Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Global Ultimate Growth - Ultimate in India - Part I

One of the benefits of writing a blog is you get to meet Ultimate people with an instant rapport allowing for good conversations. I get the occasional "are you that guy" on the fields, and I get emails from people for all sorts of Ultimate activities. One of the most recent encounters was with Jordan Bower. I, actually, knew Jordan from Toronto on a few meetings, but he's been up to some new Ultimate activities, and I thought I'd interview him to see what he's up to. Here's part I of the interview, and here is a website if you want more info.

0. Where did your Ultimate career take you before ending up in India?

I started playing in intramurals at university, kept at it for a couple years, and worked my way from the bottom of the Toronto system: from rec leagues to competitive and then on to touring. Last season I played my first tournament outside of Toronto - Gender Blender; I was immediately hooked. I played with Toronto-touring team Too Bad last summer and with Grand Trunk for UPA fall series.

Pictured Above: Ahmedabad vs Punjab at the Indian Nationals (picture for Jordan's Blog).

1. How and why did you get involved in Ultimate in India?

I visited India for the first time in early 2007 and fell in love. It was unlike any place I had ever been. I spent six months backpacking around the country and was really taken by the incredibly hospitable people I met. There is an expression in India that goes "guest is god", and the hospitality that I received made every experience fun and different.

I came back to Canada for a couple months but felt the draw back to India. In deciding to return, I wanted to make service work a component of my trip as a way of returning what I had been given. While in Canada, I played a lot of Ultimate and became hooked, so when, in the late fall, my brother found a link to an organization that was integrating Ultimate with development work in India, it seemed serendipitous.

Indicorps is a unique development organization in that its focus is inspiring leadership and self-confidence through service work. The organization has seen great results with its Ultimate program, which it has been running for 4 years. The program has historically focused on introducing the game to children living in slums as a way of promoting personal empowerment, fitness, leadership and teamwork. After seeing profound change in the kids they’ve worked with, Indicorps is now looking to scale their effect through corresponding growth in Ultimate.

2. Why push for a sport like Ultimate versus more traditional sports like Cricket?

Cricket is religion in India. Kids play cricket in every open space and watch televised cricket every night. It’s got a near-monopoly over sport in India, and very, very few kids play any other sport in an organized way.

Cricket misses out on a few important qualities: it's not very fitness oriented; it's more about the individual than the team; and it's not very inclusive - all players are boys, and ‘street cricket’ is generally played by boys of similar socioeconomic status. Ultimate is an effective replacement because it’s co-ed, it instills body awareness through fitness, it’s relies heavily on teamwork, and it encourages maturity through issue resolution.

Most effective in a development context is the concept of Spirit of the Game. Even a ‘gentleman-ly’ sport like Cricket can set a bad example (see this link - – about a recent suspension to a Cricket player who ‘slapped’ an opponent). SOTG is a great way of communicating life lessons through sport, providing an effective counterbalance to incidents like this. Most kids play sport to win or to be the best; being the best is a concept that is reinforced through public education, universities, and even the workforce. In most cases, being the best is really narrowly defined, which means that most kids who aren’t the best become marginalized. Our biggest challenge is redefining best by teaching that sport can be about fun, forcing us to reconsider the way we approach coaching and the way that we think about Ultimate.

I think there’s also a need to come in with something new. You’re not remarkable if you’re trying to teach cricket. With Ultimate, it’s worth talking about. When I walk down the street, the poor kids who sell small bags of mineral water to passing buses always wave and yell ‘disc, disc’. I’m that guy, which, for once, is awesome.

3. What type of response have you seen from the new players? We’ve been able to pique interest because it’s something that few people have seen played in any organized way. Part of our recruitment strategy has literally been standing on the street and throwing until people start to come by to watch, which invariably means being surrounded by two dozen people after about 5 minutes of throwing. The challenge is taking that superficial, momentary interest and helping them translate it into love for the game. Once we get them hooked, these players will become advocates for our cause. We’re like Ultimate drug dealers, doing this for the kid who loves Ultimate but just doesn’t know it yet. For example, we started playing on the sandy banks of the river near to our office. We showed up there one day with a bunch of young kids and met a 19 year old university student named Mitthali, who is a squatter on public land nearby. Mitthali took to the game so quickly. She is an awesome cutter, learned to throw in two days, and has shown up to 3 practices each week. At night, she throws with her sister under streetlamps. Once she started coming, she brought two brothers, her sister, and four cousins to play with us. She’s a future captain of a girls’ team in India. We totally got her hooked. In addition, we have been working with somewhere between 50-75 kids in a variety of different settings. Kids seem to take up basic skills pretty easily, although strategy is more difficult to communicate. They love to run, so most of our drills for newbies are around cutting and catching. Organizing games is a bit more difficult because no one has even the slightest clue what they should be emulating. One of the tools we’re looking for are very basic, visual resources that can explain the game really simply. I’ve only been here for a few weeks and I’ve actually seen some pretty cool impact. There is so much we took for granted: like when you ask kids to form two lines, they automatically arrange themselves so boys are in one and girls are in the other. Giving kids a new experience, integrating them to play together with kids from various classes and other genders, teaching them to learn a new skill: these are profound changes that are really easy to overlook, given the Western experience of participating in sport from youth. Just exposing someone to something new gives them a platform to go beyond their own expectations, and that’s a pretty powerful experience to be a part of. The response from parents, teachers, and other members of the community has also been universally supportive.

That's part I. Part II next week.



Liquid Captains said...

Great post! It's really interesting to hear about Ultimate in other cultures.

jsa said...

This is AWESOME. As an ultimate player of Indian descent, this story makes me very, very happy on many levels.


Aaron said...

Adding to Ultimate in the international scene. Beijing is hosting (i believe it is the first) China Nationals. Although there had been many tournaments in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Philippines.

jaleel said...

Gotta give props to Jordan.
He's one of the most friendly and spirited guys on the field (even in a competitive game).. the perfect ambassador for this kind of work.

Max said...

Great post, it's always interesting to hear how ultimate is developing across the world. I hope this post will bring attention to this awesome organization.


goomen said...

I was wondering what the Bower had got himself up to. This is a fantastic post. Thanks PJ for hooking up this li'l interview. I'm looking forward to reading the rest.