“I never played a sport in my life until high school, which was ultimate… [Now] ultimate is a part of me. I use it as a getaway. I love ultimate; I can’t imagine myself not playing anymore.”
“[Ultimate] is something that I’ve just been wholeheartedly interested in, from a strategic standpoint to a playing standpoint to how it changes people’s lives.”
Testimonials like these from ultimate players reveal just how much the sport means to them and how impactful it is on youth development. Tough as a muddy field yet graceful as a disc in flight, ultimate offers the complete package for youth players on and off the field.
“The notion that the very first thing we talk about with ultimate after, ‘Throw it to your teammate in the end zone,’ is the notion of fair play – as manifested by Spirit of the Game – is powerful,” commented Chris Lehmann, the founding principal and boys’ ultimate head coach at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia.
Youth members are USA Ultimate’s second-largest membership group, proving that ultimate is a popular and viable sport for youth athletes. As Chris describes, the beauty of the sport is its ease of access as well as its ability to be learned quickly and leave a lasting impact on the participant.
“[Ultimate] is a very easy sport to learn how to play at the most basic level,” explained Chris. “Unlike some other sports, one player cannot dominate a game; it requires a team effort.”
He added, “The other thing that’s awesome about it is that different body types play ultimate well. You can be that little, quick handler; you can be that 6’6” deep. Teams can find spaces for both those players. It’s a great sport to open [all] kids up to.”
With these characteristics, ultimate was the perfect opportunity for J’Lynn, a former member of the girls’ ultimate team at SLA, to step into the world of sports for the very first time.
“The first game of the tournament, my coach threw me in,” recalled J’Lynn. “She said, ‘Guard that girl right there and do not let her get the disc,’ and that’s exactly what I did. After that, she literally put me in almost every point for the rest of that tournament. I was like, ‘Am I good at this? I’ve never played a sport before.’ It turns out I was. I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing good,’ so that was really memorable to me.”
Even with the excitement of the sport continuing to grow, as with other youth sports, ultimate has become susceptible to the barriers of entry that elite competition create.
“There’s a challenge in youth sports in general right now, like the pay-to-play model that we see a lot in club sports,” described Chris.
Like we’ve seen with other youth sports – for example, in the growth of AAU basketball and travel baseball – ultimate has evolved to a point where elite competition and success are no longer primarily focused in local, school-based teams and leagues, but rather in a handful of elite, travel club teams competing in national tournaments.
“There’s nothing inherent about the sport that should make it inaccessible to anybody — all you need is a field and a disc and some cones, and you can play,” stated Chris. “But the apparatus of ultimate – the finances, the tournament structure, etc. – has created some barriers.”
This evolution has resulted in financial barriers related to accessing elite competition opportunities. Some of the barriers include team and tournament fees, high-quality uniforms, coach/trainer fees and, most notorious, travel expenses. All of these expenses can add up and have a significant impact on not only a child’s experience in ultimate, but also the demographic of children that are afforded an opportunity to experience this sport at a high level.
“It’s hard for a low-income child to get into the sport,” commented Saamir, a former member of Chris’s SLA boys’ ultimate team. “People say you only need a disc and cleats and cones, but it goes beyond that because you have to participate in tournaments in order to be able to do anything.”
The pay-to-play model is a constant topic of debate across sports organizations and whether it is the best method to develop youth athletes, but USA Ultimate has already taken steps to remove some potential financial barriers for low-income youth through its Play It Forward program. The Play It Forward program subsidizes the full cost of a youth membership, helping to provide access for youth from underserved populations to learn about and play ultimate.
“The notion that USA Ultimate is recognizing that there are some barriers and is working to eliminate them through the Play It Forward program just makes ultimate that much more accessible, which is really huge,” said Chris.
Each year at SLA, Chris takes the initiative to make sure all of the ultimate players on every team is aware of the Play It Forward program and even mandates that those who are eligible submit an application.
“My principal was calling students to the office saying, ‘Hey we need your memberships, and if you aren’t able to, there’s this program called Play It Forward,’ which a lot of us ended up using which was awesome,” described J’Lynn. “I was so appreciative of it. I didn’t even know it existed until he pointed it out, and I was like, ‘Thank you! Thank God!’”
USA Ultimate supported over 200 youth athletes in 2019 with free youth memberships through the Play It Forward program and is looking to support even more in 2020 and beyond. Applications are reviewed and accepted on a rolling basis, so it is never too late to apply. If you are a coach of a local team or part of an ultimate youth-serving organization, let your youth participants know that Play It Forward exists and is here to support them in having access to this amazing sport.
“Play It Forward changes the game,” stated Chris. “Play It Forward allows kids who otherwise would not have access to ultimate to have access to ultimate.”
“You guys have changed my life for the betterment of myself,” praised Saamir. “I don’t know where I would be without ultimate, and as an extension, I don’t know where I would be without you guys. So I appreciate it so much, and thank you for giving me access to play this amazing sport.”