Albania: Introducing Ultimate to an entire country


Click for full photosphere from Petrela Castle

I recently travelled to Albania for eight days as part of a 10 Million Discs project in the Balkans. There were 5 of us present for most sessions – Trent Simmons (Founder & President of 10 Million Discs), Juan Amado from Columbia (coach), James Martin (coach), myself (head coach), and Erjona Kurti from the US Embassy.

Also see: Full Google Photo album | Full day-by-day blogs from Albania


10MD with US Embassy staff Erjona & Meghan

10 Million Discs is an international youth development NGO which engages youth through sports, frequently with a focus on bringing together people from countries or cultures with a history of conflict. By engaging them in a fun, new activity, 10MD are able to break down barriers whilst teaching conflict resolution, gender equality, mutual trust, personal accountability under pressure, and other important life skills. At the same time, 10MD programs are also tailored to advance social and humanitarian causes unique to the host country and communities.


US Embassy in Tirana

In the build up to our trip, the US Embassy in Tirana worked together with the School Sports Federation, and arranged for 250+ PE teachers (covering 7 of the 10 major cities) to come together and learn from us how to teach Ultimate and its self-refereeing principles to their pupils. They produced 200 “Better Together” discs to be distributed amongst the schools, featuring US and Albanian flags, and 10 rules of Ultimate printed directly onto the discs in Albanian with English translation. Alongside map-to-albaniathe teacher-training sessions we also worked directly with a number of youth groups to introduce the sport, the principles of Spirit, and how they relate to real life skills.

Ultimate in Albania has been fairly sporadic over the last decade or so, with no sustained clubs in existence and no pickup happening currently. In the past there has been the occasional team or game, mostly comprising of ex-pats, but even that seems to have faded out now.

PE teachers in Shkoder

PE Teacher Training
In order to introduce the game across the whole country, our highest priority were the PE teacher-training sessions being held at the big cities – Kavaja, Shkoder, Durres, Tirana, and Vlore (plus Fier and Elbasan after I left). We went equipped with discs, a translator (most Albanians over 25 years old do not speak English), and a sound system for the sessions. The venues were varied and often challenging due to the high number of participants, but we made do with what we had to deliver the best sessions we could.

Each teacher-training session had 50-70 PE teachers attending, maximum 2 per school. Each session started with us explaining four cornerstones of 10MD’s take on Spirit of the Game / self-refereeing – Personal Accountability Under Pressure, Gender Equality, Mutual Respect, and Conflict Resolution. We introduced Ultimate as not only a new sport, but as a new approach to sport.


51 PE teachers in Vlore – some of the 250+ PE teachers who learned how to teach Ultimate

Several teachers told us that such an approach (relying upon mutual trust & fair-mindedness in the heat of competition) would not work in Albania – a country which has a lot of problems; where life can be a struggle, people have their guard up, and a ‘take what you can get’ mentality is pervasive. However, we held strong that Spirit does work, and that the game of Ultimate ceases to function if mutual trust is not present – therefore those who play will quickly learn the importance of trusting and being trusted. We also expressed our hope that through playing Ultimate, the youth in Albania will learn new ways to approach situations in life where mutual respect and non-confrontational conflict resolution can go a long way, rather than following the example of some current sports (such as the most popular in Albania – soccer), which often reinforce a different way of thinking.


Roma community, volunteers, and locals

The teacher-training sessions were challenging for a number of reasons (oversubscribed venues, communication issues), but we learnt a lot from each one, and we hope the teachers did too. Every teacher went away knowing the basic rules of the Ultimate at the very least, and at the most they understood spirit, good technique, and learnt some drills which they can run at their schools. Considering how the numbers scale up in terms of pupils getting to play the sport, I believe our PE teacher training program will give Albanian Ultimate a healthy kickstart, and I would expect a few Ultimate communities to take shape, develop, and grow over the coming years. Once a certain number of teams form and are recognised by a certain number of NGOs, an Albanian Flying Disc Federation can be established. After I left Albania, Trent met with the president of the School Sports Federation who said he wants to ideally start the Albanian HS Ultimate national championships next year, citing potential for SotG principles to change Albanian society as his primary reason for endorsing us. The cost savings of not needing referees was also mentioned as a big edge over other sports.

US Marines
As well as PE teacher training, we ran a number of sessions with other groups; one was at a gated community connected to the US Embassy, where kids and their parents came to learn about the game and take part in fun drills & games. Also present at this session were 7 US Marines. Speaking to one who had played before, he said that Ultimate was played amongst the marines in Baghdad “like a religion” – he would take part in games which would grow to 10v10 in size. 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 who hadn’t played before picked it up very quickly, and using them to demo a drill was a fantastic experience as a coach – not sure I’ll ever have a beginner group again who listen to and follow instructions so clinically!


US Marines stationed in Albania – Ultimate is regularly played by marines in Baghdad

The marines also fell into team roles very quickly. 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 many, many points. Loads of them had awesome American-football style toeing-in ability, which was great to see. Whilst they were playing, we also had two other pitches set up for the kids & parents in the gated community, meaning everyone could play at the same time at a level they were comfortable with.


The juvenile prison looked very modern from the outside


Demonstrating throwing inside the juvenile prison

Juvenile Prison
We ran a number of sessions directly with youth in the cities we were working in – a model UN group, members of the Roma community, a few sports clubs, the political youth groups, and a session at a juvenile prison. The prison session was a very memorable and humbling experience – there were high levels of participation (43 inmates), though the prison warden stopped us from playing cross-cellblock games as we had hoped in case trouble started. We had four games going at the same time, and all the players I saw were enjoying themselves and playing fair – avoiding contact where they could, and settling disputes peacefully and respectfully on the field as and when they arose. As with any group, encouraging them to discuss the call between the two players involved would quickly lead to a resolution – usually the fairest one too. In the yard we were surrounded by 15ft high walls and almost all the prison guards were surrounding the pitches whilst we were playing.


Political Youth Groups
We brought together three political youth groups, who played alongside each other as team mates for the first time, all of them learning the rules of the game and how to resolve disputes together. Some of them were really competitive and weren’t afraid to make calls (again, easily settled when the two parties involved are encouraged to discuss it between themselves), nor were they afraid to sky each other and throw themselves around after the frisbee to make awesome catches and interceptions. Initially there was some unwillingness to inter-mingle between groups, but through learning the rules together, translating for each other, sorting out calls and figuring out tactics, we saw plenty of barriers being broken down and the youth really embrace the ideals of mutual trust and respect, despite their political differences in a time of political tension.


3 political youth groups learn Ultimate and SotG ideals of mutual respect during conflict resolution

National TV appearance

Towards the end of my stay we appeared live on the top Albanian national TV breakfast show! We were given a number of questions to prepare answers for, but to our surprise the presenters went immediately off-script and threw curve-balls our way. This again put us in a very challenging situation – the questions were being translated behind the scenes, so when the hosts finished their questions there was an awkward (and ultimately hilarious) pause before we even began to answer, as we waited for the translation to come through. They started off by comparing the sport to dominoes (?), and although we had to think on our feet regarding the answers, our preparation meant we did manage to say most of what we intended to – I explained the basic rules (after the classic ‘how is it different to throwing a frisbee on the beach?’ question), Trent explained the principles of Spirit of the Game, and Juan clarified how spirit works in a practical way on the field whilst Erjona was working in very difficult circumstances to translate back and forth. The section ended with us throwing around in the studio – one of their throws actually bounced off one of the cameras off-screen making a huge crash! Full video here.


Socio-economic situation & the natural landscape of Albania

Unfinished buildings are scattered around Albania – concrete frames of houses where construction seemed to stop just before windows & doors were put in. The location of these houses is great from an aesthetic point of view – surrounded by green hills and the Dajti mountains, but the unfinished structures are a haunting reminder of the economic problems the country faces.


Click for partial photosphere

The highways are generally well maintained, and took us on a path alongside beautiful scenery. Most of the central and eastern parts of Albania are covered in huge mountains; I took the opportunity to go up one of these mountains on our day off. Along the way up were many houses, with electricity getting less common the further up you go. Half way up was a small village with a lake, overlooking the city of Tirana – very picturesque indeed. The top of the mountain was enshrouded by a cloud, giving everything an eerie feel.
There are a few recurring structures amongst the mountains which hark back to a more violent history – I noticed two or three castles, and had the pleasure of visiting one called Petrela Castle, at the top of a mountain just south of Tirana. Inside we found an open-top restaurant/bar with one amazing table from where we could see the sun setting whilst enjoying an evening beer and making plans for the following day’s sessions. pillboxThere are lots of one-person concrete pillboxes / bunkers dotted around the scenery – built within the last century as what looks like a form of guerrilla war defence system – apparently there are 700,000 of them in total.

The city has a stray dog and cat population – the dogs are generally friendly and the cats are surviving by being very cautious. I didn’t get a chance to explore any real wilderness, inviting though it was, however I did come across a particularly large grasshopper / locust. Walking around in Albania was at times dangerous not because of wildlife or crime, but because of problems with the infrastructure – torn up pavements and roads, unguarded drops, or manholes with covers missing unguarded in the middle of the pavement could easily cause injury if you don’t keep your eyes open.

Summary – a glimmer on the horizon

If the 250+ PE teachers we trained get their frisbees and go on to introduce the game to 100+ pupils each, our immediate reach will be 25,000+ pupils. It will be interesting to see how the Ultimate  communities emerge and develop after this blanket approach – for middle- and high-school pupils it may be a few years before they organise themselves into clubs and teams outside of school, however by introducing the game to 120+ college students, working with 6 NGOs, appearing on local TV 6 times and on National TV twice – many adults could be encouraged to start clubs which the youth players can then join. Our next step will be to deliver leadership training courses and level-up the Ultimate knowledge amongst those who are growing the sport. We are in the process of distributing 450 discs to all the schools this year, with 1000 planned for next year – an ongoing supply of discs going into Albania would be ideal for supporting the developing Ultimate communities over the coming years.

To quote one of the PE teachers: “Albania is a country with many problems, and [Ultimate] is not one of them.” I hope that in time, Ultimate can be seen as a step towards a solution for some of the underlying problems Albania faces.


Click for partial photosphere

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!

New Facebook page live – check for Albania updates

Updates from my Albania trip are being posted daily on my new FelixUltimate Facebook page – read about how I’m working together with the 10 Million Discs global charity to introduce Ultimate at the grass roots level by running sessions with PE teachers, NGOs, and youth groups from around the country.

Felix is going to Albania!

On 10th-19th April Felix will be travelling around Albania with the 10 Million Discs charity!

Along with Trent Simmons, Jason Morrison and Juan Amado, I will be delivering 3 sessions to High School PE teachers, 3 sessions to NGOs including to staff & detainees at Juvenile prison in Kavaje, 2 youth sessions, a training with a paraplegic community / wheelchair group, and an afternoon playing with Embassy staff + Marines, amongst other activities and meetings to set Ultimate into action in Albania in a big way.

Check back for updates!