Ultimate in Motion: A view of the game through a non-traditional lens

This is a foreword written by Felix for the book Ultimate in Motion: Balance & Dynamism by Florian and Marie Gailliegue, with added illustrations. The book is offered to patrons joining the Swarm Tier (alongside a free Hive disc), or is available for purchase directly.

Florian and I first had contact in 2016 when he left a comment on the Hexagon Offence documentation; “The more I look into it, the more attracted I am to this offense.” I could relate to the feeling, but I couldn’t imagine that just a few years later I would be reading a book of his creation which goes far above and beyond that original content.

Florian offered to translate the documentation into French so it could be shared further. From that point on, we communicated regularly – including meeting up in Paris to discuss our thoughts about how the sport of ultimate might evolve in the future. Bouncing ideas around with another creative thinker with a great passion for ultimate is very enjoyable – Florian’s added experience with other sports, combined with his sharp intelligence, gives him unique insight and perspective, which means his ideas will pique the interest of all ultimate coaches and ambitious players of the sport!

A little history about the sport: ultimate started in Colombia High School in New Jersey, USA, in 1968. The first thing most people notice about the sport is its dramatic name – a question most players have been asked many times is “What makes a frisbee an ultimate frisbee?”. Incidentally, some sports names like American Football aren’t questioned enough – shouldn’t we be calling it “Handegg”?

The question ‘Why “ultimate”?’ does actually have an answer worth recounting. Joel Silver – one of the founding fathers at Columbia High School (alongside Buzzy Hellring and Jonny Hines) – worked in Hollywood after graduation, producing films such as Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Demolition Man, and V for Vendetta. When placed alongside those names, “ultimate frisbee” seems relatively tame – no surprise when you realise Joel Silver has been influential in naming them all. Joel is standing proudly on the far left in the photo of the CHS team below.

Ultimate spread to Europe in the late 70s, landing in a number of universities in the UK – Warwick, Southampton, Cambridge and Sussex being among the first, but the influence the USA has had on the sport has remained strong.

The speed and depth of growth of the sport in the US has seen it build on its head start there. From youth programs to semi-pro leagues, the US is several years ahead of the rest of the world, and this is reflected in their results.

In most countries, ultimate players predominately begin playing whilst in higher education, and detach from the sport when they graduate or when they become parents.

Despite the sport spreading around the globe, there has been relatively little strategic innovation in the last 20 years. The initial influence of American Football has remained strong, and one has to wonder how different the sport would look if it had originated in Europe. Flo and Marie’s book arrives at a time where players and coaches are beginning to look outside the box for new approaches which shift the strategical focus, rather than just suggest alternative tactics.

The relatively slow strategic development can be attributed to a number of different factors. The lack of money in the sport means a lack of professional research and expertise being brought into the game – in fact, there is active resistance in the ultimate community to bringing in ideas from other sports. ultimate is often described as “unique” – either because the player in possession of the disc cannot travel, or because the flight of a disc is slower than that of a ball. These factors are used to reverse-justify some strategical concepts which are far more prevalent in ultimate than other field sports, not least the idea of ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ space – which should play into the hands of the defence, and the tendency to try to advance the disc down the field step by step, rather than through fluid motion.

2022 WUCC Quarter Final – 1-to-1 D vs Vertical stack

Another factor is that most players don’t have the opportunity to learn how to play the sport in an environment free from tactical or strategical restrictions. Instead of picking a disc up as a kid and playing random, unstructured games with friends, most players start by joining a team that has a limited amount of time to prepare for its season’s climax. Coaches and captains have a schedule to keep to, and teaching an established, pre-existing basic structure, which the players will be relatively familiar with, is the status quo.

This is true regardless of the level the team is competing at – taking a risk on a new approach could spell the end of a coach’s career if it doesn’t work out, and for it to work out it not only needs to be a sound idea, but also needs proper training and the complete buy-in of the team. It’s very rare that every member of a team is willing to run with an experiment, and/or that the coach has the confidence or ability to introduce it effectively. This creates a closed circuit loop, as higher-level teams stick to what they know works, lower-level teams copy what the higher-level teams do, and this leaves little time or space for true experimentation and innovation. This all trickles down to the grassroots pickup games, with most players gravitating towards a vertical stack, looking downfield for yards when they catch the disc, and advising newer players to ‘clear out of the active space’.

The traditional approaches – variations of stacks on offence and 1-to-1 or zonal defensive marking on defence – have been well documented with works such as Ultimate: Techniques & Tactics (Parinella & Zaslow) and Ben Wiggins’ Rise-Up series, and have been tested through years of competition. These traditional approaches allow for a degree of variation, however they consistently view the game through the same lens. It is hard for most players and coaches to recognise they are looking through through this lens, unless they either (a) learn the game in a free-flowing manner from the start, (b) continue playing and experimenting with innovative ideas and approaches for many years, or (c) come from significant experience in other sports. A fourth “way out” would be for there to be existing footage of new approaches being played – which creates a chicken-and-egg scenario.

USAU Nationals runners-up Truck Stop running an innovative offence in 2022

When players and coaches seek resources and materials, what they find almost always presents the game through this lens, and thus they risk falling into a trap of believing it is the only way to play the game competitively. Breaking out of this cycle – and recognising the extent of the impact of this cycle – is the current challenge for development in the sport, which adds to the importance of the release of this book.

Ultimate in Motion is a comprehensive view of the game, but through a non-traditional lens. Inspired by their backgrounds in engineering, chess, judo, gymnastics and other sports, Florian and Marie piece together concepts like a mosaic to create a full picture of the game. The concepts they use are often unfamiliar – even to an experienced player’s eye – and this is emphasised further by the language employed. The translation from French may force the reader to think about the topics in new ways in order to reach a full understanding of the text, and ultimately this mental exercise encourages the reader to broaden their perspective and challenge their perception of the game.

As well as diving into offensive and defensive strategies and tactics, the book covers the philosophy and spirit of the game, it deals with the mental and physical qualities demanded by the sport, gives sound basic advice on disc skills, and shows how the above are all made to work together in high-level teamplay. Beyond this, Flo and Marie demonstrate the principles of training and coaching that will enable players and teams to achieve a high level of performance.

With new tactics, come new techniques.

This book is fully illustrated throughout, with detailed diagrams, aesthetically pleasing drawings, and great photographs of in-play action. Both the theoretical and the practical approaches of the authors are well-founded in their study of the available sports and physiology literature – a full list of the works consulted appears at the back of the book.

It’s refreshing to see a full picture of ultimate viewed through a new lens, one which particularly values balance, quick disc movement, and dynamic teamplay. The publication of this book helps to broaden our perspective on understanding ultimate, and I hope it will inspire future work that will continue to break the mould of traditional ultimate – encouraging more diverse, open-ended, and cutting-edge approaches to a wonderful game which hasn’t yet come close to reaching its full potential.

I’ll sign off with the words written on the back of the first-ever frisbee produced in 1966: Play Catch – Invent Games . . . Experiment!

Ultimate in Motion: Balance & Dynamism is one of the perks offered to patrons joining the Swarm Tier (alongside a free Hive disc), or is available for purchase directly.

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