Playing Club Sports in College: an Experience with Ultimate Frisbee

Note from Katie: I'm particularly excited about this guest post from Miles Raymer because he is able to offer a thoughtful perspective on something I know absolutely nothing about: playing team sports at college. His insights on the community and self-discovery he experienced while playing club sports is a great place to start for all those inclined toward athletics, or those nervous about finding a group of friends in college. Miles has previously contributed posts "On Choosing a Useless Major," "Peer Editing Advice," and "The 5 Books to Read Before College."

Playing Club Sports in College

Even in our current era, with college being touted primarily as a means to ensure future gainful employment, most college freshmen head off to college also hoping to find something more: their passion.  One of the most exciting prospects during this time is that your passion might end up being something completely different than you've imagined.  This is what happened to me.  I discovered a new passion for community and teamwork in a place I didn't expect: club sports.  Playing a club sport didn't just give me something to do with my free time––it made me feel like there was a special place for me within the vast body of a large public university.    

The Oregon Ultimate team

No matter how confident or timid, every college freshman has anxieties about making friends and finding peers with similar interests.  For some students, these worries are assuaged quickly as they learn that campus is teeming with like-minded individuals eager to mingle.  For others, the trouble of finding a proper niche becomes an ongoing challenge, perhaps one never fully overcome.  My personal experience was something in between.  I spent much of my freshman year struggling to connect with peers in my dorm and classes, most of whom formed tight-knit groups with an alacrity I found impressive but did not myself possess.  Yet by year's end, I discovered that I had somehow accrued a modest group of fun, intelligent, and (unbeknownst to me at the time) lasting friends.  I can scarcely take credit for my good fortune, given that it was almost entirely the product of my participation in a somewhat obscure club sport: ultimate frisbee.  Ultimate, often confused with disc golf, is a team sport similar to football and soccer, where players score points by throwing the disc down the field and catching it in an end-zone.   

On Playing Ultimate in Oregon

This article will focus on the critical role ultimate frisbee played in my college experience, but I hope it will also serve as an explanation for why any college student (current or prospective) should consider club sports participation not only as an avenue for positive social connection, but as an activity that can make an enduring, positive contribution to one's character.

Playing a club sport definitely wasn't one of my major goals when I left Northern California to attend the University of Oregon.  But just a week or two into fall quarter, I noticed a few guys throwing a frisbee on the turf outside my dorm building.  I'd thrown a disc and played pickup a few times in high school, so I decided to go out and join them.  As soon as I got downstairs, I realized these guys really knew what they were doing––they could make plastic fly in ways I'd never seen before, and throw farther than I'd thought possible.  It was with increasing trepidation that I approached them and asked to join in, but their big, welcoming smiles stanched my worries almost immediately.  Seemingly without thought, they reorganized into a new shape that allowed me to throw with them, like a compassionate square that, upon spotting a lonely vertex, decides to morph into a pentagon.

Logo for Ego, the men's ultimate frisbee team at the University of Oregon

I've never made friends quickly, so this kind of acceptance hooked me right away.  I learned that these guys played for Ego, the UO men's club ultimate team––one of the best in the country.  They were athletic and confident, and their jerseys had a great logo.  That was all pretty cool.  But when I began attending fall practices, I witnessed what was truly great about them: the way they loved.  Ego's love was fast and big, deep and wide.  They ran each other into the ground and then hauled each other out of the mud, improving as individuals while ultimately striving to lay their personal ambitions down for the good of the team.  The players formed close social bonds, hanging out on the weekends and sometimes going on trips together.  This surrogate family wasn't always perfect, but the fact that it was the team's explicit goal to create a home away from home for its players was inspiring and deeply attractive.     

It wasn't long before I decided to work as hard as I could to be good enough to play for Ego.  I didn't make it my first year, but the captains encouraged me to play for the B team and keep improving.  B teams are one of the great features of ultimate culture, serving not only as proving grounds for players eager to make the A team, but also as embodiments of the community's mantra that ultimate is for anyone who wants to play.  A year of hard work and experience in low-level tournaments made me good enough to make Ego my second year, where I played until I graduated in 2010.    

During my four years in Oregon Ultimate, I learned many useful lessons.  And though I no longer play competitive ultimate, all of these lessons are as relevant to my life now as they were then.  The first and most important of these was the great amount of energy and commitment it takes to sublimate personal desires into a shared community goal.  Like every athlete, I wanted to gain the admiration of my teammates and strike fear into the hearts of our opponents.  I wanted to be the best.  But instead of learning that I could achieve this if I just worked hard enough, I learned my limitations.  I was fast but not quick.  I could usually beat my man in a flat out sprint but lost steam quickly during long points.  I could throw well enough but was better off letting others make tough plays.  And hardest of all to admit, I couldn't live up to that old saying made famous by Gene Hackman in The Replacements:  "Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line."  When things got close, my hands and nerves failed me more often than not.  And while I always tried to improve in all these areas, I simply never gained the level of confidence and expertise so gracefully exuded by truly great players.    

Learning these things about myself wasn't always easy, but it became easier the more I realized how lucky I was.  I was on a team of remarkable players, many of whom possessed the physical, technical, and dispositional qualities I lacked.  I was never going to be a star, but I could take the field in moments when stars weren't required––I could let them rest.  This might not sound very glamorous, but even after playing multiple seasons for Ego, my eagerness to represent my school and team never wore off.  And I got to run with some of the best players in the game––not always effectively––but always with a grateful sense of awe.

In many ways, this process parallels what I've come to think of as a successful education.  There is a flow from untrained admiration to competent practice, which culminates in the carving out of one's place in a given system––a harmony between personal ability and community goals.   

If that was my philosophical takeaway from playing a club sport, there were certainly many more concrete gains: using physical activity to relax the mind and gather energy for academic work, the basics of personal injury management, learning how to win and lose with dignity, and travel.  For national tournaments, I went to cities like Austin, TX and Madison, WI that I probably wouldn't have visited otherwise.  In 2013, I was welcomed into a teammate's childhood home outside Tokyo; two days later, we climbed Mt. Fuji and watched the sunrise from its summit.       

Miles and Aki on the summit of Mount Fuji

Though I played sports all through high school, it wasn't until I got to college that I learned what it was like to take the field with a group of people who weren't just teammates, but loved ones––brothers.  What I didn't quite realize at the time was that we weren't just playing ultimate together, but becoming men together.  The people who know me best are the ones who were there when I was learning fast, reaching out, whether for that next intellectual milestone or a spinning disc.  To say that ultimate frisbee shaped my undergraduate years would be an understatement; my ultimate team was the lifeblood of that period, the energy source from which all my other passions flowed.  Dissolving my personal ego into the collective Ego was one of the greatest adventures of my life, and one that lives on in the friendships I made during that time and still maintain years later.  It was every bit as important as anything I learned in class, and in some ways more important.  This truth announced itself in odd moments, like when I found myself sweating through my Ego jersey during my senior thesis defense––it had felt wrong not to put it on before donning my dress shirt and tie.       

Looking back to that first day on the turf, I can't be happier that I decided to take a chance and go down there.  I had no idea my life was about to take an unexpected turn, starting with a simple moment when a group of strangers decided I belonged just because I showed an interest.  And I don't think my experience is unique.  Students participate in club sports all over the country; it's a pursuit that changes lives for the better.  So if you're eager to make the most of your college years, club sports might be a good place to start.    

Please share any comments, questions, experiences, or stories about club sports in college--or ultimate frisbee--in the comments section below. You can also check out Miles' personal blog at Words&