Training in the Virtues – All of Them – With a Frisbee

As being perhaps the most practical, humble, and yet far reaching in its potential consequences, this may be the most important post I have written.

It is about a Frisbee game I played with a good friend and neighbour when we were young. I read of it in the old Whole Earth Catalog – an important early influence upon me. It is worth passing along. The rules are simple:

  1. The thrower throws in such a way as to make the catch thereof extremely difficult for his adversary, but not impossible. The idea is to force the adversary to run his fastest, and judge his course as intelligently as possible. This tests and trains the skill of the thrower, and also his charity to and judgement of his adversary.
  2. The catcher does his utmost to catch each throw. If he succeeds, no points are awarded to either player. So, points are awarded only if the throw is not caught. They are awarded by the catcher, without possibility of appeal. If in his sole judgement the catcher could not possibly have caught the throw, no matter how hard he tried, how fast he ran, or how ably he predicted the eventual fall of the Frisbee, he awards himself a point. If he thinks he might possibly have caught the throw – by running faster, or thinking better – he awards a point to the thrower.

That’s it. Very simple. Many can play, so long as the thrower identifies his intended catcher beforehand. Play to some arbitrary limit of points, or just play. As play goes on, the latter seems more and more the right choice, because if the game is properly played, there are no losers. At bottom, each player is contending only with his own limits: moral, athletic, intellectual. The input of his adversary is just a means of so doing.

The game is a concrete exercise of the muscle of moral virtue; and, so, of all the other virtues.

I only ever played with my friend and neighbour Kevin. We were both pretty gifted natural athletes. We’d walk up a few blocks to the enormous grassy fields of Butler University in Indianapolis and play for hours. We played every few days this way, for several years; until I went away to college, and to the River.

Herewith, some observations on that experience.

  1. We both got massively fit. Especially for fast young men, each throw can call for a sprint of 100 yards or more. Such sprints come one after another, without let up, for hours. The only respite happens when both players collapse for a while and wait for the nausea to subside.
  2. No special equipment is needed, other than the Frisbee itself. Get a good one. Apart from that, if the lawn is good, or the beach, you can play barefoot. The bigger the playing field, the better.
  3. Anyone, of any level of fitness, can play. The thrower must evaluate the corporeal limits of his catcher, and aim his throw at those limits. This tests and refines the charity and intelligence of the thrower – and his skill.
  4. When we played, we would begin by standing only 20 feet apart, and throwing right to each other. Then, we’d work our way outward, gradually, until each of us was running as hard as we possibly could to catch each throw.
  5. Hundreds of times – thousands of times – I would fail to catch the throw. Then, I would face a decision. Could I possibly have caught it? Could I have given more, or judged the flight of the Frisbee better? If the answer was yes, I would give the point to Kevin. If not, then to myself. Almost always, I knew that I might possibly have caught the throw. Kevin reported the same experience. We were both pretty good at getting the Frisbee to go where we wanted it. So, a missed throw almost always meant a point for the thrower. When it was really impossible to catch a throw, the impossibility was obvious, and inarguable.
  6. We each judged ourselves. We were each our own referee. No one else stood in for us, in that office. There was no one else, with whom we might argue over this or that call. So, it was a lot like life, when it is boiled down to its essence.
  7. This is where it gets paradoxical, and gorgeous. Success for both players consisted not in racking up points, but in good catches; i.e., in no points, to either party. We were happiest in those long stretches when we were working as hard as we knew how, but nothing was happening to the score. Think of how fun it is, in ping pong or tennis, for a volley to go on and on without a winner. It was like that. We’d complete a toss, and both howl with joy at the glory of it. Success was achieved when we both won: the thrower judged the catcher’s limits rightly, and threw to them skillfully; and the catcher rose to meet or even exceed his previous limits.
  8. There is perhaps nothing more beautiful under the orbit of the moon than the sight of a man running gracefully, as hard and as intelligently as he can, to do a difficult thing – and then succeeding, against all odds. In that sight is the romance and glory of all ball sports. When we threw well and hard and accurately at or just beyond the limit of what we thought our catcher could achieve, and then he passed that limit, we’d both fall on the ground laughing and rejoicing – even when he failed. It was so much fun, to help our adversary push himself to ever greater degrees of excellence. Never have I had so much fun at sport. Apart from my encounters with big whitewater, that is.
  9. This game is lots of exercise for the body, sure. For the will, too. But the muscle it works most of all is the muscle of the conscience. Could I have done better? The answer was almost always yes. That admission was painful, but to lie about it would have been intolerable agony. And anyway, who cares? In a game like this, there is no penalty to admitting that you could have done better, because your adversary is engaged in the same contest with himself as you are with yourself.
  10. There is nothing sweeter in worldly life than giving a worthy project everything you’ve got, and then finding that you have even more to give than you had thought. This game teaches that lesson with every throw.
  11. As each session went on, we both discovered new and unsuspected capacities in ourselves: of legs, mind, lungs, heart, will. After an hour, we might be running faster than we ever had before.
  12. Not least: the girls of Butler University sometimes found reason to watch us. Almost always, we played alone, for and with each other, and for the joy of the game. But sometimes a gaggle of coeds would gather on an adjacent hillock to “study.” For some reason, that prompted us to run even faster.

I can think of no exercise for young men that might more effectually train them for success in life, along all dimension of success – of rectitude, propriety, honesty, virtue. Particularly, the virtue of legs.

And here’s the thing about this game, at last. Most training in moral excellence is hard, and not at first particularly rewarding. This game is ridiculously hard, for sure – as hard as you want to make it (and you will want to make it hard); but what is more, and right away, the instant you begin to play: it is incredibly fun.

Think of it this way. Say you signed up for some sort of boot camp that would make you a better, more disciplined person, and then every day found that you were required to run as hard as you could for four hours. Would you enjoy it? No. You would not. You might do the running, but you’d be suffering.

Kevin and I worked out that way several times a week for years, *because it was so fun.*

I recommend this game. Not sure what it is called, or if it even has a name. Honor Frisbee?

11 thoughts on “Training in the Virtues – All of Them – With a Frisbee

    • Probably better for the Greeks if they had allowed women into the gymnasia. That might have forestalled all sorts of unsavory stuff.

      The lesser are always seeking and admiring the greater, and wanting to follow and serve him. Better for everyone if such desires are aligned with the logic of reproductive success. That might have saved the Greeks.

      Kevin and I didn’t know how to respond to those girls when they showed up, or even if we should. So, we didn’t. Too shy; too young and confused. After all, we were high school boys, whereas they were fully fledged college women, ascendant to a foreign and higher realm of being. How do you bridge that sort of gap from below?

  1. Back in the day, I belonged to a sort of support group for environmentalists and this sounds like the frisbee game the men there used to play while we women tended campfires and hunted wild plants. Very odd and also very sweet to see it described in a place and time so different from that one — that group, for example, went on to split off into the beginnings of this state’s Green Party. In those days, the left was so much more physically fit!

  2. Sounds like airsoft. Airsoft was invented by the Japanese who thought there is no need for that messy business with paintballs, they are honest enough to quit the game when they notice they were shot and can trust in each others honor.

    • The game as formally ruled is indeed implicit in the basic structure of the game of catch. It’s just catch with points awarded by the catcher. The whole point of the game of catch, after all, is the successful catch.

      My father taught me to throw a Frisbee using slightly different rules, adapted for the constrained playing field of the campgrounds where we usually stayed on vacation (where you didn’t want the Frisbee to plow across a nearby picnic table laden with good stuff for dinner). The only rule was that the catcher had to be able to catch the throw by moving only one of his feet. If there was no way he could have caught it that way, he awarded the point to himself; if he could have, but erred, then to the thrower. Throws therefore were extremely careful. Successful catches generated no points, but lots of fun.

  3. Whether it was frisbee, tennis, ping pong, hacky sack, or soccer ball juggling with friends, we were rarely practiced enough to intentionally push our partner/team to the limit, but the effect was largely the same. The idea of keeping the volley going was always a fun, joint/team effort. Do all you can to set your partner/team up for success and do all you can to make up for accidents/mistakes your partner/team makes. Good lessons as well. And the accidents/mistakes were frequent enough that there were no shortage of opportunities to push yourself to keep the game going.

    • This is how teams are made. The players watch out for each other, under the terms of their common objective. The game of catch is training for the glorious pass in football or soccer.

      It works in the field, too. One of my boatman friends loves to tell the story of a hike along a shoulder of slickrock. The slope of the rock was about 45 degrees; the exposure was to a fall of about 75 feet, onto rocks – probably fatal. The passenger walking ahead of him started to slip and fall. He leapt ahead to catch her uphill hand. Her momentum began to carry him along with her. The boatman just behind him leapt forward to catch his uphill hand. He, too, then began to slip down the slickrock. I leapt forward to catch his hand, and that was at last enough to stop the slide. It all happened in less than a second.

      That degree of instant coordination is not possible if the team has not been properly formed.

      The apotheosis of this procedure is realized in the phalanx, and so in the polis it defends.

  4. One of the great things about Frisbee games is that dogs can play them. Actually, dogs love to play Frisbee. It’s almost as though Frisbee was invented with dogs in mind.

    • If a dog likes it, it can’t be all bad.

      And, watching dogs play Frisbee is as beautiful as sunsets.

      In terms of cost/benefit, the Frisbee may be the most valuable invention of the 20th century.

      That even dogs love Frisbee indicates how deep the game goes; 50,000 years deep. As deep as sticks.

      As for the eternal source of its appeal, there is something spookily wonderfully splendid about the mere flight of a Frisbee. It can be an occasion of joy that verges upon the sublime. In that it is like the flight of an arrow, or a fly ball, or any long catenary curve described by an object. Confer, the rainbow.

      These are all instances of the eternal truths of maths made quite concretely manifest to us.


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