I embarked on my first Ultimate Peace experience last weekend. This has been an organization with which I’ve been infatuated with since I heard about its launch in 2009. Middle Eastern conflict resolution was a smattering of oversimplified, idealistic theories I’d studied from a safe and privileged seat in an American classroom; and I’d heard that UP’s founders were some of the greatest athletes that the sport has known. So I would scroll through their website and talk about their work in the same star-struck way that a kid might keep baseball cards on his dresser, thumbing through them on occasion before tottering off to little league. Five years down the road, I find myself elbow deep in the political knots and cultural complexities of Israel. I’m sitting alongside the heroes themselves who are welcoming their new family members and toasting to a successful first hat tournament of 2014.
Last Saturday’s tournament drew in over one hundred and seventy Jewish and Arab Israeli kids from cities and inland villages along the Mediterranean. In addition to my own first, the tournament was a myriad of firsts for the organization: the first tournament run by the CITs (Coaches in Training); the first co-ed tournament; and the first tournament broken into different skill levels. And while the registration was a good natured trickle-down of cats herding cats herding cats, the rest of the tournament unfolded into an impressively well-run event. The experienced bracket provided a higher level of play with targeted guidance from the mentor coaches, and the less-experienced bracket gave more disc touches to the younger kids. CITs were handed new responsibilities in coaching the younger teams and helping with logistics and translation across three different languages. My team spent arguably more time playing Wa (no translation necessary) and strategizing between points than they did playing ultimate, but it seemed that this was how they wanted the day to flow. The tournament was capped by an awards ceremony for bracket winners and, of course, spirit.
The coaches all gathered at a beach side restaurant afterwards, watching the remnants of the sun set over the sea and reflecting on the day’s successes and points for improvement. One interesting thing we noticed was the handful of kids who didn’t seem all that interested in playing, but weren’t moping around the bleachers, either. What were they doing here if they didn’t care about ultimate? David Barkan, the founder of Ultimate Peace, happened to be in town for the tournament while hunting for this year’s summer camp site. He provided his perspective wrapped in the offensive strategy from his team, Double Happiness. They often used a junk offense approach in which there were no defined roles – no handlers, no cutters, and no structured formation. The idea was to find a space and to fill it, which confused the heck out of the defense and redefined the idea of play. Rather than going to work – an expression we often used at club practices back in the States – this this strategy emphasized the play by eliminating labels and rigidity and encouraging players’ individual strengths to contribute to the greater use of space.
Ultimate Peace is basically using this field strategy in a social application. Some of the kids may want to utilize the space for nothing more than hanging out with friends; others might come away with a new friend, their first conversation with someone from a different cultural background; or a better flick (forehand throw). The values of the game are universal, but the outcomes are malleable to each participant. In essence, we are trying to redefine how we play the game, and how we see one another, by how we create and hold space. As a part of Ultimate Peace, we get to help create and hold that space for a patient, peaceful revolution. It is not one that will come through diplomacy or emotionally charged land disputes, but through the universal language of a spirited sport, through the sweat and laughter of hundreds of joyful kids who are choosing to turn a blind eye to their racial differences in favor of seeing the space and venturing for a deep shot.