Reflections on My First Season

The following article is a reflection written by hiveultimate patron Travis Norsen after his first season coaching his local high school ultimate team.  Norsen is a long-time ultimate player who also had considerable prior coaching experience, but in football/soccer, where he has been influenced by, championed, and even written a book – Play With Your Brain – for youth players about the philosophy/style developed and implemented especially by Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.  Despite only stumbling onto hive ultimate around the beginning of his season, Norsen’s approach was heavily influenced by some of the same ideas (from the football world) that influenced Felix, so we thought his experiences would be of considerable interest to anybody interested in Hex and Flex, and get some interesting discussions going… 

As a football (or, as we Americans call it, soccer) player and fan for most of my life, I was delighted to volunteer to start coaching my kids, about a decade ago, when they became old enough to play and showed some interest in the sport.  We had a good time and my kids both grew increasingly serious about the sport over the years.  Coaching them also fanned the flames of my own passion:  I started playing more; following professional football more closely; and reading books about football tactics, the history of the game, coaches and coaching, etc.  I even wrote a book, aimed at young teen/preteen soccer players, attempting to explain in an accessible and compelling way some of the basic principles of the Cruyff/Guardiola philosophy that had significantly inspired my own playing and coaching.  

But in the last year or two, my kids aged out of (and got too good for!) the local teams where I was able to coach them, and I jumped at the opportunity to redirect my love of coaching to the other sport I have played obsessively across the decades:  ultimate frisbee.  I had helped out with the middle school ultimate team that my kids played on (when they could squeeze it in between soccer practices) a few years ago, and then last year I joined the local high school girls ultimate team as an assistant JV coach about halfway through the season.  But this spring I agreed to be the head coach for the whole girls high school program.

What follows is my attempt to summarize the season:  what I did and why, how it went, what I learned from it, and finally how it all relates to Hex and Flex.

The Barcelona Philosophy

I should probably start by explaining briefly how I understand “the Cruyff/Guardiola philosophy of football” since that was a huge part of the motivation and perspective I brought to my first season as an ultimate coach.  (Those looking for a more detailed explanation might enjoy checking out the 2018 documentary film “Take the ball, pass the ball”, Jonathan Wilson’s book “The Barcelona Inheritance”, Johan Cruyff’s autobiography “My turn”, or Martin Perarnau’s book “Pep Confidential”.)

To briefly summarize, however, the “Barcelona” approach (developed and implemented by Johan Cruyff and then later and even more successfully by his protege Pep Guardiola) aims to produce creative, attacking football with an emphasis on ball possession. “There is only one ball”, Cruyff once quipped, “so you need to have it!”  Sometimes (frustratingly to Guardiola!) dubbed “tiki taka”, the style tends to involve maintaining possession with long sequences of short quick passes, many of them backwards, constantly probing and moving the defense in order to generate defensive imbalances that can be exploited to score goals.

But to me – and I think to Cruyff and Guardiola as well – the tactical “look” of the style on the pitch is really a consequence of, rather than the essence of, this unique approach.  The essence is rather the recognition that players are intelligent beings who, with proper training, can take in situational information (about, for example, the relative positioning of teammates and defenders), “read” the game, and make and execute creative decisions in the moment about how best to proceed to develop goal-scoring opportunities.  This cognitive focus is beautifully captured by Cruyff’s famous statement that “football is a game you play with your brain” (which I stole part of as the title for my book!).

The Barcelona “tiki taka” style should be contrasted with the more traditional approaches (often associated especially with English soccer of earlier decades) which focused more on winning individual battles with physical superiorities.  Traditional defenders, for example, tended to be speedy giants who could shut down the opposing team’s attacks with bone-crunching tackles.  At Barcelona under Cruyff, by contrast, the defensive midfield was patrolled by the not particularly large and not particularly fast Pep Guardiola, whose intelligent positioning allowed him to intercept incoming passes before the opponent’s attackers even received them.  Similarly, whereas the more traditional style tried to create goal-scoring chances by crossing balls in to tall forwards who could hopefully outjump the defenders and head the ball in, Barcelona developed “the flea” – Lionel Messi – whose diminutive stature would have prevented him from getting a second look from many other clubs, but whose unparalleled agility, decision-making, and creativity has made him the almost-universally recognized greatest player of all time.  And where the traditional style tended to encourage and rely on players moving the ball downfield by dribbling at, and hopefully past, opponents, Barcelona systematically developed the ability of players like Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets to work together, with sequences of quick passing and off-the-ball movement, to instead navigate around and through their opponents.  

The chief tool by which players’ cognitive problem-solving abilities were honed was the “rondo” – a structured keepaway game in which a group of players on offense try to pass the ball around and prevent a (typically) smaller number of defensive players from winning possession. 

Success at the rondo requires players to develop not just quick and accurate passing skills, but body positioning and orientation that allows them to perceive and decide between several different potential passing options, as well as constant movement off the ball to create those potential passing opportunities for their teammate with the ball.  These skills – both physical and cognitive – led to the Barcelona team under Guardiola’s leadership becoming probably the greatest team of all time. 

This description of “the Barcelona philosophy” vs. “mindless tradition” is obviously a bit of an oversimplified caricature.  But this dichotomy does capture something real and important, if only the dramatic extremes along a continuum.  

In any case, this is the philosophy that I – admittedly just as a kludgy amateur – did my best to adopt and inculcate while coaching my kids’ soccer teams in recent years.  And so it is also the philosophy that I brought with me when I transitioned to coaching ultimate. 

The Ultimate Tradition

It will not surprise anyone still reading that I see a significant overlap between the “traditional English” style of football that I described (caricatured?) above, and the typical approaches one sees to training and player-development in the contemporary ultimate frisbee community.  I mentioned above that, before taking over as head coach this spring, I helped out as an assistant coach for the team for part of the previous season.  A few things struck me in what I saw during that previous season.

One is that things didn’t seem to have changed much in the roughly 20 years since I had played college ultimate myself.  Practices tended to consist of playing catch with a partner to work on throws, then doing some whole-group drill (such as the exact same “endzone drill” and “box drill” that I had done decades earlier), followed by some scrimmaging.  

The second thing that struck me was that the quality of play, during the scrimmages and games, wasn’t very good.  It seemed like the skill-and-drill work wasn’t translating very effectively into success in the games.  

And, having imbibed the Barcelona philosophy back in the football world, I immediately formed a hypothesis about the reason for this.  The skill-and-drill practice was too out-of-context, too divorced from realistic game situations.  And in particular it all struck me as incompatible with the fact that the fundamental challenges involved in playing well are not physical, but cognitive.  Just like in soccer, the hard thing about completing a sequence of passes that leads to a goal is not the physical actions involved, but is rather the need for each player to recognize (quickly and in the face of a flood of chaotic distractions) which of the many potential next passes is best to attempt, how to move subsequently in relation to one’s also-moving teammates to leave the team in the best position to complete another pass, and another one after that, and so on.  

Playing catch with a static partner is thus problematic not just because it trains you to throw to a static receiver (something that you rarely do, and rarely should do, in a game), and not just because it trains you to throw in ways that probably aren’t going to work when there is a marker on you, but because there is no decision-making involved, no need to survey the options and choose where the next throw should go.  Similarly with the “box drill” and the “endzone drill” (and the to-me incomprehensibly popular “four lines drill”)1.  In all of these standard drills, everything is pre-scripted.  Players wait in lines for their turn to make a certain pre-determined cut and/or a certain pre-determined throw.  Everything is tightly choreographed.  You just do the specific thing you’re supposed to do when it’s your turn to do that specific thing.

So, from this point of view, it was hardly surprising that, in scrimmages and games, players tended to just take turns performing pre-scripted actions at pre-determined times.  For example, as long as the stall count was below 6, cutters would take turns making the inevitable fake-away-and-then-back-under cut, to the strong side, from the back of the vertical stack.  The defense of course knew what was coming so it was easy to shut down.  Then, when the stall got to 6 (no less and no more) the thrower would turn to their fellow handler who would attempt to perform a pre-choreographed sequence of motions.  (The word “traintracks” was often uttered in this context, but to me it didn’t seem like anybody involved understood what this meant and it certainly didn’t work very often.)  The play, that is, tended to be very one-dimensional, predictable, boring, and (as a result) ineffective.  It was lacking almost entirely in creativity, spontaneity, flow, and … success.  

A different approach

So when I was given the opportunity to step into the head coaching role this season, I decided to steer the ship in a dramatically different direction.  

No more working on throws every day by playing catch with a static partner!  

Instead, we would work on throws in groups of 3, in a couple of different ways.  If you were throwing to a static partner, you’d at least have to practice throwing past a marker (which is more game-realistic and also brings in tons of situation-reading and decision-making elements since you have to figure out how to pivot and choose an appropriate throw in response to the detailed positioning of the marker).  And immediately after releasing the throw you’d move – at first just to set up the mark for the next thrower, but later to receive a return pass and complete another short throw before setting up that mark.  And much of our throwing practice took the form of a “diamond”-shaped throwing-exercise I designed in which every throw is to an open space where the disc and a moving receiver who is attacking that space converge.  So players were developing their throws, but they were developing them in ways that, I thought, would translate better into success in games.

No more pre-choreographed (endzone-, box,  4-lines- type) drills!

You can check out the Diamond Throwing exercise here!

Instead, we played various rondo-inspired mini-games (meaning typically 3v3 or 4v4 or 5v5 rather than 7v7) so that more players get more practice finding themselves in game-realistic situations that require field-awareness, decision-making, and creative problem-solving.  My favorite such game – one that we came back to many times throughout the season because it always felt fresh and helpful – was simple keepaway.  Early in the season, 3v3 keepaway (in roughly 20×30 yard areas) was an effective way to get every player actively involved, getting touches, and figuring out, through fun trial and error, fundamental things like:  how to attack space and change directions to get open, how to pivot when you have the disc to identify and create better throwing opportunities, and how to choose and execute passes so they can actually be completed.  Later in the season we did somewhat more sophisticated versions of keepaway to work on specific things like staying more spread out, looking for longer throws into space after a couple of shorter throws, and following your throws to look for return-passes and give-and-go opportunities.  And we did various other sorts of mini-games as well, where there was a more structured directionality than in keepaway, or where the goal was some sort of scoring as opposed to merely stringing consecutive passes together as in keepaway.  But the point is, as much as possible, we ditched the pre-choreographed drills and instead spent time on training games that involve open-ended, game-realistic action and decision-making.  

No more recipes!

When players would ask, on the sidelines or during a pause in a mini-game or scrimmage, “What cut should I have made there?” or “Where should I position myself as the second handler here?” I made it a point to try, as often as possible, to play dumb and shift the burden back to them with some answer like “Hmm, I’m not sure, it really depends on what the defense is doing…  What do you think would work best here?”  But the truth is that that vague non-answer is the only possible right answer.  That is, almost always, it wasn’t a matter of “playing dumb” but instead acknowledging the reality that there is never just some “one right thing” that is guaranteed to work.  It always depends on a million subtle factors, and good players figure out, largely from trial and error over years of play, how to decide which of those million things are the most important ones in a given situation and how to respond to them.  So really I just tried to make sure my players understood this reality – that the way to get good is not to follow some pre-determined recipe, but instead to accept the need to do their best to read and react to situations and embrace the fact that getting better at those things involves trying stuff and learning from how it goes.  

Focus on vision and field awareness!

This is again a more abstract “messaging” theme rather than a concrete thing we did, but I made a point of constantly pointing out, in a variety of different contexts, the importance of visual awareness of the field, one’s teammates, the opponents, the disc, etc.  So for example, when practicing throwing against a mark, I would frequently correct players whose throwing technique had them turning their back to the intended target as part of the wind-up to the throw, explaining not only why maintaining visual awareness of the target helps you make a more accurate throw, but also how looking away may send an unintended and unfortunate message to the teammate that could result in a turnover.  Or in the “diamond” throwing exercise, I would make sure players understood that it is important to pivot inward so as to maintain visual connection to both teammates (both of whom would be, in a similar game situation, strong potential candidates for the next pass).  Similarly, I battled continuously and throughout the season against the idea that playing person defense consists of chasing your person around the field, staying as close to them as possible, while focusing your gaze narrowly and exclusively at them.  No!  Good person defense means defending the space where the person might try to get open for the disc…  So be in that space, and try to orient yourself so you can see not only the person, but other relevant things as well:  the thrower, other players who might also try to attack that space, other defenders in nearby spaces that you might be able to profitably switch assignments with, etc.  

To summarize:  I tried to create exercises designed to allow basic skill work to be at least somewhat more game-realistic; I almost completely eliminated pre-choreographed drills in favor of unscripted mini-games that are fundamentally game-realistic in that they require decision-making, improvisation, and creative problem-solving; and I constantly messaged that each player’s job in whatever situation they find themselves in is not to follow some pre-determined recipe but instead to acquire as much relevant information as possible and make the best possible decision based on that information.  

And, believe it or not, there wasn’t much more to our tactics or game-preparation than that.  The players had learned some zone-D in the past and they did that occasionally, but we had the most success defensively with our improved, more flexible and cooperative, person D.  And on offense I described what we were doing in terms of playing “Ho” rather than “Vert”, just because they understood “Ho” as an alternative to “Vert” in which players were more spread out across the field.  But we never talked about or worked on any of the specific cutting patterns/sequences that most people would understand as essential to “playing Ho”.  Instead our offensive tactics consisted pretty much exclusively of broad generalities:  try to use the available space and keep the disc moving around quickly to keep the defense on its heels.  That is, I really just encouraged players to do the things that they had found worked well in our keepaway games.  

(For readers who are interested, I will plan to write up a few shorter articles with more details on some of the specific training exercises and mini-games that I thought were especially effective.  These, I am told, will be made available for Hive Training Tier patrons.)

How did it work?

It was … great!  There was definitely a bit of an adjustment period at the beginning as the players came to grips with me telling them, both by implication and explicitly, that (to paraphrase Yoda) they must unlearn everything they had previously learned.  But they enjoyed the more active/engaging exercises and mini-games, and I think it was palpably obvious to them that these activities were helping them improve more than the old familiar drills had ever done.

It helped, here, that at the end of the very first day of practice in mid-March, I had them scrimmage and it was just terrible in the “one-dimensional, predictable, boring, and … ineffective” way I described above as characteristic of their play the previous year.  The next day, I pointed out how bad the first-day scrimmage had been, had them play 3v3 keepaway for a while, and then threw them back into a 7v7 scrimmage with the simple instruction:  “forget about stacks and all that, just play like you did during keepaway just now:  spread out and keep the disc moving around quickly” and the quality was so immediately and obviously superior that they couldn’t not see it.  So from that dramatic moment early in the season, they kind of bought into the new philosophy.  

Several players also commented explicitly at various points during the season how much they enjoyed the unscripted mini-games, how they could just tell that playing keepaway was really helping them in games, and more generally how the team as a whole was improving so rapidly.  The only objective evidence I can offer in support of these subjective self-reports is the following.  Early in the season, we got crushed by our cross-town rival 4-15.  In the middle weeks of the season we played them three more times and all three were one-point games, but for different reasons:  the first of these 3 games was in an extremely strong wind and they won on universe point because nobody could score upwind; the second game we won on universe point but in that game our rival team was missing a number of key players due to injuries; we lost the third of these three games, also on universe point, but in that game we really earned the one-point loss without any assistance from wind or the opponents’ injuries.  Then, when we played our rivals again, for the fifth time, on the last day of the season (at our state championship tournament) we crushed them rather easily and convincingly.  So there was a clear and consistent improvement, against the same one opponent, over the course of the season.  

The players’ (and my) subjective sense of things, that is, seemed to be entirely correct!

That said, however, it’s not like we played perfect ultimate this season.  Despite improving significantly (as measured by our performance against our cross-town rivals) we still got blown out at the state tournament by two other teams.  Finishing third in the state was a huge achievement for us, but third in the state definitely leaves a lot of room for further improvement in the future.  

Lessons for next time

Coaching this season was incredibly fun and extremely rewarding.  So I am definitely hoping/planning to keep doing it in future years.  

I am still in the middle of processing and reflecting on how the season went, what worked well and what didn’t, etc.  (Writing this essay is part of that processing process!)  But I will share a few preliminary thoughts on what I will plan to keep, and what I will plan to tweak, when we do this all again next spring.

First and foremost, the overall approach seemed very effective and I will basically stick with it.  Indeed, both because the returning players have already bought into the overall philosophy and because I learned (just through trial and error) this season about which exercises/games work better, I think I’ll be able to deliver an even more pure and potent version of the same overall philosophy next year.  In particular, we’ll spend even more time on activities – like small-sided keepaway games – that I thought produced the biggest bang for the buck. 

One thing I plan to spend less time on is the full-field scrimmages that we tended to do for the last 30-45 minutes of most practices.  And, maybe I should say, it’s very surprising to me to be saying that.  Coming into the season, my plan (as I described already) was to cut out all the pre-scripted drills and instead let the kids play games.  What I found, though, is that the various “mini-games” that I described above seem far more useful than the full-size 7v7 scrimmages, especially for less experienced players.  The field is just a little too big and it’s a little too easy for an inexperienced and somewhat hesitant player to either fail to be involved (despite trying) or (as sometimes happens) to actively hide.  The small-sided (3v3 or 4v4) games are much better at getting everyone actively engaged, working to get open for passes, getting touches on the disc, and improving as a result.  We’ll see, but I could imagine not even playing any full-size 7v7 games at all during, say, the first month of the season, then introducing them just so players can get a feel for the spacing involved but still doing them less frequently than we did this season.

And speaking of spacing, although my team developed incredible flow and had a lot of success on the field, we still tended, even toward the end of the season, to collapse too far toward the disc and end up making an unnecessarily large number of unnecessarily short passes.  So I will also go into next season with an even stronger commitment to training players to stay more spread out and look for longer passes.  I think part of the reason we continued to have trouble with this spacing issue is that many players lacked reliable longer throws.  So, for example, I plan to continue with a lot of the same game-realistic throwing exercises, but simply make them bigger so players are practicing longer (say, 20-30 yard) throws more often.

Relation to Hex and Flex

I stumbled across the Hive Ultimate site, and the concepts of Hex and Flex, around the beginning of the season, a few months ago.  If memory serves, I was brainstorming ideas for rondo-inspired un-scripted training games and at some point tried googling something like “What is the ultimate frisbee equivalent of the rondo?” which somehow led me to the “Hexagon, the Bestagon” article on Ultiworld and eventually to the Hive website.  

During (and since) the season I have been slowly digesting and learning from the material that Felix and others have created, but I am really just a beginning student of these ideas, albeit one for whom the ideas resonate almost perfectly with my own pre-existing Barcelona-inspired thinking.  

I say this partly to make sure readers understand that I am not an expert on Hex/Flex, but also to help other coaches – who are flirting with non-traditional approaches to playing and training ultimate – appreciate that they can try radical new things and go way outside the traditional boxes without necessarily branding what they’re doing in any particular way.  As I said above, for example, I described what we were doing on offense as just a way of playing better  “Ho” and what we were doing on defense as simply learning how to play better person D.  

And that is genuinely how I feel about these things, at least at present.  

I deliberately avoided naming or advocating for any particular offensive shape – including the Hex – because, as I described above, I thought the players’ previous exposure to such shapes was getting in the way of what was important.  Their vision of what the overall team shape was supposed to look like, on paper (or even pizza box), put them in the mindset of trying to “be in the right place” instead of the more perceptive and responsive problem-solving mindset that I think is needed.  So while I find myself agreeing with virtually everything I read and understand about the Hex approach, I fear it might hinder rather than help to introduce that terminology and shape explicitly.  “Work together to stay spread out, keep the disc moving around quickly to keep the defense on its heels, and wait for opportunities to attack the space forward and score” – i.e., “play like you play keepaway” or “play like Barcelona plays football” – seems preferable since it can’t possibly be misinterpreted as implying that there is some particular place they’re supposed to stand and passively wait for further instructions.  Is it compatible with Hex to never mention Hex?

And on the defensive side, was I teaching my players “Flexagon Defense” (without calling it that), or simply teaching them how to improve their person defense?  I’m not sure, and I’m not even sure there’s a difference.  The Hive site defines Flex as “the application of teamwork principles to 1-to-1 defence, specifically switching and surrounding where appropriate (not poaching).”  That resonates well with what I was going after, though my players fell into describing the style of person defense I was encouraging them to play as “poachy person” or “PP”.  Is that because they mistakenly think of being 5-10 yards from your person, in the space your person is likely to want to try to cut into, as “poaching” whereas I would just think of that as good, appropriate, non-poachy positioning?  Or am I actually pro-poaching to an extent that conflicts with Flex principles?  

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  But I know I’m excited to keep thinking about all this stuff and discussing it with other fellow travelers.  And I hope this essay will stimulate such discussions!

Footnotes

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