More than Disc Space - Adapting Ultimate Frisbee for Social Distancing

author - oliver browne

Photo by Pete Guion of UltiPhotos

Whether you run a small pickup group or regular team practices, at some point over the coming weeks to months your local authority will permit you to return to some form of practice.  As a leader in your community you know you have a duty of care, and so you're probably already considering how, when that time comes, you can act to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus among your players.

We are currently discussing this issue of returning to play in our Social Distance Training Tips group on Facebook. This is free to all ultimate players. Please join us and contribute to the conversation!

The intention of this conversation this week

  • Help us think about risk and communicating those risks
  • Envision alternative activities vs Ultimate as we normally play it
  • Provide ideas for things you can do in your community to step back towards Ultimate whilst still maintaining reduced contacts

Various groups will be providing guidance on when it is safe to think about resuming training.  Look to your Local and National Government, your Olympic and National Sports-governing bodies, and your local association, for guidance on that decision.  The point in time when you can return to play will vary across communities around the world; this is not a guide on how to know when that time is.

This is a set of suggestions on how you can adapt your first sessions back to allow for play whilst still reducing the amount of contact you would normally have had.

We hope this will spark some ideas and healthy debate. And as always, we encourage you to follow your local government regulations. 

This Risk needs you to lead

As a global community our goal is to slow the spread of the virus.   The moment we have contact with anyone or anything outside of our quarantined homes, we move up the scale of risk, but risk is a spectrum not a switch.

We all already understand this on some level - we choose to play Ultimate knowing that in all sports injuries may occur and we adopt techniques to minimize this risk.  Some of those are about our own personal risk of injury, e.g. we wear appropriate footwear so we don't slip up.  But many aren't directly for us, they're for those around us, e.g. we remove jewelry/watches to avoid hurting others, we follow rules that encourage us to be careful around moments of inter-player contact.  We make those changes because we know that safe communities are happy ones, and that the small personal cost (to remove a watch, to pull out of a play) is worth it for the large gain of being part of that community.

In many ways the risk associated with Coronavirus is similar.  Where it is different is the breath of impact and what the risk looks like.  An injury is often immediately obvious and its impact is limited to the player(s) involved.  Whereas a Covid-19 spreading-event won't be immediately obvious (because those who have it may be contagious before they present symptoms) and the impact will extend beyond those immediately involved to anyone in the household of those who contract it.

In short, your players are already familiar with making personal changes to reduce risk both to themselves and those around them.  They are absolutely ready to make another adjustment to reduce the risk from Coronavirus.  But because this risk has potential for high impact, and because it is almost unseen, that adjustment will need to be actively led, by you, the community leaders.  

Your Radius of Contagion

Risk varies with distance, time, and indoor/outdoor environment:  more distance + less time = lower risk.  For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll work with the commonly used suggestion of maintaining at least 2m of distance between yourself and everyone else.

Imagine each player has a bubble 1.5m in a radius around them, ie 3m across.  So your bubble is a little wider than your outstretched arms.  A contact is an event where another person enters your bubble, ie you could touch them with your outstretched arm.

We want to reduce the number of contacts we have with others.  There are two primary ways we can do that

  • Reduce the number of people in our radius
  • Reduce the size of our radius

Reducing the number of people in your radius

The simplest way to play with a disc whilst maintaining space from each other is to play one of the other Disc Sports (which is what I've been doing in my lockdown time).  Favor...

Alternatively, we can change how we currently play Ultimate to encourage more space per player.  A simple first step would be to use larger fields or fewer players per field.  But making more space does not guarantee that people will spread out - try playing 3-on-3 on a 7-a-side pitch and it's very likely that you'll play a lot of the time only a few metres apart!  So, let's add some rules that specifically encourage players to stay further apart...

  1. Adapt the Pick rule. Rather than being blocked by a person directly in my path, any time my path would be within the bubble of another person, I am allowed to call a "Pandemic-Pick!"

  2. Expand "disc space" to be 2 meters, ie the person forcing/stalling you needs to be set 2m back.  Infringe?  "Pandemic Space!"

Reducing the size of your radius

By far the largest factor in your radius with this disease is your breath.

  • Is it an option to play in a mask?

    • Yes, you probably can't breathe quite as easily, so full-on sprints are going to be harder.
    • This is a sacrifice you can make.  And in exchange, your radius of contagion has just shrunk on the order of 10x

The next factor is what you touch.  The disc is the main 'shared contact surface' between teammates.  You and your group likely have multiple discs.  Make a decision at the start to pile up 'clean' discs.  Use only one at a time.  After 5 minutes, put the current disc into a 'dirty' disc pile, and move onto the next clean one.  Dirty discs are cleaned at the end.  (or partway through if you have alcohol cleaner available).

The role of Unique Contacts

It is better for society as a whole if we each have 10 contacts with one person than 1 contact with 10 people. (less nodes on your social graph).  With that in mind, we can imagine a game where the bubbles of paired folks are allowed to overlap, whilst maintaining distance from everyone else's bubble...

  • Pair people at the start of the session. That person is the only person you're allowed to guard all session.
    • If you have drills where 2 people throw, keep the same pair together.
    • If you want folks working through 4 drills, have them work through the drills as that same pair.

  • No Zones, no Switches, no Poaches.  It's person-to-person, you and your pair, all session.

  • Offensive players stay >5m apart.
    • anytime O infringe, call a 'Pandemic-Pick!
    • (this will be a real challenge for some!)
    • Horizontal stack is going to work fine.
    • Vertical stack with 5m spacing would be a very deep stack, but because we aren't allowing switching or poaching can still work

  • Is the above too hard for offence?  Extend the stall count to allow for more time for players to sort out their cuts.  (This should reduce pressure to crowd and make too many cuts close together)

What other ideas do you have? Post them in the comments!

Off the Field

Think about what players are likely to do between points or when they are not playing. How can we help them keep more space between themselves?

A few ideas:

  • When players arrive, have them choose a place 3 meters away from everyone else for their stuff and their water.
  • Think about spreading out more in the warm-ups. I like to have folks extend their arms away from their sides. They should not be able to touch the person next to them.
  • Spirit circles become a huge circle. Same as in the warm-ups - spread your arms and hands should not be touching.
  • Putting your speaker upwind can help make sure everyone can hear.
  • If you are comfortable with closer proximity, use foot shakes instead of handshakes and high fives for post-game congratulations.


As leaders, we set the tone for what our ultimate players can expect when they come to play at an event that we’re in charge of.  And for what we expect from them.  Even if you just bring cones to pick up, you have some authority - and responsibility - and you can expect that people will look to you for some guidance.

Here are a few things you’ll want to communicate

  1. Make it clear that you cannot reduce the risk of catching the novel coronavirus to zero. Therefore individuals do need to take some responsibility for the increased risk of coming to a playing event.

  2. Communicate what rules (if any) you are deciding to alter to further reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

  3. What do you expect from the players coming to the event?
    1. Do they need their own mask? 
    2. Should they provide their own sanitizer or will there be a large bottle there?
    3. Are they expected to alter any behavior like washing a disc at certain intervals?

You may change your ultimate frisbee policies depending on local conditions. It’s better to over-communicate about your policies, whatever they are. Otherwise, the human tendency will be to gradually become less vigilant and compliant. 

Remember, we are not aiming to scare folks off by talking about this risk; rather we are bringing the risk to the surface since the virus itself cannot be seen. By communicating clearly we are enabling participants to make decisions based on:

  1. Their own comfort with risk given the precaution levels you are taking

  2. Their comfort and willingness to comply with extra rules and expectations if there are any.

We wish you and your friends good health and a good time this summer and fall.

For more tips on training and improving your ultimate frisbee game while social distance measures are in place, visit us at Social Distance Training Tips!