You might not be able to mimic your way to a World title, but you can certainly get better.
July 26, 2022 by Steve Andrews in Instruction, Opinion with comments
One of the frustrating things about learning a new sport is that it is hard to put feelings, sensations, and dynamic moves into words. Pros in every sport talk about what they do, or what they feel, during an athletic move, but those words often fail to convey how to recreate what they are doing. You can do exactly what you think they are saying and get no closer to improving.
Sometimes, this is because players say they are doing things that they absolutely are not doing. In every sport, you can listen to pros talk about their swing or footwork, and then watch it in slow motion and see that this is not what is actually happening. Athletes often describe their subjective sensations, not objective reality. This is less common now because of the ubiquity of video, but it still happens in almost every technique-heavy sport.
Other times, we can all be led astray by focusing on something that seems crucial but may not actually help us get better. The disc golf swing is a cascade of things happening both simultaneously and in sequence. The thing that looks or feels important may not be crucial in making a swing work. Some moves may be the result, not the cause, of something more subtle that is happening earlier in the swing. Hyper-focusing on the big thing we can see or feel can blind us to what led up to it.
For example, for some players, the sensation of getting the front heel down is very clear. It’s easy to think “aha, if I get my front heel down fast and hard, I will get more power into my shot.” However, the lead foot planting firmly into the ground should be the result of clearing the hips after a good body turn, so just stomping hard on the front foot – without fully winding up and shifting your weight onto your bag leg – results in weak shots that often go right into the ground. Often, the physical sensations or moves that seem most distinct are a result of good mechanics and not the direct cause of anything.
The important thing is to focus on why a particular move is important in your swing. Don’t just mimic some distinctive part of someone’s throw without understanding what that move is trying to achieve. Think of Paul McBeth’s grinding the ball of his rear foot into the ground on a long putt. He does that to make sure his weight is fully loaded into his rear leg. But many players copy that foot motion while keeping their weight forward – they are copying a move but not using it to accomplish anything.
Perhaps one of the most common examples of this is in many players’ x-step. Many of us go through the motions of an x-step without getting the main benefits of doing it. If this is a problem for you, let’s fix it.
Developing an x-step is a milestone in your game. It often marks the transition from “throwing a frisbee around” to “I am playing disc golf.” Not every top player uses an x-step, and the exact technique varies among players, but adopting it is a sign that you are trying to move your throw into alignment with disc golf form. It is a foundational move. The first question Nate Sexton asks in his famous clinic is, “How many people are familiar with the x-step?”
On the surface, the x-step is simple. You cross your feet and get sideways to your target. However, the exact purpose of it can remain unclear – is it for power? Is it for accuracy? Does going faster add more power? Does it matter where your feet are? The huge number of videos from coaches and analysts dissecting the x-step shows that this basic move is not as simple as it looks.
The problem is that you can do an x-step without getting any more power or accuracy. The x-step is not just crossing your feet, it is making sure your footwork is integrated with the movement of your hips and shoulders. Your “footwork” is not doing much for you unless it is paired with your “hip work.”
Your basic x-step for a full shot needs to do three things:
- Close your stance
- Turn your hips
- Create good hip-shoulder separation.
In almost every swinging sport, a “closed” stance is when the foot furthest from the target is pulled away from the target line. For a right-handed backhand, that means the toe of the left foot is lined up with the instep or heel of the right foot (or even further back.) An “open” stance is the opposite, with the foot closest to the target pulled further back from the target line than the rear foot. A “square” stance is when the feet are equally far from the target line.
One of the common mistakes in an x-step is keeping your feet in a straight line – or worse, opening your hips as you do your x-step. One common reason beginning players x-step with their feet square on the line is the belief that if they line up perpendicular to the target and then stay on that line, they will release the disc straight on the target line. The belief that the disc will always go wherever their feet are aimed.
But this seldom works if you are trying to generate any power in the shot because, though a straight shot may seem linear, it is the effect of multiple rotational factors. Having your hips square or open makes it harder to turn your hips and get your weight onto the back leg without swaying. This hip restriction makes it harder to make a turn that will generate power and accuracy.
This simple flaw can cause a whole cascade of problems. Since you can’t effectively turn your hips, it is easy to turn with only the upper body and get into a rounded position. Since your hips are locked and prevented from rotating, your swing will probably be dominated by your shoulders, sapping power and generating inconsistent releases. And, finally, it is easy to have your weight fall towards the target on your forward swing since your weight never got onto your back leg.
A closed stance makes it easier to coil shoulders and shift your weight correctly to get your lower body into the swing. But when do you close it?
A popular Simon Lizotte video recommends that one key to power is making sure that the last step of the x-step is further left than your right foot – essentially making sure that you end up in a closed position. I think that makes sense (and Lizotte knows infinitely more about power than I do), but I have seen many players implementing this the wrong way.
If you do the first two steps of your x-step in-line and only close your stance on the final step, you often end up landing with no coil. You end up closed, which is good, but without loading the hips. While that makes it easier to turn your hips through towards the target, you end up having very little power. You have gotten your hips closed too late in the swing to get the added benefit of a good hip turn.
Yes, good players step to the left on their last step as Lizotte recommends, but that final step is just a continuation of the gradual closing of the stance and turning of the hips that begins from the start of the x-step. Don’t wait until the last step to close your stance.
Instead, begin closing your stance on the first step going into your x-step. Make sure you are closing your stance and loading your hips before you cross your feet. For a right handed backhand, step to the left on the step before you cross your feet, so you load your hips well before you are coming out of the x-step.
Here is Lizotte at the 2018 European Championships – his stance is already closed and his hips are already turned on the step before his cross step:
This is why so many good right-handed players move diagonally across the teepad from the back right corner towards the front left corner. That sideways movement is an effect of closing their stance and coiling their hips throughout the x-step. It also helps to get them get off their back leg and into the brace of their front leg.
In this slow motion shot, Paul McBeth closes his hips throughout the swing. They are already closed on the step before he crosses his feet:
This beautiful photo shows Lizotte is releasing towards his target, even though his stance is extremely closed. If you are rotating correctly, the line of your feet is not usually the most important factor in determining where your shot will go.
But there is a final element in getting more out of your turn – getting good shoulder-hip separation. This is an important element in pitching in baseball, where the hips opening in the throw while the shoulders are still closed adds power. While the mechanics of throwing a drive are different from throwing a fastball, it is important to wind up your shoulders and hips but make sure they are working to generate tension and lag.
What you want to avoid is being fully “stacked,” in which your shoulders and hips are facing the same direction. This often happens to disc golfers who over rotate early in their swing and have both their shoulders and hips directly facing the back of the teepad during their x-step. When this happens, a player can have turned hips and a closed stance, but still not get any power into the shot because there is no hip-shoulder separation. There is a turn but no coil.
Instead, the point of maximum load in your backswing should produce a feeling of tension. If you are doing it right, that point of maximum coil should be hard to hold. One drill to get this feeling is to close your stance and slowly go into your body turn. At the point of maximum rotation away from the target, feel your hips opening while your shoulders are continuing to turn away. This is the feeling of separation and power that comes from a good x-step.
All of this is hard to capture in words, so I have also made a video to help explain how to get these three elements into your x-step:
Your x-step should elevate your game and add power and accuracy. To get those benefits, however, it is important to use the x-step to help you get a full turn. The key is not in just moving your feet correctly but in making sure your footwork allows you to tap into the power of your hips and shoulders.