Incidental Contact

zas33ssLet’s be clear: I love the in-depth analysis analysis from the NexGen Filmroom. And my blog isn’t generally intended to be emotional or controversial.

But I confess that this piece made me pretty angry. It’s that 6th paragraph in particular, talking about Ring’s defensive style, about Mickle and Puolos.

First, a disclaimer. I’m not going to talk about what happened on the pitch. That’s between the players, and it’s not for me or anyone else to second-guess that or to declare that one team or other is or isn’t fouling. My dispute is with what this writer believes has happened, and his response to it, not what actually happened on the pitch.

Is it reasonable to lean on an opponent, to push him out of his preferred position? Is it ‘savvy’ to foul someone and then call foul on them? Is this sort of situation really ‘a foul that seems (but isn’t) unfair’?

I don’t buy this nonsense that Ultimate is a limited-contact sport, if that implies that there is some contact you’re allowed to deliberately make. Rather, as it says clearly in the rules, Ultimate is a non-contact sport. Certain kinds of accidental contact – incidental (meaning it has no effect on the play), or caused by both players equally – are not fouls, but no player has the right to individually initiate contact.

Let’s look more closely at the WFDF definition. Incidental contact is defined as “Any contact which is not dangerous in nature and does not affect the play.”

So put yourself in the shoes of a defender making deliberate contact, for example leaning in to a receiver. If you believe that the contact will affect the game, that it will help you defend, then you are flat-out cheating. You are deliberately causing contact in order to affect the play. It’s not incidental.

But – and this is the crucial part of my argument today – if you claim that it is incidental, that it doesn’t affect the play, then why on earth are you doing it? You MUST believe that it will affect the game, otherwise you’re just fondling the opponent for weird reasons of your own.

If you want to get ultra-picky, then I guess you could sometimes argue that whilst you were intending to affect the game by making contact, you actually didn’t affect the game in a particular circumstance, and therefore the contact is incidental as things worked out. But the mere intent to breach the rules is itself a breach of the spirit of the game – “It is trusted that no player will intentionally break the rules.” (WFDF) and “It is assumed that no player will intentionally violate the rules.” (USAU 11th)

Don’t get me wrong. What I’m arguing against is the defender using deliberate contact in order to defend better. I’m not arguing they should get out of the offence’s way, or that every bit of contact is a foul, or that the offence has all the rights. It is entirely proper that a defender should do anything within the rules to make life harder for the offence.

I have no problem with tight defence, using your body to seal off where the cutter wants to go. I have no problem with reasonable levels of contact that are both incidental and accidental, or are caused equally by both players running to the same point. But deliberately causing contact, with the intention of affecting the game, is specifically outlawed.

Everything about that paragraph discussing Mickle and Puolos is utterly alien to how I understand this game to work. It is not in any way the offence player’s responsibility to fix this, to ‘move away from the contact’ as the writer suggests. By rule 12.8: “Every player is entitled to occupy any position on the field not occupied by any opposing player, provided that they do not initiate contact in taking such a position.” Why should he move?

It is the other player’s responsibility to not lean on him in the first place.

[Note, again, that I’m talking about the writer’s interpretation, and not commenting on whether the players actually are fouling each other.]

So, what do you think? Can anyone explain to me why this sort of thing should be called ‘savvy’ defence?

P.S. – the common thought that ‘I used to play football and I quite like lots of contact,’ isn’t an argument here. It might be an argument you could have with WFDF or USAU if you wanted to change the way the rules are written in the future, but it won’t win an argument about how to play under the existing rules . . .
P.P.S. – the USAU rules are not much different. I just covered one definition in the piece, but the rules this particular match was played under state:
“Incidental contact: Contact between opposing players that does not affect continued play. For example, contact affects continued play if the contact knocks a player off-balance and interferes with his ability to continue cutting or playing defense.”
The same argument applies – would an offence player retain his normal balance if someone was leaning on him? If the defender doesn’t believe he’s interfering with the ‘ability to continue cutting’ then why is he doing it?
In fact, both WFDF and USAU are very clear.
“All players must attempt to avoid contact with other players, and there is no situation where a player may justify initiating contact.” (WFDF)
“It is the responsibility of all players to avoid contact in every way possible. ” (USAU 11th)

The traditional answer given by those who choose to disregard these very clear rules is that the contact was incidental; I hope I’ve shown that that argument is nonsense.
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53 Responses to Incidental Contact

  1. Jon Good says:

    What you have here Benji is the main reason why I stopped playing when I came to the USA: I had almost this exact discussion with my marker during a game… in an intermediate mixed league. The prevailing thought over here seems to be that this is not only acceptable defensive strategy, but actively encouraged; for me, it is a flagrant spirit foul made by players with the mentality they learned in contact team sports, but lacked the ability to succeed in.


  2. Sam GS says:

    Whole-heartedly agree with this, its something which I’ve noticed more and more as I’ve observed ever-higher levels of play in the UK and for me really detracts from a beautiful sport which strives to make the skills of the players the only separating factor rather than who can bash who the hardest.


  3. Dave Tyler says:

    What has occurred is that at the elite open level, the game has diverged from the rulebook and is essentially played by it’s own set of rules. These rules are more of a gentlemans agreement that a certain level of contact is expected and enjoyed. To me, for the most part this adheres to some concept of spirit of the game (players do treat each other with respect for example) but clearly violates the rules (and therefore, by definition, the spirit of the game).

    I personally am perfectly happy with this and would rather play this form of ultimate. However, that’s not what the rules state and so either the rules need to be adjusted to allow for more contact or players at the top level should stop coaching “more aggressive defense” – or whatever your team calls it.

    Probably the worst part of this is when it spills over into pickup/league ultimate where not all players want to play this slightly different set of rules. Not too prevalent in the UK (because most of the elite players don’t play anything outside of their clubs) but apparently very much an issue in states.

    My point really is that I don’t think that this is going to change in the way you want it to. The top players *like* playing with more contact (for the most part) so the change isn’t going to come from there.


    • Dave – I think you’re right in what you say. Lots of people choose to play that way, and it isn’t for me to tell them to do otherwise (and if they don’t listen to the rules, they sure as hell won’t listen to my little voice anyway…). However, I do strongly feel that they shouldn’t be writing strategy articles, that could be read by new players, that imply it’s the correct way to play. If anyone is coached to play this way, they must also be coached how to play within the rules when the other team demands it, and to understand what is and isn’t legal.

      I feel extremely strongly that they need to respect the wishes of teams who choose NOT to play that way. If some guys want to bash each other, then fine – I don’t love the example it sets, and I don’t want to play that way myself, but it’s up to you – but if at any point the opponent says ‘I choose not to play a deliberately physical game’ then you must desist, and do so politely. The rules are unarguably on the side of the guys who want to play clean. Phrases like ‘pussy fouls’ , mentioned elsewhere in the comments, are so utterly against the spirit of Ultimate that I can barely believe it when I hear them.

      The situation described by ‘House’ below should never happen – if a player makes it clear that they do not wish to be bumped the whole time, then the onus is completely, totally, 100% on the over-physical team to stop it, immediately.


      • In my UK Tour playing experience (one C Tour event, four B Tour and seven A Tour events), the events in B and C tour tend to tolerate much less contact than the A tour events, as Dave describes.

        My understanding of it is that beyond a certain threshold, teams that call every contact as a foul tend to suffer as a result of lost momentum and flow, and so condition to “play through” the contact. At the higher levels, the pitch is smaller in some respects – stingier defences and faster players reduce the amount of space available to play in, despite offences usually having a more advanced and accurate range of throws.

        This feature of the sport almost certainly has the consequence of indirectly encouraging more contact, by both offence and defence, further driving a wedge between gameplay in “high-level” events and the rules as written. NexGen and Ring of Fire strike me as teams that play with Dave’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” version of the rules in mind, so I’d conclude that the strategic analysis of the game is reasonable – in most situations, Mickle and his team won’t gain much from calling such a foul, so the analysis seems correct to me.

        New players that try to initiate contact will find out soon enough where this style of play will be accepted and where it won’t. Furthermore, new players have rarely read the rules in full before stepping onto the line for a match, and as with on-pitch skills there is a learning curve to getting to know the rules.

        That said, it’s not a universal truth that a team initiating more contact will win more often than one that avoids all non-incidental contact. As such, the need for a different set of written rules for higher levels isn’t clear to me. Although perhaps only intended for extreme situations, the rules provide for a spirit timeout if a team is systematically breaching the rules (including the permissible level of contact).


    • Anonymous says:

      Dave, do you think the specific situation described breaks the ‘gentlemans agreement’….
      If one player initiates contact, but then calls foul at what he sees as contact by the other guy?


    • Nicky J says:

      I agree with you 100% but can understand why not everyone feels that way and that it is against the written rules. I have heard that USAU wants to find ways to reduce the physicality of the top level game.


  4. Rob Barchard says:

    You are right about what is or isn’t a foul, and your comments towards incidental contact are great ( I will certainly be borrowing “otherwise you’re just fondling the opponent for weird reasons of your own” when describing this in the future). But another part of ultimate is choosing not call certain fouls or violations at times too. Even if the D was fouling the O (following in suit- no comment), the O player can choose not to call it. The Offensive player could choose to “move away from the contact and get Puolos in motion and unable to maintain the contact Puolos is using” instead of calling a foul if he felt it was advantageous, and this mindset in itself isn’t foreign from other aspect of ultimate.


  5. Daan says:

    It seems to me that in the US Ultimate is drifting away from it’s roots while the rest of the world is trying to preserve the origin of the game.


    • Sjoerd Druiven says:

      Hey Daan – I my opinion, we see this kind of behavior (D leaning into O) in Europe as well. At the last Windmill Wind-up, I was suprised by the amount of contact/


  6. House says:

    The other thing to bear in mind here is the nature of refereed sports in general. Using football as an example (and I know it’s not the same because football is a limited contact sport), the referee (should) make it clear to the players the level of physicality he will accept before calling fouls, and issuing yellow and red cards (although there is guidance from the FA/FIFA/etc, interpretations differ from referee to referee).

    In the same way, Ultimate is refereed by every player on the field. Players are able to make clear (by calling or not calling fouls) what level of physicality they will accept. For example, some players are happy with a bit of shoulder to shoulder contact when chasing down a hospital pass, or with bumping on the mark, etc.

    It can be made clear at what level this physicality is acceptable by calling fouls. To me, this is fine as long as fouls are called consistently, and the opposition is happy to both deal out and receive the same level of contact, and doesn’t change their definition of what they deem acceptable late in the game in a sudden death point (for example). The beauty of a self-refereed sport is that it allows us this freedom within the structure of the rules (even if not to the letter) to play the game we enjoy, in the way that we enjoy it.

    The issue comes when two teams (or players within teams) disagree on the level of contact they find acceptable. As an example, I have played a game where I was bumped me every time I caught the disc as my defender was setting up his force. After this happened 4 times (and I had called foul/contact 4 times) in a row, I stopped the game and asked the player’s captain to “have a word”. In this situation, it seems reasonable that the defender should have adjusted his style, as I clearly was not happy with his interpretation of what was acceptable. I have also heard of examples of players being admonished at summer league for calling “pussy fouls”. Clearly, in these situations it becomes more of an issue…


    • Interesting point about referees choosing the interpretation of the rules on the day. I’d like to add to that that, just like other referees, ultimate players can verbally discuss what they expect rather than only communicating by foul calls.

      At Tour 2, I had a couple of over aggressive marks on me – and let’s be cheerful about this, two in a whole tournament isn’t too bad. Both times, I didn’t call it, because it just distracts me to call it and I had a receiver open. But as we reset into the stack I mentioned it and asked the guy not to play that way again. I was met, both times, with a petulant, “Well call it then!”

      Not only are people being coached to play over-physically without an understanding that it’s technically illegal (and that the opponent can refuse to play that way), but they are also coached to play over-hard until it is called. This is against the basic idea that it’s your responsibility not to cheat, rather than the other guy’s responsibility to catch you doing it. If you know you’re doing it wrong, and you know your opponent doesn’t want to play that way, then fix it.

      And if you don’t know you’re doing it wrong in the first place, then your coach needs a slap. 😉


  7. I agree with this article absolutely wholeheartedly. Ultimate is not a ‘limited contact’ sport it is a non-contact sport, deliberate contact is a clear breach of the rules. It is irrelevant whether both teams ‘agree’ to play physically they are both agreeing to break the rules, I do not think this would happen in any other sport. It is the non-contact aspect that attracts many people to playing Ultimate, if bumping on the mark and a hand on the shoulder in the stack become accepted strategy then I think it will turn a lot of people away from the game at the exact moment when participation must be increased if it is to become an Olympic sport.

    Basketball is also a non-contact sport and as far as I know in the NBA there is not a problem with deliberate fouling to gain an advantage. Perhaps at the top level of Ultimate the referees ought to be given the power to call these contact fouls, if persistent fouling is punished with a turnover of the disc or even a points deduction then it would soon stop.


    • I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with that second paragraph. Without external referees, it is up to the contacted player to determine whether to call foul. They are in the best position to know whether contact was incidental or not. A referee may prevent some obvious pushing but could not make a judgement on small touches of hand or arm during the catch. The game would not be cleaner with an external referee, and it would change significantly. Perhaps not immediately, but certainly over time as players who grew up in that system came to the fore.

      I don’t love the fact that some teams choose to play physically, but that is a far better situation than a third party making the decisions.

      As soon as you introduce penalties for fouls, you are inviting players to look at it in economic terms – is the risk of the penalty worth the reward of the foul? That will change behaviour.

      As long as there is no penalty, and we’re making it clear that cheating is a moral rather than an economic issue, we have a chance of maintaining spirit of the game. It might not be easy, but it’s definitely possible, and in my opinion worth fighting for.


    • Dangerous Dale says:

      “as far as I know in the NBA there is not a problem with deliberate fouling to gain an advantage.”

      Have you ever watched the last two minutes of an NBA game? Intentional fouls are just about the only thing teams do, trying to get a guy like Shaq to the free throw line to toss up bricks, the clock stops, and then they get the ball. How can you say that’s not deliberate fouling to gain an advantage?


    • DP says:

      Ever heard of flagrant fouls in the NBA?


      • DP says:

        ^^^”Basketball is also a non-contact sport and as far as I know in the NBA there is not a problem with deliberate fouling to gain an advantage. Perhaps at the top level of Ultimate the referees ought to be given the power to call these contact fouls, if persistent fouling is punished with a turnover of the disc or even a points deduction then it would soon stop.”

        Ever heard of flagrant fouls in the NBA? A referees call for players who are fouling to gain an advantage and in a dangerous manner! However fouling to gain an advantage happens, like Dale refers to, all the time. However you are touching on the referees in Ultimate topic … let’s avoid that old can right now :P.


        • Just passing by here, not knowing a lot about ultimate. However, I *am* a nationally approved basketball referee, so to give a small insight in high level refereeing in a different sport:

          Basketball is a ‘limited contact’ sport, where the referees decide which contact is allowed, and which isn’t. (it’s a non-contact sport where contact cannot be avoided and is, in effect, part of the game). This means that the players are initially guessing what amount of contact is allowed, and that this amount varies between games (as there are different referees): some games are kept tightly and others are left more physical. Above all it is important that the referee keeps it fair (not calling different for the other side/player), consistent (throughout the game the players can expect the same actions to be called or not), and that the referee keeps control (players might or might not handle the amount of contact well should not be allowed to take matters into their own hands). Any contact is always judged according to advantage/disadvantage: who gains the advantage, or who gains the disadvantage, and is this detrimental to the game. This is obviously the case when people are near the basket and things get crowded. However, far away from the basket, intentional contact is frowned upon. E.g. touching your opponent to feel where he is going (so you can look the other way) is not allowed away from the basket, but under the basket it is allowed.
          Mind you, at high levels physical play near the basket is universally ‘allowed’, as players are expected to be able to handle it at that level, and also gain not enough of a benefit of it: they are strong enough to compensate and not be put off balance, allowing them to continue the play.

          Even so, most important is how the players feel about it. Under the basket it can most certainly become physical between players. This is fine *as long as they are fine with it*. Sometimes this means asking the players if it’s okay… or not.

          These gentlemans agreements are not strange (nor common), and are allowed: a referee’s job is to guide the play fairly, under what ever rules the teams decide them to be.

          Reading these discussions are similar to pick up games in basketball: what do you allow, what do you call (and who does the calling). This is always a two-way street: when I feel hindered by the defense, is that a foul, or does it allow me to be more physical on my own defense? (and also adjust my offense to play more physical?)


  8. Pingback: Tuesday Dumps: Incidental Contact, New WFDF Members, Steel City Showdown | Skyd Magazine

  9. Chuck says:

    Just some food for thought about your fondling comment and contact affecting play. Some defenders use that contact (something like lightly resting a hand on the offensive players back) so they know where he is. This allows them to look at the disc and also know if the man they are defending takes off in the other direction. I would say this does not affect the play as the offensive player is not affected by the contact and can freely cut wherever he chooses.

    I’m not saying this is what happened on the particular play in question, but just bringing up an example of something that is contact, does not affect play, and is thus not a foul.

    The rules don’t specifically say what affected play means. You coul argue that technically everything affects the play. Using a reductio ad absurdum argument, me choosing to not cover my man affects the play bec my guy might not otherwise cut, but now that I’m nowhere near him he chooses to cut. Boom play affected


    • In the last instance, there’s no contact, so that’s irrelevant to the argument. Regarding placing hands on me in the stack, I could certainly argue that it affects play, and that if it didn’t then the defender has no reason to do it. It’s very unlikely that I’d call it in most circumstances, but it isn’t something I would coach. The rules are clear.


      • Chuck says:

        In the last instance, I was just talking about the definition of affecting play, not talking about contact. So it is relevant in that regard.

        “Incidental contact: Contact between opposing players that does not affect continued play. For example, contact affects continued play if the contact knocks a player off-balance and interferes with his ability to continue cutting or playing defense.”

        A hand on the back of the offensive player does not seem to contradict this notion of affecting continued play.


        • This is picky, and as I say I probably wouldn’t call it, but a hand on the back definitely affects play. It isn’t relevant to the ‘for example’ bit, but of course that’s only an example, and not the rule. You don’t have to affect where I cut to to make it non-incidental, you just have to affect the game. Which clearly you do if you now have extra information about my position.


      • Chuck says:

        For some reason there isnt a reply button on your last comment.

        But this is exactly where I do not think the rules are clear. What affects play is not specifically definied. Not only do the rules specifically say “continued play” but I think the example given clearly leads the reader in a particular direction. This leads me to beleive the authors of the rulebook do not think something like gaining information affects continued play.

        But let’s suppose you are correct, Then I dont see how it is physically possible to have incidental contact. By your interpretation, all contact, in some way, affects play. Why would they mention that there is such thing as incidental contact? Can you name an example of incidental contact?


        • I think there’s a limit on nested replies to stop exactly this kind of back and forth that nobody else wants to read… 🙂

          Anyway, there are lots of examples of incidental contact, even if we do take the strictest possible definition. We could crash into each other fairly hard, but if we’ve both misread it by 10 yards then it’s incidental – we weren’t catching it.

          I’m going to stop arguing now, mainly because everyone else will be bored of it. I think we have different understanding of what incidental is in these circumstances, and I agree that the rules could be read the way you read them if you want. To me it seems vastly more likely that they mean what they say (sorry, couldn’t resist) but I guess we’d have to ask someone who wrote them…


          • kd says:

            I think in these cases it isn’t really important to make a distinction.
            There is an Indirect Foul for any contact that does not directly affect an attempt to catch the disc, that should be used.


          • Flo Pfender says:

            The question if it is incidental is not even relevant to the main topic. Intentional contact (or even not trying to avoid contact) is illegal, and thus cheating, period.
            If it is incidental it is merely a violation and not a foul, but still illegal.
            If you believe play is affected and you are not sure if it is intentional contact, call foul. If you have good reason to believe it is intentional or careless (say if it repeats) but you are not sure if it affects play, call violation. The result is the same in most cases, and the defender typically does not have a reason to contest (unless he does not know the rules).


  10. Alex says:

    Although I agree with the general thoughts of this article, I agree with Chuck here. I would not say that a hand on the back “affects continued play,” to me that term implies that you are hindering the player from doing something. If you are leaning heavily on a guy, you are affecting his ability to move. I would not say that merely touching someone to gain a bit of information is contact that affects continued play.


  11. Alex says:

    “It is entirely proper that a defender should do anything within the rules to make life harder for the offence.”

    I think the reverse is also true, an offender should legally make life harder for the defense. What’s funny (and slightly relevant to the article) is that defenders don’t seem to think so, even while illegally marking, fouling, and generally initiating contact.

    When I notice that a defender is poaching an offender by a fair amount (let’s say 10 yards), I will move myself between them, stopping in the defenders path and generally moving to be (avoidably) in their way, allowing the offender to make an even more wide open cut. This is not a pick, because they are not within 3 yards of their person. It is not a blocking foul in any way (unless the disc is in the air, and I am blocking their path to *the disc*), because there is NO contact, and I’m not jumping in front of them in a manner they can’t avoid (unless they choose to obstinately run into me). I simply make it difficult for them to get around me (again, with NO contact) so they can get to their person. This *infuriates* defenders. The first thing they do is call pick. The second thing they do is scream “you can’t do that!” and their third reaction is to just call me an asshole.

    The relevant thing to this article is that these are the same defenders who have *no problem* bumping on the mark. Most recently, a team whined like little babies about me being in their way. Then, as I tried to make an upline cut, I got first arm-barred, then when I made it past that, shirt-grabbed! When I complimented my defender on his shirt-grab, his response was “try that pick shit with me and I’ll run you over.”

    So legally being in someone’s way, not cool. Makes you an asshole. Intentionally cheating, just “part of the game” “playing hard” “gritty” “good defense” “putting on a good hard mark.” People are easily able to justify their actions by labeling them as such. So many people do it, they get used to “the way the game is played” and that apparently makes it ok. So if you do something that they aren’t expecting, because they never thought of it, and no one has done it to them before, even if it’s legal, that’s not “the way the game is played” and “you can’t do that!”


    • Hilarious. You’re quite right, although I’m not surprised it takes a bit of explaining before people will believe you. And the response you seem to have had on this occasion is very definitely out of order.

      At the risk of getting you into a fight, have you considered the many possibilities that zone defence offers in this regard? 😉

      Very often defenders are not ‘within three meters of that offensive player and reacting to that offensive player’ and can’t technically be picked.


      • Alex says:

        Step 1. Walk up to the deep in the zone
        Step 2. Place yourself right next to said deep, blocking the direct path to the wing on one side.
        Step 3. Teammate throws hammer to said wing.


      • EA says:

        There seems to be a difference here between reading the spirit of the rules and the letter of the rules. (“Spirit of the rules” as in “spirit of the law,” not as in “spirit of the game”… whatever, you know what I mean.) By the letter of the rules, you’re right, this isn’t a pick. But in the spirit of the rules, picks are banned not to create an arbitrary opportunity for strategy, but because they’re dangerous. And so I understand why people might become irritated if you intentionally create a potentially dangerous situation that is technically legal.

        To borrow your phrase, I see “the way the game is played” as basically a shared understanding of the spirit of the rules. The actual written rules exist to give us something to fall back on when people don’t come to the same understanding, but they are an imperfect representation of a shifting ideal. Indeed, they are frequently changed to better reflect “the way the game is played”–more often, I would expect, than gameplay shifts dramatically due to explicit changes in the rules [citation needed]. While intricacies within the letter of the rules are interesting and essential to understand, the spirit of the rules are much more important.

        To me, there seems to be little difference between a player who intentionally fouls someone on an upline huck and a player who intentionally creates a legal pick, especially if either is trying to claim any moral high ground. One may be protected by the letter of the rules, but both seem to be violating the spirit of the rules and being obnoxious. Exactly how obnoxious depends on “the way the game is played” at the particular level in which they are participating.


        • Alex says:

          Not dangerous at all. There is NO contact created. An unavoidable position is not taken.

          People are just angry because “you’re in my way” and “you can’t do that.” They have an expectation that you simply must allow them to take a straight line to wherever they want to go, and that is just not true.


        • Alex says:

          Further, it is no different from a defender “dictating” on defense, by standing in between his person and the disc, trying to deny under cuts. People don’t get mad when they make an in cut and find themselves blocked off by a defender’s smart postion, forcing them to go around or wider (assuming the defender didn’t slide over to block at the last second). If I do it on offense, everyone goes crazy.


          • EA says:

            I’ll admit it’s an interesting tactic that I’d never thought of before, and I may be tempted to use it in some high level games. I’ll take your word for it that you personally do it in a non-dangerous manner, though I think it’s a pretty slippery slope, especially if it becomes more widespread. I could easily see a version of this tactic spreading amongst players with incomplete knowledge of the rules where people think it’s legal to pick anyone if they’re outside of ten feet–my impression already is that very few people know or acknowledge the “unavoidable” clause.

            I’m also not sure you can convince me that it isn’t obnoxious. It seems like the biggest advantage you’re likely to get from the tactic is not that your teammate is slightly more wide open but that your opponent will become frustrated. Similar to how when bodying on defense, even legally, you can gain a big advantage by “getting in your opponent’s head.” Whether that’s an acceptable strategy depends on the level, the teams’ mutual understanding, etc. If you’re playing in a context that dictates it’s ok, more power to you. But it definitely seems to be “at the expense of […] the basic joy of play” (USAU 11th). You sacrifice the moral high ground by using a strategy that has the primary effect of pissing off your opponent.


          • Alex says:

            The primary effect is that a cutter got more open. That is the goal of the offense, to get open. I *do not want* the secondary effect of pissing off the defense, because they will just call an (unjustified) foul/pick, that is what I am complaining about, that people get all pissy about someone being in their way, when “being in the way” is a primary goal of the defense. It’s a huge double standard. They are looking for an entitlement as a defender that simply doesn’t exist.

            The rules in this area are pretty simple: “Each player is entitled to occupy any position on the field not occupied by an opposing player, unless specifically overridden elsewhere, provided that no personal contact is caused in taking such a position.” (it’s not, and there isn’t)

            Your contention is that it is somehow morally wrong to intentionally be in someone’s way. I see no grounds for that whatsoever. Out-positioning your opponents is a huge part of the game on offense and defense. If the defense chooses a strategy of sagging off a player, they might just find that have to run around some other players to get close again. There is nothing immoral about it. Further, to say that it is morally on the same level as doing something that is actually illegal (intentionally fouling) is a ridiculous statement.


      • EA says:

        To use another analogy, you’re basically the kid waving your hand in your brother’s face, saying “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!”


        • Brummie says:

          I find it highly unlikely that in reality you would be able to actually provide this second man boxing without initiating contact or moving in such a way as to be unavoidable, both grounds for a foul. Of course, the superior strategy is to attempt to make a play on the disc while doing the above; the rules interpretation document makes it quite clear that preventing a player from making a play without attempting to do so yourself is illegal. Feel free to contact the WFDF Rules Committee for a ruling though, I would be interested to know.


  12. GBrell says:

    The main segment of your post, unfortunately, doesn’t convince me of your argument. Particularly, your assertion that “contact [that] will affect the game” is equivalent to contact “that . . . will help you defend.” As Chuck points out (and I for one did not find the subsequent discussion boring in the least), “affects continued play” is not defined and I think it’s equally stretching the rules to claim that a hand on the back “affects play” as to claim that leaning into the body of a offensive player doesn’t. Now if that hand subsequently leads to an arm bar that prevents your cut, it’s a foul.

    I don’t think you need to win this argument, however, to prove your point, since USAU rule XVI.H (which you cite in the second paragraph of your P.P.S.) makes your argument moot. If it’s the “responsibility of all players to avoid contact in every way possible,” then the hand on the back is illegal regardless of whether or not it’s incidental (though, epistemologically, this does not mean the hand on the back is non-incidental contact – this rule merely means the discussion is irrelevant, it doesn’t resolve it).

    The issue here, and it is brought up by Dave Tyler, is that at high levels (in the US at least, club and most college on the open side) ultimate is being played via a gentleman’s agreement that contact (almost exclusively initiated by the defense) is acceptable and wanted in the game. Part of this may be bleed over as more and more players come to ultimate from a more contact-sports background (though some sports that are probably influencing this are themselves ostensibly non-contact – basketball, football/soccer). But part of this is also a recognition that ultimate is heavily skewed by rule toward the offense, especially when self-officiated without observers.

    Defensive contact (the worst example of which is the leaning-on you highlight from the Nexgen-Ring game) is the evolution of your own statement: “It is entirely proper that a defender should do anything within the rules to make life harder for the offence.” What happens is that someone pushes the rules slightly (not necessarily intending to, but in trying to get that slight edge in positioning – much like the fact that almost everyone travels on every throw, particulary when trying to throw-and-go or get that little extra bit of around on their huck), and no one calls him on it (or the other player feels the extra contact and decides that he will accept it as this allows him to return the contact in kind and be more effective when he is on defense). So the player pushed the rule slightly and didn’t get called, so he does it again. And he does it again and again until we reach a system where a majority of high level players incorporate bodying in their defense and there exist some teams at the extremes on either end. Ring (and some of the North Carolina programs that feed into Ring) is an excellent example of a team that is at one extreme.

    The unfairness here (and that is referenced in the Nexgen analysis) isn’t related to whether the rules were broken, but that the gentleman’s agreement which Mickle had implicitly joined in not calling fouls on Puolos is broken by Puolos when it’s to his advantage. It’s why people get angry about so-called “ticky-tack” fouls/travels at the end of games. It’s not that they’re not fouls, it’s that they weren’t called for the majority of the game.

    None of this is the same thing, however, as intentionally hacking on the mark or (as one commenter pointed out) shirt-grabbing or arm-bars. Those are clear fouls and didn’t evolve through mutual understanding.

    Stepping away from that point for a second, here are a couple of examples where I feel there is enough grey area in the rules that even with the blanket prohibition you cite (albeit in a post-script), that there can be two valid interpretations that lead to dramatically different levels of physicality:
    – Two players (one O, one D) cut deep for a disc. Unintentionally, their legs get tangled at the beginning of the cut and both fall. The disc hits the ground twenty yards downfield. O calls foul. Reading USAU rules (specifically XVI.H.b.2), the disc should go to the receiver at the spot of where the players fell over. This is kind of nonsensical given that the disc couldn’t have been caught there. I’ve called (and had called on me) a contest to send the disc back via the argument that the play downfield (where the disc ended up) could’ve come out in numerous different ways and that the play should be allowed to be repeated. I think you have to stretch the “incidental contact” exception of XVI.H.b.1 to fit this, but I don’t think it’s necessarily outside the spirit of the game.
    – A player is marking a thrower. He sets up a legal mark and then moves himself across the thrower’s body to prevent a huck. In doing so, he moves his arm/body forward and stops, but in such a position that the thrower moving the disc forward for his throw will contact his arm (whether with the disc or a part of his arm) [note: while this is likely to be an illegal position, under USAU XIV.B.3, it technically can be a legally positioned arm/body]. If he is legally positioned, it’s not a foul (though I’ve never seen a thrower not call it). In putting himself in that position, however, he is not “avoid[ing] contact in every way possible.” Is he being unspirited for forcing the thrower to throw through his mark (which most of the time will be a foul on the marker)?
    – A defender is playing non-physical defense trailing a deep cut. He hears “pump” or another call that informs the player he is guarding will cut back in. He positions himself so that when the player plants and comes back he will hit the defender in his chest. He does not initiate contact, but since he is trailing the offensive player closely, it is unlikely the offensive player will see the defender prior to contact. Again, the defender is not “avoid[ing] contact in every way possible.” But he is not initiating contact. Is it a foul? On who?

    At the end of the day, I don’t know how you would teach a player to play in the style that you identify as being faithful to the rules if everyone around him is part of an agreement to disregard those rules and replace them with something different. What people need to be able to do is adjust their style of play to the custom/culture of the specific game they are playing. I don’t think that this lets us make comments like that they “shouldn’t be writing strategy articles, that could be read by new players, that imply it’s the correct way to play.” What needs to happen is that rules need to be taught and contextualized in much the same way that traveling in basketball is culture-dependent. Everyone in the NBA travels, but that’s the way the game is played.


    • Alex says:

      XVI.H is a silly “rule” (if you can call it that). If you were to play strictly by XVI.H. then you should be actively diving out of the way of *anything* that might create contact.


      • GBrell says:

        I agree that it’s a silly rule if taken literally (and indeed, the online version of the rules have an addendum to it stating: “Avoid contact in every way reasonable possible, while still playing Ultimate. Some contact is inevitable, but players have an affirmative obligation to make reasonable efforts to avoid contact.”).

        But how do we decide which parts of the rules are “silly”? And which ones we should/shouldn’t follow?


  13. Thanks for that considered piece. I won’t answer all the specific points, because this could get very long very quickly. I guess one more thing I will say in response is that it’s probably true that what I’m describing is no longer how the game is played by many people but, given the apparently inexorable movement towards more and more contact, I’m quite content to be some way short of what many would consider normal contact. I’d rather try to apply the brakes than to accept the status quo, particularly since the status quo doesn’t seem particularly static. If I’m teaching that hypothetical player you mention, then I certainly will teach him to play by the rules, in the knowledge that others will push him the other way, and hopefully my influence will make him less physical than he otherwise might have been. Playing this game properly is more important to me than winning, and I don’t wish to contribute to any slide towards something very different.

    I certainly remember people being appalled by someone putting a hand on them to work out their position, whereas nowadays this might be common. I’m lucky enough that I’ve never had my shirt pulled or been tripped or any of the other truly egregious things that I’ve very occasionally seen, but there’s no doubt that the physicality has increased and is still increasing.

    There are, as you rightly say, lots of places in the rules where it’s not clear exactly how much contact should be allowed. ‘In every way possible’ is actually pretty badly phrased, in my opinion. I prefer the second half of the WFDF one, that there is no place for initiating contact, rather than that all contact must be avoided. But either way, I do think it’s worth reminding people that, whatever grey areas there might be, there’s no doubt that some (common) conduct is illegal. Hopefully that got across, even though we’ve ended up talking about lots of other things.


    • And one last thing (sorry) – everybody travels in the NBA, but that is at least in part because of the difficulties of refereeing. Refereed ultimate will similarly have a level of contact which is uncallable because the referee is in no position to know what was affected and what wasn’t. The great benefit of our self-refereed sport, that it’s clean and I don’t get my shirt pulled or get pushed in the back, is in danger of being lost as we all strive to compete with other over-physical players and sink to their level. Better in my opinion to just keep calling the foul than to join in with the physicality and drag the game to a new place.

      But hey, I am aware that I might end up on the losing side of this.


      • GBrell says:

        I think the reality is going to end up somewhere between your position and the defensive strategy of Ring. Whether that means you’re on the losing side is a matter of perspective.

        I don’t think that referees are a solution to this problem (and I’m not really an advocate for them in the first place), but my personal opinion is that third-party observers are preferable to pure self-officiation because they allow for a punishment system that disincentivizes the behavior.

        (On basketball traveling) I don’t think this is an issue about refereeing since it’s pretty well established that traveling is enforced more loosely in the NBA than the in US college or European pro leagues. Also, the idea of basketball players calling their own travels made me laugh.


  14. Martin says:


    I am the author of the post that made you angry. First, I’m sorry that it angered you and is an example of what I gather you feel is an acceptance of physical play. My intention wasn’t to endorse the style of defense that Ring played on that point, but rather to illustrate it as part of the film analysis.

    I do think that you are misinterpreting and even misrepresenting the use of the word ‘savvy’ in my article. At no point do I say that Puolos’ positioning is savvy, nor do I say it is correct. What is savvy in my mind is setting up Mickle to push off and then calling the foul on him when he does. Similar to “pulling the chair” from someone in the low post in basketball. Still, I don’t think this detracts from your overall point on the increased level of physics play in the US. I can’t really comment on that as a whole because aside from the US and the UK I haven’t played anywhere else.

    In your comments the theme of a gentleman’s agreement has come up, and I agree that is how things are often played in the US. I also agree that both parties have the ability to control that agreement and that if one person says that certain contact is over the line then both parties need to respect that. I have, as I imagine many readers have, been on both sides of that discussion many times. It is part of the social contract that keeps players in control of the game.

    I do take some offense at a comment you made in response to Dave Tyler:

    “Lots of people choose to play that way, and it isn’t for me to tell them to do otherwise (and if they don’t listen to the rules, they sure as hell won’t listen to my little voice anyway…). However, I do strongly feel that they shouldn’t be writing strategy articles, that could be read by new players, that imply it’s the correct way to play. If anyone is coached to play this way, they must also be coached how to play within the rules when the other team demands it, and to understand what is and isn’t legal.”

    I am currently and have been a youth coach for the past 6 years, before that I coached in college for another 6. While it isn’t stated directly I feel like this paragraph is implying that I coach my players to use this style of defense and that is false and unfounded. It is the use of the phrase “they shouldn’t be writing strategy articles” that got under my skin and offended me. I coach my players to play an oped side position defensive style that isn’t predicated on physical contact. I also coach my players on how to respond against an opponent that is excessively using physical contact in a game.

    I think my frustration comes from an overall misunderstanding. At no point in my article to I implicitly or directly endorse the style of defense that Ring was playing towards the end of that game. But I do refer to a player as savvy, a statement that was interpreted as referring to a specific play and not that player in general. Extrapolating from that misconception I can see how you might assume that I am some ogre teaching my players to hack and foul their way to defense. But please give me the benefit of the doubt before you commit to my personal character. Notice that even though I don’t personally agree with Ring’s defensive style I didn’t call it dirty because I don’t think that is relevant to the point of the article I was trying to write.

    Just so others can read the paragraph that I wrote, here it is:

    “One of the other ways that Ring’s defensive style allowed them to stay in the game were through plays like the one in the video below. Puolos (black #14) is guarding Mickle (white #23) in the middle of the field and is clearly leaning on him, preventing him from getting to the open side. Mickle doesn’t really do much to respond. He doesn’t try to move Puolos out of position, or break the contact Puolos is using to position the cutter. But when the break cut (the easy one to cut for) is open Mickle instinctively pushes against the contact as part of getting open. Puolos is a savvy player who calls the foul and stops the effective play. Classic Ring of Fire, aggressive ultimate where your counter to their strategy results in a foul that seems (but isn’t) unfair. The camera angle isn’t great, but I’d be hard pressed to believe Mickle didn’t push off of Puolos in this play. Based on how hard Puolos is leaning into Mickle in order for Mickle to hold his ground he has to be pushing back at least a little. What Mickle needed to do was move away from the contact and get Puolos in motion and unable to maintain the contact Puolos is using.”

    I think if you read this again you will see that I do not endorse this style of defense, and I avoid making judgements like that. Instead I refer to a player, whom I have known since the late 1990, as savvy. Thank you for your time. I was directed to this article from Skyd and wanted to clear that up. Best of luck on your future endeavors.



    • Thanks Martin for that considered response. I do think that if I misinterpreted that description of Puolos as ‘savvy’ then I’m probably not the only one, and my own personal reading of your piece does still appear to suggest that this sort of behaviour is reasonable – even if you don’t actually advocate it. But I accept that that wasn’t your intention and I do apologise if I’ve offended you.

      I guess I’m glad that we’ve all had this discussion, and I apologise if that’s resulted in any bad feeling on your part – that wasn’t my intention, though I guess in a similar way you could look at my piece and think it was deliberately sensationalist or attention-seeking (it wasn’t meant to be) in just the same way I misinterpret yours.

      I guess the nature of short written communication is to be misunderstood sometimes, and I just felt that more needed to be done in your original article to take a stance against this sort of thing. I can fully see why you wouldn’t feel that was your responsibility though.

      Anyway, all the best,


      • Martin says:

        Fair enough, Benji

        Thanks for the reply and I’m glad that both of us were able to hash this out in a reasonable manner. I’ll agree that I was probably in a defensive mode reading your piece, which (and this is stated) isn’t really about a play on the pitch but more about the level of physicality in general. Thank you for being understanding. Take care. I’ll be sure to start following your work.



  15. Frazier says:

    This topic is a concern I have with the way the game is being played more and more.

    I don’t read rulebooks… I’m old-school. Most of how I play is just common sense and I am not one to argue or quote rules on the field.

    In general, if you beat your man to the disk, then catch it/knock it down, then make unintentional contact after … then you have made “incidental contact” and it should be “clean” because beating your man to the disk caused the turn…not the contact afterward. Thus, the contact did not effect the outcome of the play. The offence may call foul which is perfectly fine… as sometimes the sequence of action is incredibly close or the contact is sometimes considered to be too hard or heavy. The defender may even expect to make some contact after the play…as long as they are not being dangerous, wreckless or unsafe to others, which is a whole other topic.

    If you make simultaneous contact or contact before making the play… it is accidental contact and a foul… plain and simple… but it should never be intentional in any circumstance.

    Now the topic of “savy” defense to manipulate where the offender can go. I see this being taught often to new players and the message is not being taught or taken the right way.

    In my mind being “savy” should mean a combination of field awareness (of the disk and other payers), choosing your position well, knowing where your defender wants to go, and using your athletic ability and footwork to beat your man to where he wants to go. The best Ultimate defenders can do his without significant contact. Personally, I do not like making defensive contact and try to continue my movement to stay in an advantageous position relative to the offender vs. stopping movement at a key positions and allowing (or more importantly encouraging contact) to stop the defenders movement/momentum. I agree that getting into position with the goal of obstructing and making contact can be done well and should be allowed assuming you truly beat your defender to the space he wants and you use your body to stop his momentum “appropriately”. Personally, it is not my style to do this intentionally, but even when you are covering people extremely well and extremely close, contact is usually inevitable, despite being unintentional.

    Leaning, shoving, using arms outstretched by either defense OR offense to gain an advantage should not be allowed. Not only is intentional, but affects the play through contact beyond using your footwork and body to gain position.

    What makes the situation very sticky is when the defender gets in front of the offender by beating him to space… then calls foul when the offender had no chance to stop. To me this is not fair and should be a “no call” by the defender because he outplayed the offender so to speak and achieved his goal. On the other hand, I have seen offenders run into defenders on purpose to make contact, change the defenders momentum, then use it to run the other way. As a defender, I would consider this a foul … but when and how do we draw the line on if it was the offender induced vs. defender induced… I cannot answer this… and that is why we have contest calls and then talk about it after the game and in forums.

    Finally, an example of something that has bothered me for years about the game mentality. I was playing in a game with team of very inexperienced players and were clearly outmatched. A 1st year traveling player and just starting college made a deep cut. I threw, he went up, he got fouled (pretty clearly), he called foul, then the defense “contested”. This is perfectly fine and happens all the time… no problem right? Then find out at half that the defender told my team mate “Yes I fouled you… but I contested so that we would have better field position.” What type of message does that send to the new player you just fouled. I was pissed… if you are going to use calls and lie to get an advantage… never admit to it to the person who you fouled. If it were me and someone admitted they fouled me…I would called for the disk back immediately and insist I take the disk where I was fouled since he was so stupid to tell me he fouled me after contesting.

    But that is the mentality that is has been developing for some time.

    I will continue to play as long as I can, but I will not change my style of play and my interpretation of a foul. There is no clear right and wrong, and my interpretation is by no means they right way for everybody, but as a sporting community we should step back and encourage ourselves and others to both play with and teach integrity.

    just my take…


  16. Nadav says:

    I realize I’m pretty late to the party, it’s unlikely anyone will read this, and it’s not entirely relevant to the point of the article…but I’m gonna say it anyway as it seems to me like there’s another thing regarding the incidental contact rule that either people don’t know, or choose to ignore (or in Frazier’s case, choosing not to know). You’ll see it if you read not just the rules, but also the official WFDF interpretations of the rules (which are definitely worth a read).

    Firstly, as someone already mentioned somewhere above, there’s the rule (12.9) saying all players must avoid contact with other players, and that ‘”Making a play for the disc” is not a valid excuse for initiating contact’. And 12.9 says ‘some incidental contact, not affecting the outcome of the play or safety of players, may occur’. Interpretation 12.4, relating to rule 12.9 says ‘Non incidental contact is any contact that is either dangerous in nature or affects the outcome of a play, regardless of whether the contact occurred after possession was established’. Wait, what? AFTER possession was established?

    Yes. After. Read one of the scenarios in interpretation 12.5: ‘What – Player A is stationary and waiting to catch the disc. Player B is running towards Player A, then jumps, intercepts the pass, and then collides with Player A. Result – Player B has fouled Player A. Why – Rule 12.9 explicitly says that making a play for the disc is not a valid excuse for initiating contact with other players’.

    Admittedly it’s a little confusing, because rules 17.2.1 and 17.6.1 (on defensive and offensive fouls respectively) say that ‘…fouls occur when a defender/receiver initiates contact with a receiver/defender before, or during, an attempt to catch a disc’. But if you look to interpretation 17.5, it says that ‘non incidental contact that occurs directly after the attempt at the disc (ie a defender catches the disc and then collides with an offence player) is considered to have occurred during the attempt at the disc.’

    Does anyone follow this rule? Imagine you’re player A, but your on Defense, waiting patiently for a disc to drop into your hands. Mr B jumps up, catches it and collides with you on the way down. You call a foul, he says ‘huh?’. You politely explain the rules and interpretations above, he says ‘oh I guess you’re right, it was a foul’ and is about to send the disc back, then you remind him that an uncontested offensive foul equals a turnover (rule 17.6.2). I bet you’ll have a hard time persuading Mr B to give you the disc.

    I think part of the reason this seems wrong is because we’re used to the idea that if you caught or D’d the disc before the contact, then it’s ok, perhaps because of exposure to sports like football/soccer (hands up if you’ve ever shouted ‘he got the ball!!!’ at the TV). And partly it’s because the rules aren’t worded very clearly. Actually, I still find this ambiguous – is it only if Player B lands on Player A in a dangerous way? Most players will probably be able to swallow this interpretation, but remember that the rules say you’re supposed to avoid any contact, and it’s illegal to ‘initiate contact’ which to me means bidding for a disc when doing so means you’ll bump into a stationary player on the way down.

    Is this important? Well, as is implied above somewhere, there are still some players who want ultimate to be a game about skill and tactics, and not one that comes down to how big and strong you are. And if you’re Player A and Player B is much bigger and stronger than you, you should be entitled to stand your ground without worrying about getting squashed. But you might think it’s more pragmatic to just get out of the way and let the game continue, even though you read the disc better than Player B. Surely that’s affecting the outcome, and it’s B’s fault? Even if you’re not that small, think about Revolver’s winning point in the recent US Open final – admittedly from some angles it looks like they were both moving towards each other, but still – would you want a full-speed Beau Kittridge landing on you?


  17. William Martin says:

    If I as a defender, bump you and knock you very slightly off balance as you turn under on a deep cut and 5 seconds later the disc is released and it hits the ground a foot out of your reach, is that incidental?

    Similar question, if I bump you very very slightly off balance at the start of a 5 second race to chase down a huck and it falls a foot in front of you, is that non-incidental?

    The difference in these scenarios being that the disc has or has not been released at the point that contact occurred. At what point in time do we consider continued play to be not affected?


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