board (IRB) sends 1,000 Rugby Balls to Colombia when they hold clinics in that nation to promote the sport.
  2. Without a high level North American team, PAUC would’ve had trouble fielding a full set of teams for PAUC 2011 – in either division.

Chain Lightning’s Jolian Dahl teaching throwing technique at the Colombian Ultimate Peace Clinics. – Photo by Anna Nazarov

On point 1: Every kid at the Ultimate Peace camp wanted a disc of any kind – a real Discraft 175g that we take for advantage living relatively near Michigan was a golden prize. There was not only a hunger for discs, but a clear need for more of them if kids were going to really play on their own time. These are kids who are getting free rugby balls after attending a rugby camp. On point 2: Teams from Argentina, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela traveled a long way at a high price, and wanted to have the best competition. A high level US or Canadian team gives that opportunity. Without that opportunity, many teams wouldn’t have payed the cost of the travel to get to Colombia for the tournament.

Sockeye has heard over and over about the importance of transferring the knowledge and experience from the US and Canada to other parts of the world where the sport is still growing from infancy. I know high level players travel to other countries to do clinics (in the last month alone: Alex Snyder, Beau Kittredge, Brodie Smith, Jaime “Idaho” Arambula) and that teams like Sockeye have good relationships in other countries to deliver information to other clubs through clinics. If visibility=responsibility, and Ultimate has unique social potential (paragraphs A+B above) leaves a gaping whole in the “who” will deliver that experience and support to players in other countries if there isn’t a club who can sponsor the travel of a big name from the states. Who is the IRB for ultimate? Who can send 1,000 frisbees to places like Colombia, where there’s a strong interest in using them all to play with?

High level information comes from people who spend a lot of time thinking about and playing ultimate – which US players can access, through going to tournaments where experts play and coach, inviting experts to visit their team, or taking a class or clinic. So, when I say “those who carry high level information”, I’m counting a lot of people – club players, college players, captains, coaches, people with wide experience, and organizations like USAU and WFDF. If you’re reading Skyd, you are probably in this group.

Closing thoughts:

Flying home from Medellin, I wondered “what is our responsibility as this sport grows?” I think that a key to answering that question comes in realizing that we have a great privilege in the US and Canada – we have many elite teams who push each other to grow the sport tactically and athletically. We take for granted some elements of “Spirit” that can be life-changing. Also, we are still a small enough community of players that a concerted effort could result in our governing bodies laying the framework for our growth to be solid. International growth and true competition at the Worlds level would be great for the sport as a whole. What is needed for that is the same – at home and internationally: curriculum for the 6-12 age group, easy articulation of how Ultimate has anti-violence and anti-bullying value, and accessible sharing of expertise.

(Cheers to the kind and generous people who hosted us, translated for us, took us dancing and tried to teach us a new language. Gracias a Medellin!)

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