Macedonia is a complicated country politically, formerly part of Yugoslavia and with political tensions that fuel daily protests in the capital where I was staying; Skopje. I won’t attempt to explain the political situation, suffice to say it touches on US / EU relations, accusations against both the current government and the former government (now the opposition), and although everyone has an opinion, the strength and leaning of these opinions tends to vary – there are counter-protests alongside the protests.
The politics run deep – the newly constructed (in neoclassical style) buildings look impressive, but to the locals they often (but not always) symbolise mis-spent government money used to cover-up the countries problems, or re-write history from a nationalist perspective, or to put pressure on Greece for denying their place at the NATO table due to a naming dispute.
Every night there are protests which run through the city, with hundreds of people, flags, and whistles. A few days before my arrival the presidential office was broken into and ransacked, and evidence of the protesting was shown by colourful vandalisation of the neoclassical architecture. At one point I was nearly caught between riot police and protesters – more photos in my Google Photos album.
The Ultimate scene in Macedonia is in its infancy – there are a small group of ~10-15 players (the Falcons) who get together to play when they can. There are a few other players in the capital who are also occasionally heard from, but nothing regular. The nearest countries with some Ultimate activity are Bulgaria, Croatia, and Serbia, each with relatively small scenes.
My trip was organised by 10 Million Discs, a worldwide youth sports charity headed by Trent Simmons. “We work primarily with the sport of Ultimate frisbee as it is the only sport in the world to have conflict resolution built into the rules, and is the first sport without referees to have received permanent recognition by the International Olympic Committee.” They got in touch with Krenar Qoku, founder of the Youth Council of the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, who took over coordination of the project in Macedonia on the ground. He found two local players keen to spread Ultimate – Borjan and Adi – set up a number of sessions in various high schools across the city, and then got in touch with the UKU about the possibility of a qualified coach coming over on the 10MD budget. The UKU got in touch with me, and then Krenar set about packing my 9-day schedule with as many productive opportunities as possible!
High school sessions
The high school pupils in Skopje are all enthusiastic and keen to learn & play a new sport played with a frisbee. Sessions would vary in size, with greater numbers at the schools in less privileged areas where options for extracurricular activities are limited. One of the benefits of Ultimate is the limited equipment needed – one disc can give a good game to 14+ players, however a few more are needed for drills. 10MD are in the process of getting 300 discs to Macedonia, but these hadn’t arrived by the time of my visit, so I packed 12 discs in my luggage and used these at the sessions.
Most sessions consisted of throwing around (with a couple of technique tips), a lead pass drill (where I throw out in front of the receivers, so everyone gets the opportunity to chase down a disc), and a game of Ultimate. Most of the students could understand basic English, or their classmates would translate for them, but if not then Borjan & Adi were able to translate. Running the sessions was partly about introducing Ultimate to the pupils, but mostly about giving Borjan & Adi some ideas for approaching the sessions which they can use in the future (as the project continues after my visit ends).
The high school sessions were leading up to a tournament between the various high schools, to be held in a few weeks. Students really appreciate the opportunity to compete against other schools in a new sport where the playing field is effectively levelled.
As well as high schools, Krenar also arranged for me to meet various local youth groups, peace corps, and all other connections he had which might help spread the game further.
Macedonia Ultimate Federation?
Krenar and I met Vladimir Vuksanovic and another colleague at the Faculty of Physical Education to talk about the high-level structure of sport in Macedonia, and how Ultimate could be officially started. The meeting was very promising – they had had experience starting sports in the country already from scratch, such as field hockey, so were confident in their knowledge of the processes.
To start an Ultimate Frisbee federation, at least 5 non-governmental organisations need to be associated with the sport first, and they had contacts for NGOs that might be interested. I ran a session with the pupils at the Faculty which went really well, and Vladimir & his colleague seemed very enthusiastic about the sport and it’s self-refereed nature. Hopefully this was the start of the process of the sport to being officially recognised & supported by the authorities in Macedonia!
Coaching Qualification Course
As a qualified UKU Coach Educator, I ran two longer sessions which Krenar had arranged for the weekend. On Saturday, I introduced the game to a group of local teachers, players, and interested individuals by running a session where I talked through throwing / catching techniques, and then ran many drills (with many mid-drill modifications) to give the participants a good idea of drills they can run with their pupils / teams to develop them as Ultimate players.
On the Sunday, I ran a coach qualification course, using UKU material but presenting a certificate on behalf of 10 Million Discs.
For these sessions we were also joined by players from Croatia and Serbia who made the long journey to Macedonia. It was a pleasure meeting them and they ensured I stayed out far too late on Saturday night. They were already strong players, so I hope they will take the coaching knowledge back with them to help develop the scenes in their countries – they are now almost certainly the only certified Ultimate coaches there!
Towards the end of my stay I was invited to run a session with the Falcons. They are active players in Skopje who meet up when they can to play some Ultimate – usually only enough for 4v4, with no warmup or drills.
I took the offer as an opportunity to give the active players an idea of how the top teams train in the UK. After a warm up (which ended in competitive sprints), I demonstrated backhand and sidearm technique, giving each player some pointers for improvements whilst letting them know the strength of their current techniques.
We went into a break force drill next (hit a cutter on the break side), which was something very new for a lot of the players, and then onto a down-line-to-huck drill, which flowed really smoothly. During the game a few strategies were introduced whilst we all slipped around on wet grass in our trainers! The benefits of studded boots were talked about at the end, after a traditional spirit circle.
The streets in Skopje have plenty of stray dogs and cats. The cats mind their own business and are not interested in human interaction, merely concerned with survival – effectively living wild. The dogs on the other hand are keen to say hello and accompany you on your walk home – like your own personal guard dog, or just some friendly company for a short walk. In 1963 an earthquake hit Skopje and destroyed 75% of the city – many years later, there were so many stray dogs that they begun travelling in packs and attacking humans. They were all rounded up, tagged, neutered, and released back onto the streets. This has now allowed stray cat numbers to escalate.
The visit just scratched the surface of properly introducing Ultimate to Macedonia, however some great connections were made, and some good methods for running all kinds of sessions were passed on. The newly qualified coaches have the potential to increase the player base hugely, and with some administrative work there is a route for an Ultimate Federation of Macedonia to be set up. If I visit again, I can see delivering more coaching courses would be hugely beneficial, especially if we coordinate with all the contacts made during this trip to ensure the courses are well attended by people who a sure to spread the sport wherever they go.
I introduced the sport to ~150 12-18 year olds whilst in Skopje, hopefully they will be able to support future projects in some way, and possibly with the introduction of discs from 10milliondiscs.org and the excitement of the tournament, they will end up starting their own teams at very low cost.
My advice to the local players was to create a regular day of the week for practice to encourage the playerbase to grow, and aim towards a particular competition – possibly EUCR-East next year. I hope Borjan and Adi keep up their efforts to build the scene, and I remain keen to help them in any way I can!
After this positive experience, I look forward to my next opportunity to introduce Ultimate & coaching techniques abroad (and explore the nature nearby)!
All photos from the trip are available here – including photo-spheres of some amazing areas!