Hits and Misses: Australia's Contact Problem

The 2018 Brisbane-Canberra Invitational recently played out, and the level of play in the Men's division* was exciting to watch. However, this year it came at a cost.

At least four players went to hospital as a direct result of contact with an opposing player, with two requiring surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation process. I witnessed other minor injuries that similarly occurred as a result of contact, as well as a range of heavy collisions where players were lucky to walk away unscathed.

For the sake of our sport and our community, it's important respond to this. We must make player safety our highest priority, especially in a 'non-contact' sport.

What happened?

These plays took various forms. In some cases, they were genuinely dangerous bids from a player, recklessly trying to get the disc with no consideration for other people's safety. Others were misjudgements, where a player thought they could make a reasonable play but got the calculations very wrong. Some, including perhaps the worst injury, were simply tragic misfortune, with players unaware of the movement other players were intending on making.

I make no suggestion of malicious intent, nor do the injured players. Several of the injured players stressed that the other player was highly apologetic, and highlighted the ongoing concern and support they've received both from that player and the broader frisbee community. I'm confident that no club or player directly condones play likely to cause injury. However, I do believe we are not doing enough to actively work against unsafe on-field behaviour, and in so are creating an environment where these kinds of plays will continue to occur. Below I've outlined why I think this, and some possible responses.

The environment we create

Firstly, there are side effects of some positive changes. The prevalence of weight training has increased significantly in our sport, which is great for our athleticism, but will lead to harder hits when they occur. Additionally, many teams are getting better at help defence, with players finding more opportunities to contest the disc. Both of these are great for Australian Ultimate, but we need to be aware of the side effects of more contests with bigger bodies.

Secondly, teams are approving of contact in a non-contact sport. Phrases like "always touching" and "put a body on him" (or just "body") are being yelled at defensive lines, clearly to support what those teams have been training to do, and this manifests in various ways: heavy bumping/fouling on the mark, basketball-style arm bars on defence, and rugby-style bumping of players to knock them off their line in a cut. Though it's possible to legally use body positioning to win space, most Australians do not have the footwork, strength or technique to do this, and we generally end up pushing and bumping people after losing the space race. New players see this when they begin training, and are told to play physically, attempting to replicate it.

As our own referees, Ultimate allows us to negotiate our level of physicality, but this has created a culture in some teams/players where the approach is to play with high physicality until their opponent asks them to stop. I feel it's worth including rule 12.8a: "All players must attempt to avoid contact with other players, and there is no situation where a player may justify initiating contact."

Thirdly, the heroes in sport are defined by media, and the main media we watch is US club and AUDL. These competitions both accept high levels of contact, both in general play and when making bids, and therefore we see spectacular athletic bids from players we look up to, which by AFDA standards may be considered unsafe. This then becomes our gold standard for the level we're trying to achieve.

Many players think that USAU and WFDF rules are the same around contact. They're not, and WFDF clearly sets a lower bar for contact. Some key differences include:

  • Incidental contact is defined differently, with USAU not referencing whether it is dangerous (though they do still have the general "dangerous play" rule), and allowing contact that doesn't have a significant impact on the other player

  • The WFDF wording around players' responsibility to avoid contact is stronger and more comprehensive, as quoted above, with the USAU definition simply requiring "reasonable effort" to avoid contact

  • USAU rules require contact to occur before "dangerous play" can be called, which is not required in WFDF rules

  • USAU rules do not include offsetting fouls, and instead carry this phrase: "Contact resulting from adjacent opposing players simultaneously vying for the same unoccupied position, is not in itself a foul."

I'd like to share a discussion I had with a qualified observer when playing in the US**. I was told that, in regards to whether contact is acceptable in making a play on the disc, they considered that once the disc had been caught/blocked, the play was over, and thus contact after this point was not a foul (unless perceived as dangerous, which has a very high threshold over there).

Finally, there are few teams that are working on laying out, fewer still that are practising bids in the presence of other players, and almost nobody training to make clean bids in a full-speed dynamic environment. This is unsurprising - it's a very difficult situation to consistently replicate, and is also quite physically intense - but it means that the vast majority of players, even our elite players, are novices at a very challenging and technical skill.

In summary: players are in an environment where physical play is encouraged, contact is normalised, and our sports media is glorifying high-contact plays from a different ruleset. Although no team trains to make dangerous plays, we don't actively work to distinguish the importance of clean, safe plays when contesting the disc, nor are we training the technique of making plays without contact.

What we can do

There are many possible responses to this. I'm going to share some ideas, but these are far from perfect or comprehensive.

1) Recognise that it can happen to you

I'm proud of my club, Mammoth, as I believe we've been mostly quite careful, and haven't seriously hurt anyone this season. However, it would be insanity for us to think this isn't a concern - we've been lucky with the outcome of some bad bids, and in the two previous seasons, our players have caused season-ending injuries to opponents. Any player is just a moment of high-intensity misjudgement away from a very costly mistake, and it's important to treat this with gravity. A simple chat with your team at the start of the season condemning dangerous play and reminding team mates to play in a respectful manner is all that it takes.

2) Explicitly prioritise player safety in your club, and recognise and reward actions supporting this on the field

Despite this article's focus, we see far more instances of players avoiding contact than causing bad plays. I strongly encourage you to look for those, and to deliberately recognise and respect that player for their choice, both from your own team and the opposition. Two examples I saw while watching our I-Beam game footage: Elliott Cook from Mammoth, and Tim Hayes from I-Beam. Both players have attacked a contest with awareness of the other player involved, and recognised they couldn't make a successful bid without contact. If you see behaviour like this don't let it fall by the wayside, even if it costs your team the point. Publicly drawing positive attention to such behaviour either in person, or later online, is a great way to reinforce similar habits in younger players.

3) Actively train the technique of avoiding contact

In my last Mixed campaign, we had women who were worried about being injured by men on our own team. To attempt to counter it, we ran various drills where a player was sent into a space, and then another player ran in to try to get a disc thrown to that space. Any contact meant punishments for the team. It began with a solid boy in the space, moving slowly and predictably, so they were easy to avoid and hard to injure. We then moved through different genders and different movement intensities, culminating in a competition where points were given for catches/drops, and the losing team had punishments. Simple but effective, and it brings the issue to the front of players' minds.

More recently, a number of Fuse and Mammoth players have been actively working on laying out, setting up various movement shapes, including a range of setups where they bid through and across cutters for blocks. As above, this is difficult and physically intense, so it's not the easiest form of training. However, it's been highly effective for giving these players literally hundreds of reps at finding the right speeds and angles where a clean bid is possible.

Some aspect of this can be replicated by running other defensive drills, where the play is known, and the skill is in learning to judge speeds and angles. For example, the "death cut", slightly over-throwing an upline dump pass where a poach defender comes in from upfield... we constantly see collisions here, but how many of us have actually drilled that defensive play? I've done it with a team once, and we saw a marked improvement in a defender's ability to assess the situation and decide what kind of play they could safely make (if any).

Final note on this, it's vitally important this kind of training is staged. It has to start extremely simple, giving players maximum brain space to focus on how to avoid contact. Create progressions that gradually add speed and complexity to the situation, while retaining the core goal. Finally, you absolutely must finish with the most game-like, intense situation you can replicate. Bad bids typically come when players have some combination of over-excitement, fatigue, and pressure to perform, any of which can overwhelm better judgement. The more you can replicate this in training, the more transferable the skill will be to a big tournament.

4) If something bad happens, act!

First of all, if someone screws up and makes a bad bid... recognise it! As that player, an immediate apology helps acknowledge that you've screwed up. If you hurt someone, show concern for them - you can discuss the rules and reactions later, but take care of the guy on the ground first. It goes a long way to calming a situation to show that you're not actually a jerk who likes to hit people, it was a mistake that you want to fix.

If you're a captain/coach of someone who makes a poor bid, you have a responsibility to act appropriately. Sometimes it needs nothing - perhaps a first time offender who clearly shows they recognise the error. Sometimes you need to act, whether as a teaching point for your own team, or to show the other team you genuinely care about being a good opponent; this may require benching a player, and instructing your team to actively set greater margins of safety, even if that reduces your potential defensive pressure.

If you are captain/coach of a team where this is happening against you, again, you should act to protect the game and your team. Early, active communication between captains and spirit captains can often nip issues in the bud, as two teams align how they want to play. If this isn't enough, I strongly advocate teams to see Spirit time-outs as a reasonable and appropriate choice. I believe they're heavily under-utilised in Australia, seen as the controversial "nuclear option", but are actually a highly effective way to show that teams consider an issue to be in serious need of change, and for everyone to receive the same message (difficult with sideline chat). They're well worth the 2-3 minutes, and are more effective before emotions are heavily flaring.

I also encourage following up with an opponent after a bad game. Mammoth had a poor experience in one game this season, and have since been in communication with that team. This is helping us to be confident that they're addressing the issue, and that the same thing won't recur if we match up at Nationals. In turn, this will help our team to approach the game in a good mindset, rather than bringing the displeasure from the previous battle.

Closing Remarks

I'm excited by the constant growth in Australian Ultimate. The pace and quality are improving, and Nationals is going to be phenomenal. Sadly, not every player will be taking the field, and that's an area where we can be better.

Be active in making player safety the highest priority for your team. Emphasise it, train for it, and reward behaviour that protects it. "Zero preventable contact injuries" may be a company-style mantra, but that could genuinely be our goal.

See you on the field.


* Though I try to watch the Women's division, I'm clearly more familiar with Men's Ultimate, so I'm going to talk about what I know. I'm also not aware of similar injuries from the Women's division this year. I'd encourage Women's teams to consider the article and whether it's something their team or division needs to look at. It's certainly also relevant for Mixed play.

** This was in 2012 and from one observer, so I should note that it may not have been the same interpretation everywhere, and also both the rules and interpretation may have changed in six years.