Colombia WG @ TEP 2022 – Felix Report

“What I’m seeing so far, is that the “Rest of the world” are catching up” – these were the American words spoken to me by Evan Lepler during the showgame on Friday night (Evan is addressing the camera in the bottom right of the above photo). My experience so far had been similar, but in a starkly different context. I had been invited to TEP to run a Hex Clinic and assist with coaching the Colombian World Games tryout teams, but when on the sideline of the first tryouts’ game, it wasn’t the World Games team who I noticed were playing Hex, but their opponents – a team called D-Crash from Bogota. The D-Crash coach confirmed they play Hex 70% of the time. Within my first two days in Medellín, I had conversations with coaches from Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela – all had begun to introduce Hex to their teams since the pandemic and were keen to pick my brain.

Hex Clinic

On Tuesday before the tournament, 60 players from the tryout squad for the Colombian World Games team gathered outside the sweltering hot turf field in Medellín. As they were arriving I was watching the football training taking part on the field, wondering how their 3v3 ‘Rondo’ drill would translate to ultimate. Rondo is basically 3v3 keepaway in a box, with 3 players around the outside for the offence to bounce the ball off – one-touch or two-touch only. It teaches really quick movement in small spaces under defensive pressure. As their training progressed to an attacking set, my mind wandered into the gap between ultimate and other sports – why was I the only person from the accumulating crowd of ultimate fanatics who was paying attention to the drills that this high level sports team were running? There are a ton of fundamental movement exercises which are transferrable to ultimate – are we so stuck in one particular style that we can’t recognise these similarities? As the football training wrapped up and my mind came back to where I was and what I was doing, I realised that those thoughts were exactly why I was here – my inclination to do things differently and take lessons from one discipline and apply them to another, has garnered enough attention to bring me to this point – about to address the runner-up World Games team for a full day, and the plan starts with an exercise lifted directly from another sport.

The Disc Ladder Footwork Exercise is a frisbee version of a simple football dribbling exercise, and it immediately challenged players coordination and ability to catch and throw smoothly without travelling. Players were struggling to complete it perfectly. I wasn’t sure how this would be taken – perhaps these players who found most drills easy and were suddenly challenged, would react badly – but instead they appeared to enjoy the test, and it certainly set the tone – today was going to be different and challenging.

First topic was surrounding stacks on defence. I talked about how we are all familiar with switching as a reaction to being beaten, but less familiar with proactively switching to gain positional advantage. Taking this a step further, with the help of other coaches I demonstrated how a proactive switch is identical to a bracket, for a brief moment, and how the proximity of two offensive players can serve as a trigger for defensive coordination. I expanded this to three and four O/D pairs to demonstrate surrounding a cluster/stack, and then transitioned into Trent’s Surrounding Drill, where we demonstrated how a stack can be surrounded sustainably, with isolated cutters being picked up by individual defenders.

Next up was the Lateral Bracket Switching Drill, where barely any explanation was needed – 2v2 guarding horizontal space, with the disc moving between handlers looking for an open shot. This clicked with the players because they recognised the situation and knew how they should be reacting. Ran a quick demo and sent everyone off into small groups to get their reps in.
Onto the Conical Switching Drill – a similar concept to the Lateral Switching exercise, but operating in a vertical space. Defenders train switching to guard under cuts and deep cuts.
During all the drills a strong emphasis was placed on communication and awareness. For the final exercise of the morning we played Ultimate with a game condition that incentivised the offence to cluster for a few seconds whilst the disc was live, during which time the defence had an opportunity to surround them and prepare for cuts.

After lunch the focus shifted to offence. The Colombian style of ultimate is already fast-paced, so what I was bringing was some technique to give them the edge, and a guideline for a structure that supports and facilitates their quick movement.

I explained the Dribble Slalom Race and ran a demo, then handed over to Simon Ramirez Ortiz who had been translating everything for the Spanish-only speakers. I’ll tell you, when he ran the demo, I have NEVER seen anyone do it that fast. It was like the first time you throw a flick as far as you can, and then your partner just hammers it back to you… or when you’re stood near to someone watching a disc flying through the sky, and they just jump up and pluck it out of the clouds… The speed at which he decelerated, caught the disc, and accelerated out of his throws, went further that what I assumed was possible, and left me stunned. Two days later he was tearing up the field against the Empire, who first tried some handsy defence to slow him down, then put Babbitt on him, but he was still ripping it up. Coming from the same university team as the Cardenas sisters, taught by Cartagena as they were, definitely one to look out for.
The offence section of the clinic continued with the Up-Line Flow Drill, onto a variation of the Dribble Dominator Drill, and ended with the Dynamic Hex Shape Exercise – getting players familiar with maintaining a hex shape whilst moving the disc around and moving as a team in a particular direction, and against defenders. It’s a relatively new exercise which needs a little more of a bridge towards being game-like, the players all said they really enjoyed it and it got them all familiar with what good shape looks and feels like. Asking players afterwards which their favourite part of the clinic was, I was surprised at how varied the responses were – everyone had a different drill which they liked the most.

Colombian Hospitality

The Colombian players are incredibly welcoming – within seconds of walking onto the turf, Valeria and Manuela Cardenas were greeting me with smiles. Everyone is so smiley! I have never seen so many smiling faces returning to a huddle after running a drill. This is juxtaposed against the fact that half of them have tattoos and ride motorcycles and are verifiable badasses.

One highlight was catching a motorbike ride from dinner to the party with Alexander Ford (the player with dreadlocks) – weaving in between cars, as is the norm, just seeing the space and using it… The car horn is used differently in Colombia – it’s an awareness tool. In the UK it’s used to convey displeasure with something that’s happened. In USA it’s used to convey displeasure with the current situation. In Colombia it’s a notification – heads up, something’s about to happen here which you need to be aware of.
There is a genuine warmth to every interaction I had with the Colombian and South American players, which I’ve not felt to the same degree elsewhere. Even when Yina is shaming me for the poor quality of my phone, it’s with warmth and encouragement. When I felt bad about interrupting Mauro in a huddle speech about rotating when the disc is on the sideline, every player I spoke to would give me their honest opinion and genuine support. When I was offering feedback to a player who didn’t understand English, immediately nearby teammates would offer to translate, and the player would end the interaction with a ‘thank you’ (I quickly learnt ‘con gusto’ = you’re welcome). Whenever there was any logistical problem, the Colombian players would jump in and make everything good – motorcycling across the city if necessary, and hosting me for an extra night when my flight was cancelled. Yina Cartagena took me across the city and up a mountain the day after the tournament where I was able to hang out at Mauricio’s and chat about future potential use of the hex way of viewing space on the field. I felt like there was a persistent undercurrent of strength and support, of understanding and compassion, which carries and drives this team towards greatness. You don’t have to look far to find the root cause…

Mauricio Moore and the Mental Game

Mauricio will hold the attention of the team for hours on end. Mauro will have been talking for 20 minutes, and I’ll look around the group and everybody is attentive, fully focusing on what he is saying. He creates a complete mental landscape, a fully functioning environment, a sustainable ecosystem in which all players minds reside. During his hours-long talks he’ll monologue for minutes, he’ll ask questions, players will chime in with their thoughts, he’ll do imitations, the group will laugh and add to the jokes, the spotlight will shift between them occasionally, and the whole time everybody is completely focused and engaged. In the UK I rarely see a team sit down and chat for longer than 5 minutes, and by the end, most of the players are looking at their feet or off into the distance as the 3rd captain finishes their point about intensity or whatever. Everything I’ve witnessed from GB to Clapham to snippets of huddle chats from DVDs and online footage, is on a level far, far behind what Mauricio brings to Colombia.

Before dinner on the first night, he introduced the idea of transcending the concepts of offence and defence, rising above them in a protected tower, rather than diving into the same fight everyone else was fighting. I’m probably not explaining it well because I don’t understand much Spanish, but he suggested to the group that they think about the idea and come up with alternative words for ‘offence’ and ‘defence’ – anyone who uses those words must put money into a jar. Some players aired their thoughts on alternative concepts immediately, others would process for an hour and then stand up at random points during dinner to talk for a minute about possible alternatives they had been thinking about.
This speaks to the depth of Mauricio’s influence on the team. His talks bring everybody closer together mentally, encouraging independent thought and contribution, which leads to mutual respect, appreciation of each other (beyond frisbee/social skills), and a rich and robust shared understanding of where they are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. In a way, this makes them untouchable, and Mauricio is a great source of inspiration for all players and coaches.

Estrategias y Tácticas

The movement on the field from South American teams is already unrecognisable to the US. Many teams have already adopted principles from hex or were playing in that style already anyway, such as D-Crash. Another popular offence is the split stack with a central iso – what hex would look like if the furthest player was brought back to be behind the disc. My main input was to highlight the techniques which are most suited this movement (throw’n’go), to point to the structure which naturally supports and encourages it (hex), and to champion the principles which sustain it (look for the return pass). When one of the tryout teams were playing against the US team called Nemesis, one of their players approached me on the sideline, noting that the style was very different to what he was used to, and asked whether the difference was that we were looking to attack the horizontal space rather than the vertical space. I told him he was speaking a different language – why divide space into vertical and horizontal? A player in space has a sphere of influence, and unoccupied space can be any shape.

Another US team I overheard talking about how perhaps they should clear their cuts into the 2nd spot in the stack rather than the 1st, and I was reminded of how far down the vert stack rabbit hole the US has gone. With some players/teams there’s an immovable faith in vert stack having all the answers – I’ve seen it in some US teams, I’ve seen it in low level university teams in the UK, and until defences start surrounding and switching by default, vert stack will continue to thrive in those areas. The South American approach is generally more flexible and creative, with a willingness to innovate and adopt new ideas. For example, Mauro saw the value of the hex shape, and continued his ‘transcending offence/defence’ path to apply it on D with Revolution. Before my eyes I watched strategy evolve over the course of a game.

Mauricio going through Hex with the Revolution team during a half-time

I had the opportunity to play pickup with a few of the LA Aviators, and nobody was trying that hard, but I was able to make a significant impact on the game just by changing direction with the disc in my hands and looking for the return passes. I feel like there’s a huge untapped resource in ultimate which doesn’t rely upon athleticism or fine motor skills to gain and keep advantage over your opponent. Later that evening, a bunch of us climbed onto a hotel rooftop for a 360 degree view of Medellín with beers in hand. Untapped resources are worth exploring.
The US has had a massive head start on the rest of the world in ultimate, but I believe it has been largely squandered through a lack of innovation, a brute-force based approach to throwing/cutting/marking technique, an overly individualistic approach to tactics, and a stop-start style which doesn’t suit the disc or the ruleset. The rest of the world is catching up, and when comparing the Colombian and US attitudes, it’s only a matter of time before they overtake. When it happens, how the US scene understands / frames what the Colombians are doing will tell us how far down the rabbit hole they have gone. Judging from their analysis of Revolution‘s PUL success, it will take them a while to diagnose what is happening, let alone find the right answers.

Culture & Nature

Medellín is loud. Everyone watches videos on their phones at full volume, and all the bars and cafés are blaring out music on most evenings. The cars are honking, the conversations are passionate, and the music is constant. There is no escape from the wall of sound in the centre of the city, which spans several km as it has a population of 2.5 million. Fruit sellers use megaphones to announce their stock as they push around carts.

Sometimes there don’t seem to be systems in place, everything is far looser than I’m familiar with. People are used to working at the last minute, going the extra mile, and having the flexibility needed to simply make things happen within this environment. It’s a subtle shift which at times makes it feel like everything is going to fall apart, but simultaneously feels like it could never actually fail.

I had a chance to go walking in a natural forest at the top of a mountain on the edge of Medellín, near where Mauricio lives. The leaves of certain plants are massive. There’s more diversity in the bird life than anywhere else in the world, and you can tell by seeing the bright streaks of colour on the birds on the street, or looking up to see the birds of prey overhead. There are bursts of vibrant colour in the forest which contrast against the green.

Down in the city, it can get very hot, even in spring. Up in the mountains, it can get quite cold. Rainstorms are happening all the time – sudden bursts of torrential rain and then nothing.

Distant thunder can sometimes be heard during games. At one point I saw lightning over the mountains in the background. Those mountains are covered with lights of houses, and high-rise buildings. I’ve never seen high rise buildings spreading up mountain sides before.

The day after the tournament I visited Guatapé, an area of outstanding natural beauty, where you go up the stairs embedded into this rock to find astonishing views.

708 steps, 2,135 meters above sea level, views of lakes reaching into the distance and disappearing into mountain ranges in all directions.

The surroundings are awe inspiring, the frisbee is fast paced, and the tournament is electric. Hope to see you there next year.

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