Flying Saucer Lessons: Teaching English and Ultimate Frisbee in Malaysia

Guest Article by Jonathan Christensen
St. Olaf College
Ultimate Frisbee, or just Ultimate, is a new sport still foreign to most Americans. In it, teams of seven compete on a football size field to move the frisbee, or disc, into the opposing team’s end zone. As a self-officiated sport, where the players are their own referees, it affords the opportunity to teach honesty, fairness, and good sportsmanship on top of athleticism and teamwork.
 Ultimate is virtually unknown in Malaysia. Some adult teams exist in Kuala Lumpur, but outside Malaysia’s largest city no one has heard of the sport. Thankfully its newness gives it an element of intrigue. Bystanders have exclaimed, “Why do you throw the plate? That is for eating!” Or asked, “What is a frisbee, is it like a UFO?” People are interested to see the disc thrown and learn how to play the sport. Like many Americans, the first image that comes to mind for them is throwing discs for dogs to catch at the park – not an athletic competition.
ETA Jon Christensen teaches the team about defense and marking
So when I arrived at my school this February, I was unsurprised to learn they did not yet have an ultimate team. I teach at SMK Tengku Bariah, a secondary school with 1200 students in Kuala Terengganu, the capital of Terengganu state on the east coast of Malaysia. Football (soccer) is far and away the most popular sport, but students also run cross country, play badminton, netball, and field hockey, and cycle. After shipping a pile of discs over from the United States, I was able to add ultimate to that list.
Our first practice was chaos. I had at least forty students, whereas a typical team has only twenty, they couldn’t aim the disc, and they knew none of the rules. And I was trying to teach them using only English. After a lot of repeitition and hand gesturing we were able to do a warm-up, run some drills, and then scrimmage. Learning how much running is involved in ultimate scared a few of them off, so thankfully I’ve had more manageable numbers since then. After three months of practice I’ve seen loads of improvement. They can aim the disc, they understand the basic rules, and they can even score points without dropping the disc – something many college teams struggle to do.
Of course practice isn’t just about frisbee, it’s also about reinforcing the English skills students have learned in the classroom. Through ultimate, and also by chatting with me between classes and during recess,  students build their listening and speaking skills. We talk about music, movies, food, and the latest football matches. My hope is that English is becoming more relevant and fun for them, and that they’re becoming more confident talking with native speakers.
Students practice throwing the disc at SMK Tengku Bariah in Terengganu, Malaysia
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ETA Jon Christensen teaches the team about defense and marking

<![endif]–>They are certainly more confident in ultimate; every week I have a few of them ask me when they will get to test their skills in a match. Turns out they will have that chance next month when three other ETAs, who also formed ultimate teams at their schools, and I host a tournament for them. It will be a hat tournament, in which students from different schools are mixed together to create balanced teams, so they will get to meet and play with peers from three other Terengganu schools. And they will have the chance to speak with students from around the state in English.

When I came to Malaysia, I hoped I could at least find a throwing buddy to toss a disc with a couple times a week. I now have fifty buddies. I have been impressed with how eagerly my students embraced a sport that was completely new to them, taught in a language they sometimes struggle to understand. It has motivated me to try things of theirs – new foods like nasi lemak, kuih, and teh tarik and new sports like badminton and futsal. It has been really fun to share ultimate, English, and all these other things with my students, and I can’t wait to watch them play in the tournament next month.
ETA Jon Christensen with Ultimate Frisbee students

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