What Do The Referees Do In Ultimate Frisbee?

The sport of Ultimate has been known as a self-officiating sport but in situations where there is an important tournament or important game, observers may be called in by the Tournament Director and/or a team so as to keep order between the competing teams. Not every game at a tournament will have observers and not every tournament will have them.

Referees are less common in the Ultimate scene than observers.



Observers typically wear orange, collared shirts but they may wear any color shirt as long as the back says “Observer.”

Where They Work

Often seen in tournaments of great importance like Sectionals, Regionals, and Nationals, all of which are Championship games. They can be seen facilitating youth, college, and club games.

What They Do

  • Know all the rules so as to clarify for the players if needed.
  • Keep track of time for the entire game, including between points and time-outs.
  • Watch and call offsides.
  • Calling in/out for sideline and endzone.
  • Call whether the disc is up or down.
  • Make the ruling for discussions of player-initiated calls when no agreement has been made.
  • Can implement a misconduct system of consequences if rules are broken continuously by the same player or team.
  • Enforce rules specific to the event or points of emphasis (like inappropriate language).

How to Become One

Anyone can be an observer as long as they go through an official program and act professionally. There is an Observer Certification Program hosted by USA Ultimate that costs a small fee so that you are able to learn more about being an official observer.



They wear the black and white striped jersey that referees in other sports typically wear along with the black shorts.

Where They Work

Referees tend to facilitate in professional tournaments.

What They Do

The main difference between the jobs of referees and observers is that referees can make calls like contact, foul, etc. When a referee makes a call, that is how the game is played; no discussion.

How to Become One

There are a lot fewer opportunities to become a referee compared to being an observer, but referees are most needed are professional games. If you understand most of the rules of Ultimate, you can find opportunities in the AUDL (American Ultimate Disc League).

Hand Signals

All of the hand signals below are meant to be used to purely communicate information to everyone on and off the field about the situations that arise. These signals are not calls made by the observers themselves.

Two fists over the head mean 20 seconds for specific situations. This could be that you have 20 seconds to pull, to get ready for the pull, to set after a time-out out, etc.

One fist over the head indicates 10 seconds for any situation given.

Rolling fist-over-fist is a travel call.

Chopping hand to the opposite forearm is calling a foul.

Hand on the head is to stall or time violation.

Hands on hips indicate a pick.

Fists bumping together is communicating that a contested call was made.

”Exploding” T formation of the hands means that one hand sits on top of another to make a T shape but the top hand is pulled away immediately. This is to indicate a TMF (Team Misconduct Foul) or PMF (Player Misconduct Foul).

Hands Over The Head

One hand over the head, palm open can indicate a number of things:

This hand will go up if a call is made by a player, but the observer will not stop play because the players on the field must do that.

When the defensive team is ready to pull, the observer on that side will raise a hand to say that that team is ready, and in response, the observer on the offensive side will raise a hand to communicate that they are ready.

This hand can also be raised with a certain number of fingers to indicate what the stall count will be coming in on when the disc is put back into play.

Observer Ruling

This is the only signal to indicate that the observer is making a ruling on a call, which cannot be revoked by the players.

Both hands on shoulders mean that the ruling made by the observer has been implemented. Observers can make a rule if players ask them to in the case of a dispute about a call. Once the players ask for the observers ruling, they must abide by the rules.

Penalty Cards

Blue cards indicate a Team Misconduct Foul like hard fouls, continuous violations, inappropriate language, etc.

Yellow cards indicate a Player Misconduct Foul like dangerous play, shoving, intentional fouls, swearing at an observer, etc.

Red cards indicate an ejection of a player.