What are the official rules for playing Ultimate?

By: Echo Surina

Ultimate is one of the fastest growing sports in America.
Ultimate is one of the fastest growing sports in America.

People all over the world compete in a game called Ultimate, a non-contact team sport that's played with a Frisbee like disc. Two teams of seven play on a grassy field measuring approximately 110 yards (100 meters) by 40 yards (37 meters) with marked end zones. About 100,000 people -- both professional and casual players representing more than 50 countries -- play the sport. In America alone, there are more than 31,000 members of USA Ultimate (the sport's national governing body).

Participants are drawn to Ultimate for the intense cardiovascular workout it promises, as well as its friendly, inclusive culture. Although it can be fiercely competitive, Ultimate is civil and collegial.


Ultimate's rules are enforced by an honor code, and the sport is completely self-refereed. Even at the World Championship, Ultimate's premier competition, there are no referees, and the players themselves are responsible for making their own calls.

Read the next page to find out how to start a game of Ultimate.


How to Start a Game of Ultimate

Parks, empty parking lots and spacious backyards are great places to hold impromptu games of Ultimate.
Parks, empty parking lots and spacious backyards are great places to hold impromptu games of Ultimate.

At the start of every Ultimate game, teams line up along opposite end zones. The game begins with a coin or disc toss to determine the teams' initial offensive and defensive roles.

A defensive player throws the disc as far as possible toward the other team in a kickoff like move called a pull. Then, defensive players run down field toward their opponents to stop them from moving the disc forward and scoring. Although there are a number of differences, Ultimate has been referred to as "touch football with a disc."


Although it has similarities to many other sports, including football and soccer, Ultimate's rules are entirely unique. The game doesn't even have a set time limit. It typically lasts until one team either scores 15 goals with a lead of at least two points or scores 17 total points. Each goal is worth one point. When teams tie at one point less than what the game was scheduled for (usually 14-14), they go into overtime.

An offensive player must catch a pass in her opponent's end zone to earn one point. Play stops whenever a point is scored. The teams then line up at opposite end zones for another pull, so the team that was playing offense switches to play defense and attempts to defend the end zone where they just scored.

Once the disc is in play, team members spread out to cover the field. Players assume different formations, but there are no hard and fast positions. Unlike many sports, in Ultimate, every player is allowed to occupy any position or area on the field that's not already occupied by another player as long as no physical contact is made.


How to Play the Game of Ultimate

The flow of the game is simple. Offensive team members move the disc closer to their opponents' end zone by passing it from one player to another.

The disc can be thrown in any direction, but once a player catches it, she must come to a stop as quickly as possible and only move her pivot foot until she throws the disc. However, she may throw the disc in the few steps it takes her to come to a complete stop.


Players have to pass the disc to a teammate quickly. Once a player catches the disc, she must pass it within a 10-second window called a stall. A defender called a marker must stand within three meters of the thrower and count off each second, conducting a stall count. If no marker can get into this position (or if she forgets to count the stall), the player with the disc is allowed to hold it longer than 10 seconds, until a proper stall is counted.

Of course, every sport has a few rare, exceptional, crowd-pleasing plays, and Ultimate is no different. Like baseball's grand slam and golf's hole-in-one, Ultimate has a play called "the world's greatest," or "the greatest" for short. The greatest occurs when a player jumps from in bounds to catch a disc that is flying out of bounds and throws it back to a teammate before any part of her body or the disc itself touches the ground. It's as exciting as it sounds and is one more reason Ultimate has become so popular and continues to attract new fans and players.


Ultimate Rules

Ultimate is played by men and women, children and adults all over the world.
Ultimate is played by men and women, children and adults all over the world.

You can't play any sport without specific rules, and regardless if you want to gather some friends for an impromptu round of Ultimate or are planning on attending a professional game, it's imperative to know how it's played.

One of the most important rules in Ultimate involves passing. A pass that doesn't reach the intended party is considered incomplete. An incomplete pass results in a change of possession, which means the team playing defense immediately switches to play offense and assumes possession of the disc wherever it came to a stop on the field.


Play does not stop for turnovers, which may be any of the following:

  • Stall: Player fails to throw the disc before the end of the stall count
  • Throwaway: Disc doesn't reach its target and falls to the ground
  • Drop: Receiver fails to catch the disc
  • Block: Disc in mid-flight is deflected and falls to the ground
  • Interception: Offense throws the disc but it's caught by defense
  • Out of bounds: Disc lands out of bounds or hits something out of bounds

Play only stops for the following:

  • Fouls: Players come into physical contact with each other
  • Violations: Player violates any rules of the game
  • Non-injury time outs: Team calls for a timed break
  • Halftime: 10-minute break in the middle of the game
  • Injuries: Hurt player is replaced on the field
  • Weather: Weather conditions prohibit play
  • Substitutions: Teams substitute players after a goal is scored
  • Refereeing: Player calls out a perceived violation or foul
  • Observers: Call is made by non-players who have the power to resolve disputes

Once you know the rules, Ultimate is easy to play and engaging to watch. If you're at all curious about the sport, we advise that you seek out a local team and catch a game or buy a disc and start playing yourself. We guarantee you'll have a good time!


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More Great Links

  • Disc Ace. "Ultimate Frisbee Rules." 2011. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://discace.com/ultimate_frisbee_rules/ultimate_frisbee_rules/index.html
  • Norman, Andy, Chris O'Lare, Ben Banyas and Erin Steven. "The Next Page: Ultimate: The Booming Sport You Might Not Know About." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 19, 2011. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11170/1154525-109-0.stm
  • USA Ultimate. "The 'Founders.'" 2010. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://www.usaultimate.org/about/history/hall_of_fame/founders_class_of_2005.aspx
  • World Flying Disc Federation. "WFDF Rules." 2011. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://www.wfdf.org/index.php?page=rules/index.htm