Sport Rulebook

Mastering Ultimate Frisbee Hand Signals: A Guide for Players and Officials

Ultimate frisbee is a sport that has gained immense popularity over the years. It is a fast-paced game that requires exceptional athleticism, precision, and quick decision-making.

However, what sets ultimate frisbee apart from other sports is its self-officiating culture. Unlike most sports, ultimate frisbee does not rely on referees to enforce the rules.

Instead, it relies on observers.

Observers in Ultimate

The primary purpose of observers in ultimate frisbee is to keep order in the game. They ensure that the game is played fairly and that all players comply with the rules.

Observers are self-appointed and usually wear orange shirts to distinguish themselves from the players. Observers work at all levels of ultimate frisbee, including youth, college, and club games.

They are particularly important in high-stakes tournaments where the outcome of the game could mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. Observers are present on the field to make sure that the game runs smoothly and that all players have an equal opportunity to win.

What Observers Do

Observers are responsible for keeping track of the time, rules, offsides, in/out, disc status, rulings, and misconduct during the game. Time is a critical element in ultimate frisbee, and the observers keep track of it to ensure that the game stays within the specified time limits.

They are also responsible for enforcing the rules of the game and making sure that players do not engage in any behavior that may harm or injure other players. Some of the critical tasks that observers perform include determining whether a player has caught the disc inbounds or out-of-bounds, whether a player was offsides or not, and whether a player was fouled by the opponent.

Observers also monitor the actions of the players to catch any misconduct, such as cheating, taunting, or unsportsmanlike behavior.

How to Become an Observer

To become an observer, an individual needs to participate in the Observer Certification Program, which is administered by USA Ultimate. The program is designed to provide potential observers with the necessary knowledge and skills needed to enforce the rules and maintain order during ultimate frisbee games.

Referees in Ultimate

While observers are the preferred option in ultimate frisbee, referees are sometimes used, especially in professional tournaments. Referees are less common in ultimate frisbee because the sport relies on self-officiating culture.

What Referees Do

Referees are typically involved in professional tournaments where the stakes are high. Unlike observers who have a minimal presence on the field, referees are actively involved in the game.

They make calls when players come into contact with each other, commit a foul, dangerous play, or cause harm to another player. Referees are also responsible for ensuring that the game runs smoothly and that the players comply with the rules.

They intervene when necessary to prevent the game from getting out of hand and to ensure that the players do not engage in unsportsmanlike behavior.

How to Become a Referee

To become a referee in ultimate frisbee, an individual needs to understand the rules of the game and have experience in officiating other sports. The American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) is the largest professional ultimate frisbee league and employs referees.

Anyone interested in becoming a referee should contact the AUDL.


Ultimate frisbee is a fantastic sport that encourages fairness, sportsmanship, and self-officiating culture. Observers and referees play a critical role in ensuring that the game is played fairly, safely, and according to the rules.

While observers are the preferred option in most ultimate frisbee games, referees are occasionally used in professional tournaments. Anyone interested in officiating ultimate frisbee should consider enrolling in the Observer Certification Program or contacting the AUDL for information on becoming a referee.

In ultimate frisbee, hand signals are essential communication tools that players and officials use to communicate during the game. While observers are self-appointed and do not make calls, they do communicate information to players using hand signals.

This article will explore the various hand signals used in ultimate frisbee and their significance.

Two Fists over Head

When a player is holding the disc for too long, the observers will use the two-fist over-head signal to signify that 20 seconds have elapsed. This signal is designed to let the player know that they need to initiate play and avoid stalling the game.

The signal is also an indication to the opposing team that a stall count has begun.

One Fist over Head

If the player with the disc still fails to initiate play after the two-fist signal has been given, the observers will use the one-fist-over-head signal to indicate that ten seconds are left for the player to pass or shoot the disc. This signal is a final warning to the offending player that they must act quickly to avoid a turnover.

Rolling Fist-over-Fist

The rolling fist-over-fist signal is used by observers to signify a travel call. Traveling is an infraction that occurs when a player takes more steps than allowed while holding the disc.

The observers make this signal to let the offending player know that they took too many steps, which constitutes a turnover.

Chopping Hand to Opposite Forearm

When one player makes contact with another player, the observers use the chopping-hand-to-opposite-forearm signal to make a foul call. This signal tells both teams that a foul has occurred and the affected player should take possession of the disc at the spot where the foul took place.

Hand on Head

The hand-on-head signal is used by players to indicate that a stall or time violation has occurred. If a player fails to pass or shoot the disc within ten seconds after the stall count begins, the opposing team will take possession of the disc.

This is an essential signal for players to make sure that they keep the game moving.

Hands on Hips

When a player’s movement is impeded by another player who is not part of the defending team, the observers use the hands-on-hips signal to indicate a pick. A pick is an infraction that occurs when a player intentionally or unintentionally disrupts another player’s movement.

Fists Bumping Together

When a call is made and there are opposing views on the call, players will use the fist-bump-together signal to signal a contested call. This signal is an indication that the players cannot come to a consensus and the observers will have to make a ruling.

“Exploding” T Formation

When a team commits multiple infractions, the observers use the “exploding” T formation signal to indicate a team misconduct foul (TMF). This signal is severe and represents the fact that the entire team is responsible for multiple infractions.

Hands Over Head

When an observer makes a call, they will use the hands-over-head signal to indicate that a call has been made. This signal will let the players know that a ruling has been made, and they should be ready for the next play.

Observer Ruling

When an observer makes a ruling, they will use the observer-ruling signal to let the players know that the ruling is not reversible. This signal is an indication that the ruling has been implemented, and any disputes should be resolved in a civil and sportsmanlike manner.

Penalty Cards

Penalty cards are used in ultimate frisbee to signify player or team misconduct. A blue card represents a team misconduct foul (TMF), a yellow card represents a player management foul (PMF), and a red card represents ejection from the game.

It is essential for players to avoid penalty cards as they can have severe consequences that can affect the team’s ability to win. In conclusion, hand signals are critical communication tools in ultimate frisbee.

Observers use them to signal various infractions, calls, rulings, and penalties during the game. Players must familiarize themselves with the various hand signals to ensure that they can communicate with observers and other players effectively.

Hand signals contribute to the overall self-officiating culture of the sport, making it a unique and exciting game to play and watch. In ultimate frisbee, observers and referees play a crucial role in implementing the rules and ensuring fair play.

Players communicate through various hand signals during the game. It is essential for players and officials to understand these signals to ensure that the game runs smoothly.

The self-officiating culture of the sport relies on effective communication, and hand signals play an important role in achieving this. A strong understanding of hand signals promotes a safer, more sportsmanlike game of ultimate frisbee.


Q: How can I become an observer in ultimate frisbee? A: To become an observer, an individual needs to participate in the Observer Certification Program, which is administered by USA Ultimate.

Q: When is a referee used in ultimate frisbee? A: Referees are used primarily during professional tournaments, and only as a secondary option when observers are unavailable.

Q: What are blue, yellow, and red cards used for in ultimate frisbee? A: Blue cards represent a Team Misconduct Foul (TMF), yellow cards represent a Player Misconduct Foul (PMF), and red cards represent ejection from the game.

Q: Can players dispute an observer’s ruling? A: No, observers’ rulings are not reversible, and any disputes should be resolved in a civil and sportsmanlike manner.

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