Welcome ultimate frisbee coaches and players! Thank you for taking the time to look over this resource. I am a middle school ultimate frisbee coach and have been working with that age group on and off since 2015. My cocoaches and I are all middle school teachers (ages 11-14) and coach a team for our school. Up until this year (2023), I have taught my teams vertical stack, as I felt it was the best introductory offense for teaching many of the principles of the sport. This year, however, my cocoaches and I decided to try teaching hex instead, to match the shift made by the high school team in our district. We kept notes of our teaching progression and thoughts as we went to make adjusting our ultimate frisbee curriculum easier in the following years. This is a modified version of that document that omits identifying information. Please note that most of these reflections are my own, as my cocoaches and I have not yet discussed our big picture thoughts in depth. We may add/change notes once we have those discussions.
We run two programs (open to all gender identities) at our school. Our casual, non-commitment club meets twice per week and runs from September to March. It is welcome to all students grades 6-8. At the end of March, we run a competitive Spring team that meets four times per week for approximately two hours. This is only open to 7th and 8th graders.
The 2023 Team:
Every team has a different feel and culture. It is important to have this context when reading our notes. This year’s team was invested in the sport and had great physical and cognitive potential. They struggled with carrying a focal point into a scrimmage, drill, or game, and had issues with team culture. I bring this up because some of the challenges this team faced were characteristic of these kids and their classmates as a whole, and were not specific to our hex for the first time.
Reflecting on Hex
Concerns Before the Season
Going into the season, we worried that hex would be too cognitively demanding for kids of this age. Generally speaking, middle school aged children are transitioning out of a developmental phase of concrete thinking. Hex is highly fluid and conceptual, which could be challenging for our concrete thinkers.
In terms of skill and strategy development, teaching hex felt superior to teaching vertical stack. The principles of hex (e.g. take the open pass) are foundational to any effective offense in ultimate, while some of the principles of stacks (e.g. cutting orders) are highly specific. Here are some specific reflections comparing this year’s team with teams that were taught vertical stack:
- Our hex team was better at generating offensive motion.
- This principle was unlocked early, but it took a while to get everyone to cut after every throw.
- Our hex team had better spatial awareness and field vision.
- Players often stayed out of each other’s way, but this actually led to some indecision.
- Our hex team had better decision-making in terms of throwing.
- Players struggled at first with throwing to the defense because their minds could not process everything, but they developed faster and better decision-making by the end of the season.
- Our hex team had better mid/deep zone defense.
- This goes hand-in-hand with the development of spatial awareness and field vision.
- Our hex team struggled with cutter indecisiveness.
- Too much thinking led to indecisiveness.
- Our hex team struggled with deep throws.
- Deep cuts are harder to find and execute in hex, so the players practiced these throws less.
- Our hex team struggled with marking and forcing.
- In practice, it was hard to play strong person defense which meant marking/forcing were organically deemphasized. This came back to bite us when playing against good teams.
- Our hex team struggled with pace and mind/body coordination.
- Often times, players would think faster than they could act or vice versa
Changes for Next Year
Part of the struggles our players faced comes from the coaches having never taught hex before. It will take some time to figure out which skills are developmental weak spots from teaching hex and which skills can be taught more effectively in a hex curriculum. Here are some of the major changes and questions we have moving into year two:
1. Teach defense first, and teach it thoroughly.
It is much harder to practice person defense, marking, and forcing against hex than it is for vertical stack. Vertical stack creates break side and open side cutting lanes, which aligns conceptually with forcing and body positioning in person defense. For middle school students, having a visual alignment of these concepts helps tremendously with skill development. Because of this, having solid marking, forcing, and person defense is essential before teaching too many offensive hex principles.
2. Define situations, common forms of motion, and the purposes served by motion.
In a vertical stack, what you do is clearly defined by your “role” or position in the stack. This year, we overcompensated and removed the idea of roles entirely. For middle school students, this meant some did not have enough cognitive structure to apply hex concepts to full effect. Next year, we would like to rebrand the idea of roles and teach “purpose” with the players, based on where they are on the field. We want them to understand what their likely motion would be and the purpose that motion serves:
- You have the disc. You always throw and go to the first open player. This serves the purpose of vacating the space you were just in and trying to receive a pass.
- You are connected to the thrower. You are likely to move to an open space within the throwing range of the thrower. Your motion vacates a hex bubble and provides a throwing option.
- You are not connected to the thrower. Your likely motion is to reposition or run into a recently vacated, connected hex bubble. The purpose of the motion is to create an opportunity for a throw for you or a teammate. This is how most motion is initiated.
- You are not in a hex bubble (just finished a cut). Your likely motion is to find a hex bubble and communicate teammate repositioning if necessary. The purpose is to vacate space and put yourself in a position to be useful.
It is also important to make it clear to players that when you are in situation 1 or 2, doing nothing except occupying a hex bubble and your defender is not a bad thing. The decision-making flowchart on the Hive Ultimate website is a good resource for a coach in understanding these roles, but it is an overwhelming resource for a new player, particularly a young one. One of the major challenges we will try to tackle next year will be figuring out how to isolate and drill these motions and purposes. As of now, we are still unsure of how to do this. This year, it was too difficult for our players to apply them in a full scrimmage without the scaffolding of isolated drills/activities beforehand.
3. Lean into the pace of thinking and acting early.
Players had a hard time making quick decisions and acting on those decisions in a timely manner. Sometimes players would act before they could think and throw to the defense. Other times, players would see an opportunity and formulate a plan, but the window would be closed before they could physically execute that plan. A few players were able to articulate this to me quite clearly. At first, I thought this was a developmental pitfall. Upon “interviewing” some of my former players at the high school and adults who play hex, however, I now think this is more of a universal challenge of hex. Running frequent drills that force players to make quick decisions (such as keep away with a coach playing auto-defense) early in the season may help with this.
4. Teach the principles of switching and communicating, but do not attempt to teach surrounding.
Unless a majority of the players on the team are returning veterans, there is not enough time in our season to develop strong person defense, hex, zone defense, and surrounding. We could try to cut zone defense out in favor of surrounding, but without being able to practice against vertical stacks and horizontal stacks in practice, surrounding is difficult to practice.
The Big Picture
There is a ton of stuff in this document to comb through, so if you simply want an answer to the question “should I try teaching hex to my middle school students,” my answer would be “yes.” Teaching hex, playing it with the kids, and talking about it with the kids and other coaches is incredible for your long term development as a coach, even if you decide you do not like it in the end. My advice:
- Do your homework ahead of time. Watch the Hive resources to give yourself an understanding of the conceptual framework and a bank of potential drills, either for extraction of ideas or use.
- Embrace the unknown and the unfamiliarity. You won’t be as good at coaching something completely new in your first year. Be transparent about it with the kids.
- Scrimmage with the kids. You learn a lot by doing. Things that are easy to see from the sideline are often hard to see in the game.
- Ask the kids about their thoughts… a lot. They are young, but they will offer important perspectives if you show them that you are open to listening.
- Document. It helps to have a record of your progression of drills/concepts. Our original notes document was waaaay shorter than this!
- Player leadership matters. Leadership skills need to be taught, particularly at the middle school level. Embrace emotional and social skill development as equally important to cognitive and physical skill development. This is not hex-specific, but it is essential to running great hex.
My cocoaches and I plan to run hex again the next few years, and we’ll see how we feel about it after learning more and refining our teaching practices. Regardless of whether we stick with hex or return to “stack world,” coaching hex has fundamentally improved our coaching skills. I hope you give it a try!