How Ultimate Frisbee Can Change the World

Megan Mckinley, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of Megan Mckinley)

If you are like me, you may have heard of a sport called Ultimate Frisbee but are not entirely sure what it is all about. Perhaps you have seen people throwing a flying disc on the beach or sitting in a “spirit circle” around your neighborhood. Personally, the last time I came in contact with the sport was in my elementary gym class which may cause you to wonder how I ended up with an Ultimate-for-development organization during my fellowship. I, too, was scratching my head at how sports and solving gender equity fit together. Fortunately, my work with Playquity has provided me with a masterclass worth of knowledge as to what makes Ultimate Frisbee so unique and how it can be used as a catalyst to change the world.

Group of Playquity girls in Arasampattu, Tamil Nadu (All photos courtesy of Megan Mckinley)

Low Resource Game

One of the biggest hurdles when introducing any development program to a marginalized community is obtaining the supplies and resources (human or otherwise) in a sustainable manner. Many sports and activities require high implementation costs or outside expertise to be brought to the community.

With Ultimate, there is only one resource required: a frisbee disc. Utilizing sport in youth development creates a trusting and fun environment to connect with one another. If it is a first-time implementation, an initial knowledge-transfer and training is required, but game-play can carry on with simply a disc and an enthusiastic group of people.

Ultimate Frisbee Game in Shillong, Meghalaya

Conflict Resolution

During a recent site visit, the Playquity coach explained during the scrimmage, “If somebody pushes you, you immediately stop the game and talk about it.” Conflict in sports and life is inevitable. It is only a matter of time before someone physically or metaphorically pushes you, and Ultimate Frisbee stresses the importance of discussion and non-violent conflict resolution. Ultimate Frisbee is a no-contact sport, meaning physical contact should always be avoided unless there is an accident.

When explaining Ultimate Frisbee to someone for the first time, Coach Rachel says, “Everyone is required to know the rules, and it is part of the game to be fair, we have to find a solution.” Ultimate Frisbee puts the onus on the players to maintain fairness, responsibility, and communication. The New York Times recently published an article “Can Ultimate Frisbee Save the World?” which illustrates how Ultimate Frisbee is used as a peace-making tool with Palestinians and Israelites. By implementing these practices during a frisbee session, ultimately they are learning how to communicate and resolve conflicts in their lives.

Ultimate Frisbee is a self-officiated game, which means that players are encouraged to keep each other accountable to the rules (including no physical contact). If and when an error, mistake, or accident happens, players stop the game, and discuss what happened with one another. Once the conflict is reconciled, players are encouraged to correct their mistake going forward. By learning conflict resolution on the field, players can bring these practices into their daily interpersonal conflicts at work or in their community.

Frisbee Practice in Tamil Nadu

Gender Equality

Ultimate Frisbee is a mixed-gender sport where women and men are given the option to compete together rather than separately like most sports. In India, gender plays a major role in how women and men interact with society and one another. Playing on a mixed-gender team is one of the few areas where the two genders are encouraged to interact and work together towards a common goal.

Organizations like Playquity and One-All utilize Ultimate Frisbee as a catalyst to discuss topics such as gender, leadership, and life-skills with marginalized youth. By building girls’ confidence and empowering them to be leaders in the game, these young women are able to bring this to other areas of their lives. My colleague, Jyoti, writes about her own experience with Ultimate Frisbee and its impact on her life, “Here I practiced to speak up when it is needed for the team and self.”

Jyoti, Kavitha, and Playquity Girls

Spirit of the Game

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Ultimate Frisbee is the idea of “Spirit of the Game.” As mentioned, conflict resolution is an integral and important part of the game. Good sportsmanship, accountability, and communication are encouraged on the field. Afterwards, though, both teams come together to sit in a circle and discuss the game. At tournaments, they regularly include awards for most valuable player, most spirited player, and team spirit.

The World Flying Disc Federation explains a spirit circle as, “Spirit Circles are a good way to positively connect with the other team and to resolve possible conflicts. After a game is over, both teams form a joined circle with alternating players. This circle can be used to highlight some positives and/or discuss issues that might have occurred during the game.” This element of the Ultimate Frisbee game is a way for players to come together, sit with one another, and review the highs and lows of the game and give recognition to deserving individuals.

What kind of world would we live in if we all did that?

Discussing rules in a Spirit Circle

In the last few months, I have had the opportunity to partake in frisbee practices across Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Meghalaya, and Manipur. While the settings may be different, I have been pleasantly surprised that each session includes people spanning across age, gender, physical ability, and backgrounds. The groups always foster an environment of inclusivity, community, and learning. During my first practice, a ten-year old boy taught me the fundamentals of throwing. He encouraged me by saying “great job,” “nice throw,” “good try” throughout our time together. Team names are somewhere along the lines of play-on-words or inside jokes and players are called by their nicknames (mine is Butter Fingers for reasons I will let you guess).

Many people I have met have joked that frisbee can “take over your life” because there are endless opportunities that come from it. I think that is what makes Ultimate Frisbee such an incredible tool: it creates a mixed-gender community, requires players to engage in conflict resolution, promotes a culture of inclusivity, and is a catalyst for promoting change and expanding worldviews. See you on the field!


A Sport Without Referees? It’s the Ultimate Debate

The ANT: Project FLY

Can Ultimate Frisbee Save the World?

Flying Rabbits Gender Book

Indian Ultimate Frisbee Association

One All



Spirit of the Game

About the Author:
Megan is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Banyan Impact Fellow with Pudiyador in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. For her Fellowship project, she will be implementing their gender equity initiative by developing technical and leadership curriculum and creating the evaluation metrics to which the program will be measured on. Megan travelled to India for the first time as an undergraduate student with Long Island University Global’s program in 2014. Ever since then, she has been enthralled with the vastness, vibrance, and diversity of the country. She chose to return to India for a second time and wrote a case study on The Presence of Female Renunciant Ideology in Underprivileged Educational Institutions in Varanasi. Since graduation, Megan has worked in a variety of experiential learning organizations focused on leadership, empowerment, and equity.

Megan’s professional background has taken her around the world to work in a variety of social-impact organizations. As Program Manager with Global Leadership Adventures, she developed programming and logistics for high school students focused on broadening their worldview and breaking stereotypes. Most recently, she worked with a B-Corporation, Guild Education, focused on unlocking life-changing opportunities for America’s workforce as an Education Coach. Throughout her work and studies, Megan has always focused her attention on the intersectionality of gender, education, and empowerment. She comes to this fellowship with a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification and looks forward to contributing her skills to help define and create impact metrics for an early-phase social enterprise.



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