I play ultimate frisbee barefoot, and have for almost a decade. Before that, I used to wear cleats. I would get blisters on my feet, and experience minor pain in my knees and ankles after games. I used to take the game much more seriously than I do today. And I cared more about winning.
I’ve taken off my cleats for good, and now I have way more fun.
A few of my friends have given up theirs as well, and a few seasons later – they don’t seem to miss wearing cleats at all.
Here are 11 reasons why you might want to try playing ultimate frisbee barefoot.
1. If Your Cleats Don’t Match The Field, Risk of ACL Injury Increases
Studies show cleats with different studs or blades give athletes a wide variation of traction, which could lead to injuries if a cleat is worn on a surface it’s not meant for. For example, a soccer cleat made for natural grass can be dangerous if worn on artificial turf.Source: cbc.ca
When I play ultimate frisbee barefoot, I don’t need to worry about whether my feet match the field.
It’s crazy that we’d need to consider this when buying cleats, but clearly it’s worth paying attention to if you want to avoid ACL injury.
A 2010 study has shown outdoor soccer cleats used on grass provide the lowest risk of injury. The study also said on the modern artificial turf, the surface and the shoe are both to blame for increasing the risk of injuring the ACL.Source: cbc.ca
2. Barefoot Ultimate Frisbee Players Are Less Likely To Roll Their Ankles
Think about this one for a second. What causes ankle sprains?
From what I can tell, we don’t generally sprain our ankles when walking on flat ground. I don’t know many people who have sprained their ankles without the help of an unexpected divot, or a ball, or another person’s foot to step on.
And sometimes the shoe itself is the cause of the ankle sprain.
High heel shoes are excellent footwear for causing ankle sprains. They raise the foot up and above the surface of the ground, and decrease stability by narrowing the width of the foot itself (the toes come to a point).
High heels also require that women balance perfectly on a central axis, and failure to do so results in outward over-pronation of the ankle. As a result, small connective ligaments in the ankle tear, requiring months of rehabilitation.
Over-pronation (outward ankle rolling) happens for frisbee players in cleats too, just not as extreme as with runway models.
Cleats raise the ankle an inch or so above the ground (on hard surfaces). So rolled ankles are more a problem in mid-to-late summer when the grass fields dry out – and on older turf fields where there are worn-down areas.
Because bare feet lay flat on the ground and provide as wide a base as your feet are physically capable of – they’re your most stable option.
You are less likely to roll your ankle if you play ultimate frisbee barefoot.
3. You Are LESS Competitive When You Play Ultimate Frisbee Barefoot
No, none of the pros play barefoot, and that’s kind of the point.
Playing ultimate frisbee barefoot reminds me that I’m not actually there to win. WE are there to have fun, as a group of people who happen to share a love for throwing a 175 gram piece of plastic around.
I’m not going to say that if you play ultimate frisbee barefoot you will suddenly become a more effective player, because it doesn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You will slip and fall where others retain traction. You’ll take some teasing. And you’ll stand out as a subject of bewilderment for most onlookers.
Playing ultimate frisbee barefoot is a statement that “this is just frisbee”. No cleats, no gloves, no war paint. We’re just playing frisbee, mostly for fun – and trying to win as the secondary consideration.
If you need to win, by all means, lace up. Cleats will give you an advantage against barefoot players like me.
Lose The Cleats, Lose The Ego
For me, if I take the game too seriously, I know I’m playing primarily for the sake of my ego. I’m nowhere near free of that animalistic desire to win, but taking off the cleats and playing ultimate frisbee barefoot has helped a lot.
Without cleats on, I can only cut so hard without slipping. I play in a recreational league, so there’s no need for me to cut so hard that I need spikes on my feet to keep me attached to the ground. A sudden sprint is usually enough to get open and get a pass.
I also don’t think cleats do much unless the ground is wet. THEN CLEATS ARE AMAZING AND BEING BAREFOOT IS LIKE BEING ON ICE. But in late summer, when the ground is hard, it’s almost the opposite. When the ground is that hard, it’s almost like players wearing cleats are sliding around and I’m tracking better over the dirt.
4. Playing Ultimate Frisbee Barefoot Just FEELS So Much Better
How good does fresh grass feel between your toes? Especially after running around in cleats for a full hour, it’s typical to see players pop the cleats off the moment the game ends so their feet can feel good again.
Why not skip the part where your feet hurt and avoid putting the cleats on in the first place?
A few of my cleat-wearing teammates complain about some pretty nasty conditions arising from playing in cleats so often. These include:
- Turf toe
- Knee pain and joint inflammation
Turf Toe: Pain and swelling in the big toe resulting from wearing inflexible cleats. Cure: Getting more flexible footwear, or just play ultimate frisbee barefoot!
Blisters: Skin tissue and blood vessel damage caused by friction between cleats and feet.
Knee Pain and Joint Inflammation: Swelling in the tendons of the knee caused by repetitive impact. Reduce this impact by playing ultimate frisbee barefoot.
5. Cleats Interrupt Nerve Signals and Reduce Movement Accuracy
Because the skin on the foot is the only contact point between the body and the ground, from an evolution perspective, from a neurodevelopmental perspective, it plays a critical role in how your body controls static posture, dynamic posture and then, of course, balance and coordination and movement accuracy.Dr. Emily Splichal (Source: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/transcripts/transcript-barefoot-strong-unlock-the-secrets-to-movement-longevity/)
We have sensitive nerve endings all over our body, and these nerves help us move. When we cover these nerves up with clothes, gloves, or shoes, our nerve endings have a more difficult time sending high-resolution “touch” signals to the brain.
Think about how much harder it is to execute fine motor movements with gloves on. Even thin gloves used for washing dishes cut way down on how dextrous we are with our hands.
We just can’t feel as much, and so we’re a little less capable of doing things quite as well. Try sewing with rubber gloves on. Or playing guitar!
If you’re like me, you’re going to give up pretty quickly and take those gloves off. It’s the same with playing ultimate frisbee barefoot, there’s just so much more tactile feedback when you can feel the ground with your skin.
Even Socks Reduce Movement Accuracy
Even wearing socks cuts down on the ability of the nerves in our feet to properly detect the nuances of the surface we’re standing on.
We need that information to be sent from our feet to our brains in order for our brains to then generate accurate movement patterns. When we are barefoot, there’s nothing interrupting that signal. When we’re wearing cleats, we’re dramatically limiting the information our brains are receiving from our feet.
I remember this happening more noticeably as a child. The first time I wore cleats to play soccer was a surreal experience. I was very young, maybe 4 years old, and putting on tight cleats with spikes on the bottom made it a little trickier to walk. It made it much harder to walk on concrete.
Being raised up on plastic spikes, even only half an inch or so, required my body to adjust to a brand new set of stimuli. Don’t get me wrong – I learned to run around and play soccer in cleats no problem. I’m just saying that the first time I wore them I was very aware of how much less sensitive my feet were, and it was awkward.
The opposite feeling occurs at the end of a game of ultimate frisbee when players take their cleats off to toss the disc around a little more. It’s a relief to take the cleats off and play ultimate frisbee barefoot!
6. Running Barefoot is Easier on Your Joints
In the barefoot condition, plantar pressure measurements reveal a flatter foot placement to correlate with lower peak heel pressures. Therefore, it is assumed that runners adopt this different touchdown geometry in barefoot running in an attempt to limit the local pressure underneath the heel.Brigit De Wit (Biomechanical Analysis of the Stance Phase During Barefoot And Shod Running)
When we run barefoot, we are lighter on our feet. This is because we don’t have footwear to absorb the impact. Less “peak force” means less impact for our joints to absorb – and this translates into healthier knees, hips, and ankles.
When we play ultimate frisbee barefoot, we also don’t “cut” as hard simply because we’d slip if we tried to change direction suddenly.
When I used to wear cleats, I’d be able to change direction with one epic foot plant, absorbing the full momentum of my body, push off, and explode in the opposite direction.
This is not the case when I play ultimate frisbee barefoot. Now I need to take several small, fast steps in order to stop and change direction. So the impact my joints absorb is dispersed over several steps and a longer time period.
For me, this has had a tremendous positive outcome for my joint health. I used to simply believe having a bit of knee and ankle soreness was a normal part of playing ultimate frisbee. But it isn’t normal. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. And for me, I was simply being too hard on my joints, pounding the ground too hard and generally not taking good care of myself.
I’ve been playing ultimate frisbee barefoot for about 8 years now, and I have zero pain, anywhere, ever. Except that one time I stepped on a bee and it stung the bottom of my foot. Cleats would have prevented that for sure!
7. Cleats Are Expensive, Bare Feet Are Free
We’re born with feet, they’re free. They area always the perfect size, and grow as we grow.
Cleats are not cheap. Depending on when you start, you may go through dozens of pairs of cleats in your playing career. And for kids, whose feet grow out of footwear constantly, buying cleats becomes a real expense.
Save those dollars for new discs or post-game ice cream or beer, and play ultimate frisbee barefoot!
8. You Won’t Forget Your Feet at Home
Have you ever forgotten to bring your cleats to the game? What do you do then, play in your running shoes? Why not try playing ultimate frisbee barefoot?
Your feet at attached to you. Good luck forgetting those in a gym bag somewhere! Cleats however, are easy to forget. And with kids, forgetting equipment can be even easier because we’re already juggling fifty things trying to get to the field on time.
And for you, unless you’re prone to walking out the door completely naked, on game day you can probably just go to the field, kick off the flip flops and play.
No need to remember to bring cleats or gloves or robotic exoskeletons any of that fancy stuff.
9. People Think You’re a Bit Crazy
How is this a benefit?
It’s not entirely a bad thing to be regarded as a bit of a weirdo for playing ultimate frisbee barefoot.
The incredulous glances other players send my way when they see that I’m playing without cleats have more than a little bit of some other positive vibe mixed in. This other vibe is something like respect, awe, or curiousity – maybe even a desire to get on board with the barefoot thing.
And of course there are players who think I’m being downright stupid for not wearing cleats, and that’s okay too. This is something of a Tim Ferriss “comfort challenge” as highlighted in The 4 Hour Work Week, wherein a person intentionally seeks out slightly uncomfortable situations in order to spark personal growth.
Facing a little controversy and criticism when I play ultimate frisbee barefoot has, if anything, given me opportunity to grow some backbone and character.
It’s never easy to go against the herd, but there are rewards for those who do.
10. Other Players Give You More Space When You Play Ultimate Frisbee Barefoot
This is a sneaky one. I’ve had so many players complain to me that they’re afraid to mark me closely because they’re afraid to step on my bare feet.
In these instances, I simply tell the other player that if they accidentally step on my feet it’s my fault for not wearing cleats – and to mark me honestly. However, even with that encouragement, I still find that most players stay a little farther from me than they would someone with cleats on.
Deep down, nobody wants to step on anyone’s feet, and I think most players have an exaggerated idea of the actual risk of doing so.
If you play ultimate frisbee barefoot, players will start giving you more space.
11. You Probably Won’t Get Stepped On, And if You Do, Cleats Won’t Help Much Anyway
How many times have your feet been stepped on in ultimate frisbee?
In the 19 years I’ve played ultimate frisbee, I’ve been stepped on 3 times. The first time another player stepped on my foot, I was wearing cleats and it bloody hurt. The guy was large, I was a kid, and my foot got crushed. Nothing requiring medical attention, but certainly not a pleasant thing to have happen.
The second time I got stepped on, I was actually pivoting and someone stepped on my toes (I had started to play ultimate frisbee barefoot at this point). My foot twisted under the other person’s foot, and I ripped off my big toenail. I’ll be honest, cleats probably would have stopped the toenail from being ripped out.
The third time my bare foot was stepped on was actually by my own teammate during a drill. He and I are close friends and extra competitive with one another, so he was marking me hilariously closely, to the point that he was essentially fouling me. But this is fun for us – it’s all in good fun.
However, at some point in us jostling each other for the disc, my buddy stepped right on the arch of my foot. That was a painful one – but I’m not convinced cleats would have saved me much pain.
Cleats are very light and thin, with very little material on top. If you really think about how much protection that offers – you would perhaps agree that the only real extra safety cleats provide is they stop your feet from getting scraped or cut. Or your toenails getting ripped out by the spikes of other cleats.
Yet this has to be weighed against all those players whose toenails fall out as a result of wearing cleats! So I’m not convinced that cleats are any safer for anyones toenails in the grand scheme of things.
Summary: Pros and Cons of Playing Ultimate Frisbee Barefoot
Here’s a brief summary of what we’ve covered, organized into the pros and cons when you play ultimate frisbee barefoot.
- You’ll have zero traction in the rain, and greatly reduced traction overall when you play ultimate frisbee barefoot.
- It’s possible to have a toenail ripped out if you play ultimate frisbee barefoot and a cleated player steps on your toes.
- If the field is not clear of debris, you might cut yourself on broken glass (though the worst thing I’ve stepped on in 8 years of playing ultimate frisbee barefoot was a bee, and I got stung).
- Depending on where you live and time of year, it might be too cold for you to play ultimate frisbee barefoot
- If you don’t like extra attention, being the only person who plays ultimate frisbee barefoot might be uncomfortable for you
- Because cleats can increase risk of ACL Injury if not matched properly to the field, playing ultimate frisbee barefoot “sidesteps” this issue entirely.
- With a wider base and flush connection with the ground, you’re less likely to roll your ankle if you play ultimate frisbee barefoot instead of in cleats.
- By virtue of the competitive disadvantage resulting from not wearing cleats, players willing to go barefoot develop a more laid back attitude toward ultimate frisbee.
- Playing ultimate frisbee barefoot feels way better than playing in cleats
- By allowing your bare skin to contact the field, you are dramatically improving tactile feedback received by the brain from the feet. This results in more accurate movement patterns.
- Studies show that we run with less impact when not wearing footwear, so it’s actually healthier for our joints to play ultimate frisbee barefoot.
- You don’t need to buy cleats when you play ultimate frisbee barefoot, and so you can spend that saved money on other things (like beer)!
- You won’t forget to bring your feet to the field.
- People think you’re hardcore, or missing a few marbles (both are likely true)!
- Other players will give you more space on the field because they’re afraid to step on your feet
- Getting stepped on is rare, most players have never had their feet stepped on (and if they do, the cleats don’t actually provide that much protection).
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It is such a pleasure to find your articles and videos. Well written and well produced vids. Most importantly, full of spirit of the game, like this article. Getting more people to play better and love it as much as you do is simply beautiful. Thank you.
PS: if you ever are in Paris – look up our pickup group: Good Vibes.
I play barefoot during high-school club practices. I’ve never tried playing against people wearing cleats, because I don’t want to get stepped on. But during those practices and indoor league, I really love being barefoot (I actually take my sneakers off during club if I’m feeling limited).
I’ve played barefoot for 45 years, including some high-level playing. The mantra I used was, “your feet can’t be stepped on if they aren’t on the ground”. That’s changed after a couple of hip replacements, now it is “you don’t need traction if you can’t accelerate”.
The style you play is also important. I find the style most people play now relies on challenge cuts: cutters will choose a location and try to beat their defender to it. My style has always been the opposite: look for an opportunity and run away from the defender, so he is chasing me rather than competing to get to the spot earlier.
I used to play as part of the Peterborough League and I distinctly remember thinking all of the things you described seeing you line up for the first pull in bare feet – A mix of curiosity, awe and disbelief. To be clear, you still ran circles around me even with the occasional slide-out.
I was brought here because I recently rolled my ankle in the first game of the season here in Ottawa. Specifically remembering you I was spurred to do some research and I came to a similar conclusion – that being barefoot or as close to it as possible would reduce the torque I might experience on my ankle and aid in preventing further injuries. My research inevitably led me here and I was so surprised to see the first image of you guarding a teammate of mine as the first image. I’ve found your article to be incredibly insightful and useful. Given that I am hoping to increase the competitiveness of my play I think I will stick to introducing barefoot play into my training and whatnot.
I’ve done hours of research on trying to find barefoot-style cleats/wide toe box cleats with little to no success. , I think for now that I might opt for turf shoes as a middle ground (reducing some of the elevation introduced by full-on cleats, but maintain a high level of traction. Might you have any advice on this front?
Cheers, and thank you!