It’s not all about “perfect form.”
August 10, 2021 by Steve Andrews in Opinion with comments
There are endless Reddit threads and YouTube videos dedicated to analyzing the swings of professionals and arguing about proper mechanics. There are debates over the right way to do a reachback – or even if a reachback happens at all; there are fights over whether players “move around the disc” or whether the throw is a rotational move or a lateral pull. There are heated arguments over Beto, spin-and-throw, power pockets, wide rails, and whether you should turn on the ball of your foot or your heel. As a technique geek, I love these debates, but for many players, these conversations can seem impenetrable. Still, even if you don’t have any interest in going down the dark rabbit hole of disc golf mechanics, it is worth thinking about your swing.
When you are evaluating your swing, think about three big elements: positions, timing, and tempo. They all work together in the golf throw and paying attention to one factor can often help solve problems in another. Resist the temptation to think of the disc golf swing some kind of exotic action that isn’t like other athletic moves in other sports.
Your positions are where the disc is in relation to your body as you throw. It involves your posture; where or how you extend; how your feet, hips, and shoulders are aligned; where the disc is as it passes your body; and where you finish. When your positions are off, you can see rounding, an extension too low or too high, dipping on the finish, and other issues. These are the kinds of things so much of disc golf instruction focuses on – how do you get the disc into the release position, how closed your feet are, the plane of your swing, how much you should turn your shoulders, or where or how you should extend.
Positions are important. Getting your body and the disc in the right place can make everything in the throw easier. A repeatable windup that puts the disc in a slot that matches the line you are throwing is going to make your swing more powerful and accurate. Having to reroute your swing – if you are rounding or dipping – is going to add lots of extra variables.
But it is easy to get drawn into a complicated world of swing analysis and disc golf instruction in which the swing positions are broken down and there are heated debates over the correct angles of elbows, wrists, and shoulders. People on discussion boards and YouTube videos analyze what pros are doing and posters argue over the proper terminology for every action that happens in the swing. For some people, this level of detail and hyper-focus on the optimal degree of wrist pronation and the whether the front hip rotates or the back knee drives laterally is thrilling. For others, however, it can invoke paralysis by analysis.
Breaking the throw down into its parts can be useful, but it is important to remember that the disc golf throw needs to come together as a unified athletic move. Lots of instruction is devoted to positions because they are easy to capture on video and dissect; you can quantify the degree of elbow bend much easier than smooth timing. But focusing on positions is only part of a good swing – I want to suggest that you spend as much time working on your tempo and timing as you do on positions. You can throw better with great tempo and timing and bad positions than you can with beautiful positions and lousy tempo and timing.
Timing & Tempo
Timing is the kinetic chain of events that happens in your swing – in a full throw, it is the connection between your lead foot hitting the ground and transferring your power into the disc.
Great timing produces a smooth chain reaction as force and weight are transferred through the foot, hips, shoulders, elbow, grip, and eventually disc. This is often described as “throwing from the ground up,” allowing the weight shift of the lower body to trigger the unwinding of the upper body. When the timing is right, the swing looks smooth and effortless. It is about getting all of your hinges to work in the right sequence.
Tempo is simply the speed at which all of this occurs. Doing it faster usually produces more force, but there are players with both fast tempos and slow tempos who can throw it a mile. Paul Oman, for example, plays great disc golf throwing with as slow a tempo as any top player. Timing will determine how much of your potential energy you can leverage into putting speed and spin on the disc; your tempo will determine how much energy there is in the system.
Some people can throw it a long way because great timing allows them to efficiently get the most out of their swing; others have inefficient swings but still throw it a long way because they have such incredible acceleration. The longest throwers have both. The key is matching your Tempo with your Timing.
Think of Eagle McMahon, Drew Gibson, Paul McBeth, or Paige Pierce – they combine great positions (allowing good efficiency) with rapid acceleration and great timing. All of these factors come together to create what looks like effortless power. Then consider someone like James Conrad, who runs into his throw at a near-sprint. That is only possible because he has precise timing that can match that quick tempo.
Let’s take a closer look at a Paige Pierce drive, from this form breakdown video by Danny Lindahl:
Pierce has superb throwing mechanics across the board, but it’s her impeccable timing that makes her such a powerful thrower. Look at how much force she generates with her lower body before her shoulders begin to open up, leading to excellent acceleration through the throwing slot.
But how does this help us mortals? Recognize that all of these factors are at play. If your positions are off – if you are rounding or taking the disc up or down in your extension, then you have to delay turning your shoulders to allow the disc to get back in front of you to get an accurate release. This inefficiency demands you slow your tempo to allow you to get back into a good throwing position.
And if you don’t give yourself that extra time, then your throws can go anywhere. This is the place many disc golfers get stuck – trying to throw too fast. If your positions are off, then going faster just magnifies your problems. The quality of your throw is always capped by whether these factors are in sync. If your positions are wonky, then you are going to need excellent timing or tempo to get everything to work in your golf throw. Essentially, you are having to “save” every throw on the fly because your positions, timing, and tempo are not in unison.
Good positions – disc traveling through the throwing slot, weight back, hips turned – allow for better timing. It is easy to set up that efficient weight shift and transfer of power when your levers are in a good position to work together. Good timing then supports a faster tempo. You can accelerate and keep your accuracy when everything works in sequence. These pieces all fit together. What you might find is that what you thought were problems of position – that your swing was fundamentally “wrong” – are actually issues of timing or tempo. Getting everything to move in the right order and at the right speed can work miracles.
So, sure, try and stop rounding, work on getting your hips turned back in your X-step, and all the other elements of fundamentally sound positions. But beyond that, consciously work on your timing. For example, you want to make sure your shoulders aren’t flying open before your hips are engaged. A great help in this is throwing from a single small step– really feeling that putting weight onto your plant foot initiates a pull that moves through the swing.
This is the same move you use in every rotational sport – throwing a pitch or hitting a tennis ball requires a weight shift to the lead foot that initiates the transfer of force. No successful batter lunges with their upper body while leaving their weight on their back foot; they use a stride that leads to a weight shift through the hips with the arm coming behind as the hips clear.
As your timing gets better, you can accelerate your tempo. But, remember, you can only throw with a tempo that is as fast as your timing will allow. Increasing your tempo beyond your ability to throw in a well-timed sequence almost always ends in disaster. You can only go as fast as you can keep your form.
Some of this is genetic – great athletes can fire everything quickly and in the right sequence. It’s part of what makes them great athletes. Everyone has a top speed at which they can throw well. But whatever your potential maximum, your timing can be affected by all kinds of things like stress, exhaustion, or dehydration. If your swing is off, don’t go right to obsessing about positions or making a swing change. Realize that to perform today you may have to slow down or really focus on your timing.
Going too fast is one of the most common mistakes disc golfers make, which is why slowing down should be the first thing you should try when your swing is not where you want it. But – don’t just slow down to slow down. A slower tempo isn’t better because it is slow — you want to match your tempo to your timing. What is the speed where you can smoothly transfer your weight into the throw? That is your best tempo.
You should be working on your tempo and timing as much as anything in your swing. Positions are ingrained by repetition and are often hard to change. But changing your tempo and timing can be as easy as paying attention to it. And tempo and timing can help you get the most out of whatever swing you have. This is because even if your positions are off – if you are rounding or doing something else inefficient – you can still get good results with good timing and tempo. This is why even golfers with awful positions can have great days on the course. If their timing is on for a day, they can get the most out of their swing and play great. But inefficient positions make that sweet spot very small; so anything that throws off your timing, like the pressure to hit a narrow fairway, can lead to disaster.
Your throw is more than just the series of positions you assume during the throw. Maximizing your performance means matching your positions – however good or bad they are – with a timing and tempo that allow you to get the most out of your swing.