By Jack Trageser — RattlingChains.com Staff
Disc golf is still enough of a niche sport that by the time most of us are ensnared (like a putter caught in the inner chains of a Mach III) by an obsession to get better, we’ve already been heavily exposed to other more mainstream sports.
That reality has definite advantages for me, as an instructor, because it helps when I’m teaching a disc golf concept related to technique (or even mental stuff) to be able to draw analogies between disc golf techniques and those of other more familiar games. If someone has already learned a similar motion, it’s easier to recall that motion and apply it to disc golf than to learn it completely from scratch.
Case in point, my first session with Rattling Chains’ lead blogger P.J. Harmer.
P.J. spoke of the frustration of not being able to throw as far as he wanted or thought he should be able to throw — nor as accurately. Without actually watching him throw live and in person, I had to rely mostly on the spoken and written words we exchanged on the subject in choosing my advice for him. However, I knew a couple other things that would likely prove useful.
First, players in the earlier stages of the disc golf learning curve usually make many of the same common mistakes and therefore see many of the same negative results from those mistakes. Second, P.J. has talked on many occasions of being an avid softball player, so I knew right away that he would be able to easily understand the comparisons I like to use between throwing a disc golf disc using the backhand technique and proper batting technique in baseball.
Weight transfer and balance
Probably the most common mistake I see players of all levels make with the backhand shot has to do with transferring weight from the back foot to the front foot.
A good backhand throw derives most of its power from the back, torso, and legs rather than just the arm. In this way (and some others, which we’ll cover soon) throwing a disc backhand is just like swinging a baseball bat with the goal of hitting the ball with any kind of power.
In both cases you’re standing at a 90-degree angle to the direction you want to throw/hit. And in both cases you want your weight to shift from your back foot to your front foot at a precise critical time. With baseball, that time is a fraction of a second before the bat hits the ball. With disc golf, it’s right as the disc is passing your body mid-throw. Any sooner in either case and you’ll rob yourself of all that power you had coiled up from your legs and torso.
Using the baseball analogy, think of what a hitter looks like when he’s way out front on a change-up or curve ball. And in the case of a backhand throw in disc golf, you’ll also likely mess up your balance and lose accuracy as well as distance.
Most often, the reason that disc golfers have weight transfer and balance problems is because they try to incorporate a run-up into their drives and longer fairway shots too soon. You’ve heard the saying “You have to learn to walk before you can run.” In disc golf it’s more like “before you can run-up.” Later in this post you’ll learn a great exercise for “learning to walk,” in terms of throwing a proper backhand shot.
Reach back, line, and angle
Another parallel between hitting a baseball and throwing backhand is a literal parallel. In baseball the best chance a hitter has to hit a line drive is by swinging fairly level — or parallel to the ground. The big uppercut may seem attractive to those swinging for the fences but, more often than not, results in lazy fly balls or pop-ups. In disc golf the natural tendency is to throw on a low-to-high arc that is much like an uppercut in baseball — and the results are predictably similar.
Those throws that go way higher than you wanted (and much shorter) are the product of dropping the disc down to knee level when you pull the disc back and releasing it at eye level. There are, of course, times when you want this type of line, but not often, and never as exaggerated. For most throws the flatter, the better.
This goes for the angle of the disc as well.
A good long, straight throw depends not only on the line on which you launch the disc, but also the angle in which it is held in your hand. While the line of your shot primarily affects the elevation trajectory of your shot (see last paragraph), the angle at which you’re holding and throwing the disc will affect whether it is released with a left or right turn.
If you are right-handed and your main issue is the disc always cutting immediately to the left, you’re likely holding and throwing the disc at an angle where the edge you’re gripping is much higher than the opposite edge. If you’re trying to get a nice flat, straight flight, both edges should be the same distance from the ground from reach-back to release. The follow-through should reinforce this angle as well.
Work on keeping the disc on a line and angle that stay parallel to the ground – about even with your belly button — from the time you pull the disc all the way back to the time you release it. You can do some fine tuning later, to get the specialized flights you want — after you’ve mastered flat and straight.
Speaking of pulling the disc back, that’s the final basic building block I’ll cover today. Most players that are having issues with distance (as in, not enough), in addition to whatever other flaws they have, don’t hardly reach back with the disc at all. It’s very common for a player to keep the disc close to his/her body or curl back it around the body rather than reaching all the way back on the flat, level line I just described. This one change is often enough to increase distance by 20 percent or more, and also can act as a catalyst for improved weight transfer as well.
To go to the baseball example one more time, recall the first time someone taught you to hit. One of the first things you heard was “keep your hands back.” In baseball and in disc golf, reaching back as far as possible generates more speed on the throw/swing, and speed equals power. Pretty simple physics, really.
Here is the way I always teach new players to throw a backhand shot.
I don’t even talk about run-up at this point, for reasons I’ve already discussed. Even if you’ve played for years you may want to give it a try and see if it results in improved balance, distance, accuracy and eventually, scores:
- Stand sideways to your target, like you normally would for a typical backhand throw.
- Extend the disc forward on the line on which you’re aiming, with your weight on your front foot.
Pull the disc back on a flat, straight line about belly-button height, as far back as you can, trying to transfer your weight from front foot to back foot just as the disc passes your body.
- Your arm should be completely straightened out, and your back should be almost completely turned to the target.
- Your weight should be completely on your back foot at this point, so much so that your front foot is on ‘tip-toe’ and even slightly pivoted to accommodate as complete a reach-back as possible.
- Now that you know what to do, you’re ready for the 1-2-3-throw tempo trick. Bring the disc forward again as in step 2, then pull the disc all the way back as in step 3, being conscious of your weight shifting from front to back as the disc moves from front to back. When the disc reaches full extension, silently count one in your head (or say it out loud if you prefer).
- Without a pause, using a smooth tempo (like a practice swing in golf), go back forward again, thinking about weight transfer and keeping the disc on a flat, level line, and when you reach the point where you’re fully extended forward, pull back all the way again and count two. Then repeat forward and backward once more (three) and launch your throw on the same line, with the same balance transfer you just reinforced three times.
- Be sure to launch your throw from the point your disc reaches the fully-extended back position, with your arm straightened out directly behind you exactly 180 away from the target.
- Don’t hesitate once you reach that fully-back position and count 3. It should be 1, 2, 3 THROW!
The idea is get the most into a throw without a run-up, while getting the feeling and repetition of a rhythm that incorporates proper balance transfer. It’s a little different for everyone, depending on all kinds of factors, but but doing this out in a field you’ll come up with something that works best for you that you can repeat when it counts.
After essentially hearing this same information on a phone call, P.J. went out and applied the lesson as best he could with us being 3,000 miles apart. He dropped the run-up and instead went with a one-step motion, and focused on keeping the disc on a straight, flat (“lower”) line, and following through. In his words, “discs actually did what they probably are meant to do.”
Building anything successfully depends on a solid foundation or framework. Get the basics of your backhand right first, and things will only get better from that point on.
On the Web
There are now several good, professionally-produced video tutorial clips out there that show many of the techniques I described. On the plus side, they cover things I didn’t mention like grip and follow-through, but in my opinion they don’t spend enough time going into detail about the building blocks I described above.
I also have found the clips produced by Discraft to be pretty informative and accurate. I noticed in this one hosted by Scott Papa that he uses a baseball analogy as well, stressing the importance of follow-through. And in this older clip, Discmasters co-star Nate Doss stresses good technique, proper balance, and practice.
Jack Trageser is the founder of School of Disc Golf and is a writer for RattlingChains.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.