Albania trip: Full daily blog

Albania trip with 10 Million Discs

Day 1: Tuesday, 11th April:
Introduced Ultimate to 43 inmates at a juvenile prison today, travelling there with staff from the US Embassy including a sound system. The prisoners were led out cell block by cell block – during the games at the end we weren’t allowed to have prisoners from one cell block competing against prisoners from another, in case of trouble – which was a shame as one of our core messages is that Ultimate breaks down barriers!
Some of the inmates were very enthusiastic about throwing and playing Ultimate, and the participation levels were very high – 95% threw around and took part in the drill, and then around 70% took part in the games at the end – which we found out later was an exceptional result. They respected us and were well behaved the entire time – resolving their disagreements very peacefully in accordance to the SOTG rules of Ultimate.

In the afternoon we had a meeting at the American Embassy with their public affairs officer, who said he was sold on the idea of helping spreading ultimate in any way the embassy can. We made use of a great opportunity to tell him about the Spirit of the Game, how Ultimate is easily accessible to people of all abilities and financial situations, and (he hadn’t heard this before:) that it’s played mixed gender in the World Games, with women on the field being equally valued as men, and in some games more.

After the meeting, Juan Amado (a coach from Colombia), Erta (our assigned translator/guide for the evening) and I went to Petrele Castle – on top of a mountain, an open top restaurant and bar, where we sat at the best table at the top of the castle and watched the sun set whilst planning for tomorrow. A great way to spend the evening and take some photos.

Tomorrow we’re teaching 70 PE teachers about Ultimate and how to teach it to students. If a school has two PE teachers, they are sending one. If they have five, they are sending two. So, the reach of this session is going to be huge. Tonight we’ve been discussing the best approaches we can use to give them the knowledge to be able to teach good technique, drills and strategy to their students.

Tomorrow evening we’re running a session with a non government organisation, but we don’t know much about it yet. In a few days we’ll be working with the youth of the political parties, and some real politicians will be coming along who requested no media coverage due to the sensitive nature of the situation – there are very important political movements happening at the moment and they’re worried about being seen to be not taking things seriously by playing frisbee! In reality we are championing a non violent and non confrontational approach to conflict resolution, and encouraging that in the political youth,. The US Embassy public affairs officer made it clear they were putting their full support behind the approach of spreading non-violent conflict resolution through (our) sport, so it’s a very interesting opportunity!

Albania day 2: Wednesday, 12th April

This morning we travelled to Shkoder (2hrs north of Tirana, on the border with Montenegro) to run a session with all the middle and high-school PE teachers from the city. 70-80 schools in total were represented, with the aim of taking Ultimate back to each school – along with a couple of discs provided by 10 Million Discs. The group was keen to learn but sometimes difficult to manage, perhaps due to the language barrier – although we had a great student translating for us. In Albania, the younger a person is, the more likely it is that they can speak English – far more students / youth than PE teachers.

We spent time explaining the concepts of Spirit of the Game, the rules, the history, the current state of the sport in terms of competition, training the teachers on how to correct common throwing technique issues, then demonstrated a couple of simple drills with volunteers which only require one or two discs (as this is how many the schools are likely to have to start), and then played a 5v5 match at the end to demonstrate what the game looked like in action (stopping and explaining calls and such to the 60 or so spectating PE teachers when appropriate).

In the afternoon we went to an NGO called Door Org, which runs a youth football club, and got around 20 young athletes playing the game – roughly half girls and half boys. They were fast and competitive, and seemed to have a really good time – being used to referees, it was interesting to see them become referees themselves when we insisted they sort out calls between themselves. Tomorrow we have a meeting in the morning, and a youth session with political groups in the afternoon.

There are loads of unfinished buildings in Albania – we joke about how we should start a windows & doors company which could turn the unfinished shells into houses, but in reality they are likely symbolic of Albania’s economic or political corruption issues.

Albania Day 3: Thursday, 13th April

After a meeting inside the ministry of defence about the possibility of starting a team with the youth there, we headed to a nice (but small) field in Tirana to run a session with the political youth.

The current political climate is rather sensitive, and the US Embassy were on board with attempting to spread a message of non-violent conflict resolution, and personal responsibility under pressure, through Ultimate. It was tricky at first to get the different groups to interact (asking them to pair up with someone from a different group did not work – they went away and took group photos instead – the opposite!), so we simply divided into four split teams and ran a drill or two before explaining the rules and playing games.

Lots of them got really into the games once they were started, which taught us that getting youth groups playing the game as quickly as possible is important – they are not interested in learning skills etc if they have no context / aim for where those skills can be used.

In the evening Trent, Juan, Alex, and I went to a place called BrauHaus for food, drinks, and some great stories about past Ultimate tournaments and discussions about the current strategies used in the game – where they originated from and where they may lead in the future. Unfortunately Trent and I got a bad case of food poisoning, which knocked us out for the entirety of day 4…

Albania days 4 & 5: Friday & Saturday, April 14th & 15th:

Day 4 has been all about Juan, James and Alex. Juan Amado is a Columbian national team player who works for 10 Million Discs introducing the sport in neighbouring Montenegro, James Martin is a local ex-pat also working with 10MD, and Alex is a traveller from France who got in touch with James looking for a pickup game and has been roped into helping us deliver sessions! His help proved very valuable on Friday; food poisoning hit Trent and I hard on Thursday night meaning we were completely out of action on Friday.

Juan, James and Alex ran a youth session in the morning where they tried playing a game of Ultimate as soon as possible – before any real throwing time, let alone drills or long descriptions of the rules – quick 5 rules and then into games. This was a really successful method, I believe because it captures the attention and focus of younger participants, and gives them a frame of reference for all the other skills and drills which we might want to cover in the session. It is also a good levelling technique for the group – no matter what they were doing beforehand, once everyone has played a game for a few minutes, they are all pretty much on the same page.

In the afternoon was another session for PE teachers – this time 15 teachers showed up with a load of their students, who were all very enthusiastic and will be taking the sport back to their schools to help introduce it. Although having a split group of teachers & students can complicate the session plan (is the aim to teach them how to play the sport, or teach them how to teach the sport?), the enthusiasm and knowledge/ability which the students will take back to their schools is likely to be very valuable in getting games and teams started there.

Saturday was our rest day – Trent and I found a dirt field nearby to throw a frisbee around for a while, but mostly focused on regaining our energy for the days ahead.

Albania day 6: Sunday, April 16th – Random session with the public and a short trip up a mountain.

We were scheduled to run a session with the Roma community in the morning, although we were told to prepare for a potential low turnout despite the best efforts of volunteer coordinators who work with the community. When we turned up to the field we begun throwing all our frisbees from end to end, aiming for the small soccer goals. Incidentally, soccer is easily the most popular sport in Albania, so we’ve learnt to explain Ultimate in terms of / in comparison to soccer.

Sure enough, the turnout from the Roma community was zero – however, the coordinators showed up, and several locals got interested whilst we were throwing from goal to goal – so we gathered them together, explained the game, and got playing! There were around 22 people taking part over two pitches, with ages ranging from 8-60, mostly young athletic people. After some game time we had a break and did some throwing in pairs (talking them through basic backhand and forehand techniques), before going back into two games, and finally one large game. People cycled in and out of the session, and by the end we still had around 20 people but most of them were different to those we started with!

Afterwards, there were a large group (who were connected because they were all anime enthusiasts I believe(?)) who had just joined in at the end and were very keen to learn more, so we hung out with them for a while and talked about the sport, rules, techniques, and explained what we’d been doing in Albania so far. We let them know if they wanted to start playing and start teams, there would be a lot of young people coming from schools who would now be familiar with the sport and keen to join a team. Although us meeting the group was completely unplanned, it’s possible the meeting could have some very productive consequences!

That afternoon I went up the Dajti mountains with James. The top of the mountain was inside a cloud, but the view from the cable car over Tirana was very impressive, and we just caught the sun setting on the way down.

Albania day 7: TV interview and training with the US Marines!

Today was a big day! We got up early and headed to the TV station for a live interview on the national Top Channel Albanian breakfast show, Wake Up! We had been given 8 questions to prepare answers for, but that plan immediately went out the window as the hosts immediately went off-script and asked us completely different questions. We had to wait for the questions to be translated (through our earpieces), which led to some hilariously awkward pauses before our answers. It sounded like they started off by comparing the sport to dominoes (?), but we got to talk about most of the things we wanted to get across – I likened the game to soccer with a frisbee and a scoring zone in place of a ball and a goal, Trent and Juan talked about the self refereed nature of the game, and then we had a quick throw with the presenters in the studio and one of their throws hit a camera, haha. Full interview can be found here:

In the afternoon we headed into the gated community connected to the US Embassy – more armed guards checking us as we arrived – and ran a session with 6 incredibly fit US marines, 12 kids aged 5-12, and 12 parents (most of whom had very high ranking jobs). We broke the session into two drills at the start – I used US Marines to demo the drill as they were unsurprisingly able to follow instructions very closely – and then we had three concurrent games – one for marines and experienced parents, one for small kids and a few of their parents, and one for the older kids.

The Marines who hadn’t played before picked it up very quickly. I spoke to one who said Ultimate is “played like a religion” by the marines and army in Baghdad, Iraq – sometimes 10 or 11 per side, several times a week. Interesting to know! I imagine it’s favoured amongst marines due to the minimal equipment needed, the low risk of injury due to contact, the high levels of fitness that can be used, and the way it encourages and rewards good teamwork.

The marines picked up skills quickly and fell into team roles very quickly too. One tall guy would defend the end zone and get the disc moving on the turn. A particularly quick turning guy from New York had mastered end zone cutting by the end of the session and scored so many points. Loads of them had awesome American-football style toeing-in ability, which was great to see.

Tomorrow is my last day in Albania, and we’re heading to the beach in Vlores to teach more PE teachers before working with the Model UN youth group!

Albania day 8: Vlore PE teacher & model UN sessions, Tuesday 18th April

It’s a 2.5 hour journey to Vlore – around the mountains and through the city of Fier. Fier is near where the largest oil deposits in Albania have been found, however the city is tiny compared to Tirana, and although picturesque, the roads are poorly maintained and the streets are lined with the now common sight of half-finished construction work.

The venue at Vlore was split between a tiny artificial turf area and an indoor hall. We had around 45 PE teachers turn up, and after Trent’s talk about Spirit of the Game we used what I’ve decided to call the SWAG approach to introducing Ultimate – Start With A Game. Due to the high numbers and small space we played a quick 3v3 demo game, where the basic rules regarding scoring, travelling, turnovers, no contact, and self-refereeing were illustrated.

It seems difficult to hold the attention of Albanian PE teachers for more than 30 minutes – which makes a 2-2.5 hour session quite the challenge. We managed to get across a few basic guidelines for good technique for backhand and forehand throws, demonstrated two drills which only require 1 disc, and finished with two games which anyone could take part in.

In the afternoon we met with a youth “Model UN” group. We had an extended discussion with them about the principles of Spirit of the Game, and how they could be extended to apply to society and politics with good effect. The practical part of the session was on a beach, and although it was windy, everyone picked up some throwing skills, practiced their catching of lead passes into the wind, and played a game for a good hour or so.

I finished the day (and my stay in Albania) with a swim in the sea, surrounded by the awesome scenery of mountain ranges. Summary report coming soon!

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