I travelled to Russia from 15-26 May, with the primary aim of running a Hex Workshop and playing lots of Ultimate! I contacted many players and teams in advance, working social media (including installing VK – the Russian equivalent of Facebook), got back in touch with a few Russian contacts I’d made over the years, and stayed at a friend’s place. It was my second time in Russia – last time I visited over new year where the temperature dropped to -27 degrees celsius – a coldness I could not even imagine before – but this time, in May, it was really quite warm! This article is broken into a few different sections:
Environment / culture
The first thing I did after settling in was go for a run in a forest near where I was staying. The ground was very swampy at times, and I found a creepy burnt out building to explore (pics & videos in the google photo album). On the streets of suburban Moscow you see the occasional cat, but they generally stay well away from humans and look after themselves. The buildings in the suburbs are huge – blocks of flats that are 6-12 stories high, and often 100m+ long. They were mostly built in the soviet-era and have an air of conformity and ruthless efficiency about them. Regular houses are nowhere to be seen – everyone lives in these blocks of flats – however most residents have a family dacha (a country house) outside of Moscow which they visit for the holidays. During my stay I visited a few parks, saw a second Kremlin, went to a show at the State Kremlin Palace Concert Hall, got the opportunity to drink vodka with some Muscovites (with bites of gherkin, as is traditional), and went to an Enter Shikari gig – where I immersed myself in a hardcore but very friendly most pit. Russians have a more direct attitude compared to British, and I’m a fan of it – if they’re angry or happy you’ll know about it; they say what is on their mind, they’re not afraid of how it might be taken; their emotions are closer to their skin. This is something I like.
The metro system, like everything else in Russia, is huge. A ticket costs 75 pence/cents and takes you anywhere you want. Plenty of the stations have interesting statues or decorations, and the metro lines are arranged so they all essentially cross over in the middle, with two circular lines connecting them – one in the centre and one around the outskirts. It’s a scaleable system which allows for unlimited future growth! I spent hours and hours on the metro, as practices in Moscow tend to be in the north east or south east – over an hour away from where I was staying – and, did I mention, the city is huge? Everything is huge in Moscow.
There are 4 Open teams, 3 women’s teams, and 1 mixed team in Moscow. Moscow State University has one of the best reputations in the world, and their team – MSU – are the current student champions. I was invited to run a training with them soon after arriving, and was impressed at the high level – especially the discipline not to turn the disc over on more speculative throws. Venues in Moscow can be expensive, but MSU have a good field in a small stadium in the south-east of the city, and it’s the same field where Ultimate in the city was originally born. The session focused on catching & throwing skills, with an introduction of Hex Offence at the end. Everyone seemed to pick it up quickly, and implemented the principles as I had explained them – so there wasn’t much to say inbetween points! Their ability to conservatively pass the disc around and gain yards ultimately highlighted how it can be tricky sometimes to score from Hex when flow has stopped outside the end zone, so I talked about a couple of options they could implement to generate space in such a situation. MSU train right near the main building of Moscow State University – the tallest educational building in the world.
Towards the north-east of the city are the training grounds for Dolgorukiye, Luckygrass, Lemongrass, and Brilliance. All but Brilliance share the same 3G floodlit field – Dolgorukiye’s trainings actually overlapped with Lemongrass and Luckygrass trainings, as it saves all the clubs money and the 3G field is large enough to accommodate two teams at the same time.
Dolgorukiye are on a recruitment drive, so had a few beginners at their sessions training alongside their strong core of dedicated players. As with most players who learn to play outside of university, the learning curve is very steep, but they showed a lot of promise. I attended three of their trainings in total – at the first I introduced a basic drill which Clapham ran at pretty much every training of theirs I attended in 2011, at the second training I helped the coach (Danil Kutov) with a few exercises and drills he had designed around the skills I taught at the Hex Workshop at the weekend, and at the last training we went over cutting techniques before playing a match against Luckygrass. Their warm up at the first training was basically a 30-minute fitness session, but at the third training they got warm by passing a disc in pairs whilst moving around the field – practicing decelerating into catches and accelerating out of throws.
The match against Luckygrass was interesting – Luckygrass went up several points at the start in a battle of vert stacks vs person-D, but then Danil changed our strategy by telling me to go deep. I took this to mean cut deep on offence (I was aware I’d thrown away a couple times), so I began doing that with some success… After their O line put in a couple of uncontested deep scores however I realised Danil was talking about defence! Talk about lost in translation… So then I played D at the back of their stack, switching onto whoever would cut deep, passing them off when they went under, and communicating to the rest of my team constantly as to where they should be going and who they should be marking if I switch onto their guy. It incorporated lots of the principles of Flex, with the added stipulation that I was heavily weighted towards covering the deep options whilst others took the unders.
Luckygrass struggled to improvise against it, hucked it a few times without seeing me switch onto the deep cutters, and we pretty much stopped them from scoring from that point on. I continued to go deep on O for Danil’s hucks and hammers (a throw which is not very common or looked kindly upon in Russia!) and we clawed back point after point until the game had to end due to the field being booked for American Football. I think we left Luckygrass scratching their heads, and their coach seemed keen to attend the next Hex workshop I run in the region.
I also got an opportunity to coach at a Brilliance training session – there were just a few players there, but the high quality of the Russian women champions was very apparent. We worked on catching & throwing, with a focus on long throws, and effective throw+go techniques.
Saturday’s focus at the workshop was “Throwing + Catching skills & Flexagon Defence”. We had 15 players turn up and had a good session – I talked about the neutral stance / power stance for throwing, went into detail about hucking technique, talked about and practiced the finer qualities of clap catching, broke down Flex D into its principles of communication, switching/sandwiching where appropriate, and covering all offensive players as a team, and drilled them each individually and combined. We played a few games at the end where everyone was communicating loads, looking out for switches, setting up sandwiches, and I was able to illustrate specific scenarios like where somebody would poach deep (without marking someone, switching, or sandwiching) and it would cause the defence to break down – so lots was learned by all.
On Sunday the focus was Hex Offence, so we ran through a number of drills which put into practice the skills which are particularly useful for Hex play and principles – throw-and-go moves, recognising space developing on the field and moving into it, taking the open pass or faking if it’s not on, and maintaining the hex shape – which entailed illustrating what the shape looks like when the disc is at any point on the field, and guidelines on how to maintain the shape dynamically during play.
At the end of the Sunday session we played a match against “Me & My Monkey” – a fairly new Moscow team. M&MM came out with a vertical stack and we immediately surrounded it whilst pointing and shouting “five!” to indicate there should be five of us sandwiching around five of them. M&MM’s cutting was chaotic in reaction and we shut down most of their short options and stuffed their flow, however they had a couple of throwers who were able to sit the disc out amazingly far and flat for their receivers to run down, which they did very well and very often until we adapted. On offence, Hex worked well but was rather crowded – the pitch was slightly narrow, but we also had the common tendency of over-rotating downfield, meaning the downfield space was crowded and the backfield space was underused when on the sideline. We had some nice sequences of play however, some good deep shots, some quick passes off the line from static towards the end, and scored enough points to win the game. M&MM’s offence switched up to horizontal for a while – we tried Japan’s Hasami defence against it but figured there was too much space between the downfield cutters for it to work effectively, so went back to Flex and continued to get good results. From vert, M&MM tried a play we used to call ‘rubber’ in the UK – the front cutters split and the back cutter comes under – which is a great idea against Flex which doesn’t have a fully switched-on back defender, however we recognised this and prepared the deep defender to tighten up quickly if he saw this happening, so we continued to cause them problems. Towards the end of the game we decided to switch it up as we were getting physically and mentally drained – at one point we came out with a vert stack on the open side (to free up loads of break space), but M&MM quickly transitioned into a zonal-type defence as a counter – something they potentially had learned from us during the game, or that their coach had prepared them for (he had also attended the Hex workshop).
During the trainings I got to know lots of Russian players by playing with & against them, and I believe that if I ran another workshop immediately then the turnout would be quite high. The Luckygrass coach told me he & his team didn’t attend the workshop as their strategic focus for the year was vert stack & man-to-man defence and they didn’t want to add confusion, which got me thinking about how the workshop could be tailored to account for this type of player/team. The throwing & catching part of the workshop is useful for any level of player, and teams are usually more willing to experiment with new defences over new offences, so potentially the “Flexagon Defence” part of the workshop could be marketed as “How to beat Vertical Stack using teamwork” or something similarly relatable.
The range of strategies played in Russia seem to indicate they’re a few years behind the UK. Vertical stack is very dominant, and though established teams know to play horizontal, they don’t seem too familiar or comfortable with it. The focus for both performance and for ‘keeping it simple for beginners’ is strongly on stacking tight and cutting hard. Deep throws are very common. On defence, we went through an entire game just forcing flick – despite the opposition having quite good flick throws. This is what teams used to do 20 years ago when not every player had a reliable flick throw. There was barely any zone played, however players were able to adapt to new defences when we introduced them, so the responsibility for progressing the strategic development on the field lies with the coaches at this point, who must be willing to experiment and take risks on defence in order to progress. It will be interesting to see over the next year or two whether Dolgorukiye and the other teams who had players present at the workshops adopt some principles from Flex defence, and begin to force their opposition’s vert-stack offence to evolve into a horizontal stack, or even Hex. Without defence evolving first, there is no need for the offence to evolve beyond the well-established vertical stack with hard cuts.
I hope to return to Russia in a year or two, and after playing in all the post-workshop games and trainings this time and seeing the strategies begin to have an impact, I’m sure that there will be plenty of players who will be keen to attend a future workshop in Moscow. I love the people and the country so I look forward to returning!
They do put potato on their pizza though – I’m not too sure about that.
Addendum: Dolgorukiye were kind enough to put together this video for felixultimate.com!