Just What Is This Spirit of the Game Thing?

by | September 19, 2018, 7:00am 0

Unfortunate – When something bad happens to you.

Unfair – When something bad happens to me.


Ultimate is going through an equity, equality and opportunity reassessment right now. This dialog caught my attention and I decided to investigate and write about my findings. Specifically, I was investigating, “Are there performance differences across the game of ultimate by gender?” When it comes to moving the sport forward, it is important to take into consideration the underlying factors and their causalities.

That differences study is complete and is waiting for publishing. The study shows statistically significant differences in the “quality” of ultimate when assessed by team gender.  I mean really, really big differences. These differences seem to be far greater than what would be expected considering the observed skill levels of the players.

These differences made me realize that something other than gender/skill level was happening to drive the study results. When I looked deeper into that causality link, I wrote the upcoming, An Acceptable Level of Mediocrity which looks at the issues driving the perceived gender performance imbalance in ultimate from three different perspectives; player commitment, direct leadership & indirect leadership. Not to give the article away, but the issues preventing the game from being what we like to envision it to be are:

  • Poor enforcement of Spirit of the Game (SOTG) by sanctioning organizations
  • Weak coaching and a lack of participant commitment

In that article, poor SOTG enforcement seemed to be the single biggest contributor to the current state of the game. But before I can discuss shortcomings in SOTG enforcement, I needed to come up with a more quantifiable definition of SOTG; hence this article.

How do you measure Spirit of the Game?

Actually, you can’t measure SOTG. The term is compound, vague and ill-defined. Current assessments of SOTG use subjective criteria (opinions) that overlook many aspects of the game. Legitimate researchers will typically only investigate things that can be measured objectively. The entire hypothesis/theory basis of the Scientific Method requires it.

The most appropriate scientifically testable analog for SOTG is “selflessness.” Selflessness provides the foundation upon which SOTG is built. Still, there are additional components, for example: respect, sportsmanship, and integrity.

Selflessness is measured on a continuum with one extreme being labeled egotism and the other extreme being labeled altruism. So before we proceed using all these terms, let’s make sure we’re using the same definition of some important words.

Important Definitions


Willingness to do things that bring advantages to others, even if it results in disadvantages for yourself.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“A strong feeling of disliking and having no respect for someone or something.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“A lack of honesty or integrity” – Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary


Thinking only about yourself and considering yourself better and more important than other people.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“Impartial in judgment; just.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“The activity of trying to win a game by doing things that are not really breaking the rules but are intended to destroy the confidence of the other player.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“Using clever but often dishonest methods that deceive people so that you can win power or control.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“A person who is has no feeling for other people, does not think about the future, and does not feel bad about anything they have done in the past” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“Politeness, honour, and care shown towards someone or something that is considered important.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary

Scientific Method

“A method of investigation in which a problem is first identified and observations, experiments, or other relevant data are then used to construct or test hypotheses that purport to solve it.” – Online Collins Dictionary


“Only interested in yourself and your own activities.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“Concern more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary

Spirit of the Game

“A spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility on the players.” – USAU

“Places the responsibility for fair play on every player.” – WFDF


“A person who is completely unable or unwilling to behave in a way that is acceptable to society.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


“Fair and generous behavior or treatment of others, especially in a sporting contest.” – Online Cambridge Dictionary


Social creatures display selflessness with a range of variation for each individual within the population. Many of the above terms are measures of selflessness with some being put into a sporting context. Selflessness is measured on a continuum, with altruism being at one extreme and egotism being at the other extreme. We all sit somewhere on this continuum with most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Displayed on a chart assuming the Normal Distribution, these terms look something like this:

Testing Selflessness

The highest degree of selflessness is called altruism. Acts of altruism include; meerkats barking out a predator alarm, someone leaving a tip for the waitperson and calling yourself out when you bobble the disc on that potentially game-winning sideline catch.

Altruism has been studied quite a bit. Here’s a quick count of studies as tabulated by several well-respected research engines using the search parameter “altruism.”

Even more/different search hits can be found by changing the search keyword somewhat.

Altruism Study Results

Since altruism is a measure of selflessness, you have to wonder what level of selflessness is considered altruistic and what level is considered egotistical. Well, there is not a well-defined level of selflessness that is considered altruistic, just as there is not a specific level of SOTG that can define someone as being spirited.

There is a self-report test for altruism available. It seems to be well regarded by the community.[footnote number=1]The Altruistic Personality and the Self-Report Altruism Scale, University of Ontario, 1981[/footnote] For those of you who are curious, Psychology Today has a similar Egoism/Altruism quiz here.

It’s reasonable to say 20% of a random population is considered to be generally altruistic and that 20% would be considered generally egotistical. By the same token, 20% of ultimate players are quite spirited and 20% are not so much fun to share the field with. The rest just go with the flow.

So, if you think about it realistically, in a tournament pool of 5 teams; one team will have great spirit and one team will tend to make the game contentious.

The Value of Selflessness in Sports

Each extreme end of the selflessness continuum brings a different skill set to the table.[footnote number=2]Personality Traits of Altruistic People: Empathy and the Big Five Factors, http://hdl.net/1842/3547[/footnote]

Altruism vs. Egotism

Altruism increases your opponent’s enjoyment of the game. Egotism increases your sense of self-worth.

Sportsmanship vs. Gamesmanship

Sportsmanship increases the enjoyment of the game for the participants. Gamesmanship increases a team’s chances of winning.

Respect vs. Contempt

Respect for the rules & the other players make for games that are true to the teams’ relative abilities. Contempt increases a team’s chances of winning.

Integrity vs. Dishonesty

Integrity makes officiating easier. Dishonesty increases the need for officiating.

Good Spirit of the Game (SOTG) vs. Bad Spirit

SOTG increases player enjoyment and lowers game costs. Bad SOTG increases your chances of winning and increases the need for officials.

Bonus comparisons for the curious…

Egotist vs. Sociopath

An egotist, while self-centered, can display compassion and remorse during a game. A sociopath lacks those traits and instead seeks to blame others.

Sociopath vs. Psychopath

Psychopath is not considered a valid medical term by many professionals and has no clear definition. It is a word of convenience used by writers and speakers to describe a combination of personality traits. A psychopath is usually described as a violence-prone sociopath.


  • Egotist – one in 5
  • Sociopath – one in 500
  • Psychopath – one in 50,000

But it’s not that simple

If it were that simple, there would be no need for this article. Those of you who were shaking your head a little while reading the above are kinda right in questioning it. You’re right because there are two kinds of altruism: natural and reciprocal.

Natural altruism is based on our innate tendencies as an individual as described above. Reciprocal (cognitive) altruism, on the other hand, is how our own altruistic behavior changes with how we perceive the behavior of those around us. When we talk about reciprocal altruism, the concept of game theory comes into play.

Game Theory

In mathematics and psychology, there’s the study of Game Theory. Game Theory takes into account the logical and emotional interactions that come into play during a game. The field of Game Theory is all about the decision making processes when presented with multiple options involving cooperation between opponents. Interesting enough, Game Theory isn’t used as often in sports as you would think.

There are three outcomes where Game Theory comes into play:

Positive Sum (Mutual Gain)

Both sides win

Example: Teams decide to delay the game start

Negative Sum (Mutual Loss)

Both sides lose.

Example:  Two teams double forfeit the last game of a tournament

Zero Sum

Zero Sum is where one team wins and the other loses.

Example: Pre-game disc flip

During the Game

When used during the game, Game Theory is all about adjusting your decision making based on the perceived altruism of your opponent. It often uses the concept of “tit for tat” in developing a successful game strategy. This concept of “I’ll treat you the same as I think you’re treating me,” comes down to something called Organizational Justice.

Organizational Justice[footnote number=3]Game Theory in Organizational Justice: An Experimental Study on Teams, Journal of Business & Financial Affairs, 9/29/2017[/footnote]

During the course of a game each team perceives conflict resolution actions differently. Studies show this perception is often based on three things; perceived fairness of the outcome, perceived fairness of the discussion and the quality of interpersonal treatment. Relative skill levels and observed team effort also come into play. These perception differences often times can make teams feel they’re not being treated fairly and that they must adjust their own altruism to match.

Perceived Fairness[footnote number=4]Individual Differences in Person Perception, Principals of Social Psychology, 2014[/footnote]

People do not treat us the way we think they do. Our perception of how we are being treated has a significant component that is completely inside our own heads. People with high altruism tendencies do test as having a better sense of how they are being treated. People with egotistic tendencies can interpret the same actions quite differently, typically in a more self-serving manner.

Bottom Line

Bottom line on developing a winning in-game strategy is that if one team cheats and if there is no authority present to correct the cheating. The other team must cheat to establish a new parity. Simply put, maintaining a higher level of altruism than your opponent is a losing strategy. So if you perceive your opponent is cheating, you must cheat as well. Altruism be damned…

By cheating offering an advantage, I’m writing about calls that can’t be overturned, even when clearly wrong. Things like phantom fouls, non-existent pick calls, offside pulls and false up calls come to mind. These calls give the offending team a second chance by returning the disc to the thrower on a turnover or negating a score. In a tightly contested game, these can result in a 1 – 3 point score swing.

A team with poor SOTG will often try to wear out their opponent by contesting any call that negatively affects them. In the end, if the offended team continues to stand their ground, they will get retaliated against with a strongly negative Spirit score. I see no official recourse for the wronged team. After all, it’s poor spirit to argue your spirit score.

The Third Team on the Field

There’s always a third team on the ultimate field, the sanctioning organization. The sanctioning organization sets in advance the SOTG expectations for the game. Their active involvement in a game goes a long way towards maintaining high SOTG levels and ensuring a level playing field for the teams. By their high levels of altruism and lack of timely SOTG enforcement, they sometimes allow poor SOTG to succeed in the short term. Be sure to read my upcoming article, “An Acceptable Level of Mediocrity” where I go into more detail.


Putting it all together:

  • Spirit of the Game (SOTG) has many components.
  • SOTG is most similar to selflessness and altruism.
  • 20% of the population by nature will have good SOTG.
  • 20% of the population by nature will have poor SOTG.
  • The rest of us are somewhere in the middle.
  • Our perception of our opponent’s SOTG may not be correct.
  • We tend to mimic how we perceive our opponent’s SOTG.
  • Maintaining a higher level of SOTG than your opponent is a losing strategy.
  • Sanctioning organizations play a key role in establishing and policing SOTG.

Read my next article.

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