You might not be able to mimic your way to a World title, but you can certainly get better.
June 28, 2022 by Steve Andrews in Instruction, Opinion with comments
In the interview, Gibson says that “no one’s who great at something copied someone else.” He argues that everyone has their own natural mechanics and, rather than emulating a pro, you should dedicate yourself to finding how your body works best. Copying a pro’s form might work, Gibson says, “but you would probably have learned to do it more efficiently on your own.” He talks about how so many players have copied Paul McBeth’s putting form but none of them can do it as well as he can. Gibson concludes that he doesn’t think “you should ever copy anybody doing anything ever in your life.”
While many professional players like Gibson have focused on building a unique swing that works for them, lots of other top players seem to have at least peeked at the homework of other pros. When Anthony Barela first showed up on tournament coverage, people noted the similarities between his swing and McBeth’s. While Barela’s swing has evolved since then, he’s not the only player to be compared to McBeth. The 2022 Las Vegas Challenge featured the DGPT debut of Jacky Chen, the Taiwanese player who jumped onto the disc golf stage (and got his first ever PDGA rating of 1040) when he beat Philo Brathwaite, Nate Perkins, and James Conrad in the 2020 Asian Open. Terry Miller, in discussing Chen’s surprising Asian Open win, said, “He clearly has mimicked, in so many ways, Paul McBeth.” On the 2022 commentary from Vegas, Brathwaite went even further, “The first time I saw [Chen] I thought I was looking at Paul McBeth. It was like the Matrix or something, right down to the mannerisms. It was crazy.”
Some players have also worked with other pros to refine their swings. Bradley Williams’s smooth swing is a thing of legend, and he has worked with top Texas players like Valerie Mandujano and, while it is not fair to say that Mandujano swings just like Williams, she does have the same great rhythm and similar mechanics. Mason Ford, another Texas pro who has broken into the top ranks, also toured with Williams. So, even top players seem to show the impact of other pros. Sometimes, that influence can be seen in just a single shot – such as the way so many pros developed a windmill action on their forehand that resembles the one made famous by Avery Jenkins.
Obviously, Gibson knows what it takes to be a world-class disc golfer, and he is probably right that there is no way to copycat your way into being a world champion. It would be hard for someone copying McBeth to consistently beat McBeth. If you have the power, flexibility, timing, and dedication to be an elite player, then finding your own way is better than trying to force yourself into a McBeth-shaped box.
But, what if you are a parent of three who is trying to get better at disc golf in two hours a week? Can we use the pros to get better, and, if so, how?
In an earlier article, I suggested there were three major components to pay attention to when you are working on your swing: position, tempo, and timing. A lot of ball golf instruction focuses on positions – the way your body moves and the route the club takes through the swing. Is your wrist cupped, is your swing flat, is the club crossing the line, or laid off at the top? Being recorded, and then having your swing compared to that of Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth, has become standard everywhere from Dick’s Sporting Goods to the Titleist Performance Institute.
Advances in video and computer graphics make it easy to capture and freeze positions mid-swing and analyze the angles of elbows, knees, hips, and wrists. It is natural to imagine that studying the progression of these changing angles shows how to assemble an excellent golf swing. Match these angles and you reproduce the swing. There is often a nagging sense that inside these angles is a hidden key to more power or perfect accuracy, that there is a “secret move” yet to be found.
This has also, quite naturally, become a part of disc golf technique analysis and improvement. A lot of disc golf analysis starts with identifying players who have excellent mechanics and then breaking down their form. It sometimes looks like this:
I have to admit I love this stuff. There is an undeniable draw to seeing golf as a question of engineering – discovering mechanical advantages in the swings of great players and developing drills to graft those advantages into your own game. If this kind of analysis works for you, there are lots of articles, comment threads, and videos by people like seabas22, the guys at Overthrow, and other great content providers.
While some people love this kind of detailed analysis and using focused drilling to change the hand position in the power pocket or perfect their swim move, other people find this kind of detail hard to apply. Sometimes you can get so focused on one factor, like getting your elbow into a particular position, that you find your swing getting worse. My obsession with filming my swing and focusing on how my swing looks has sometimes led me to lose touch with what makes my swing work.
Chasing positions can be tough. While you can drill and videotape your swing, it is sometimes hard to take those insights to the course. You can get into your new positions after an hour in the field and then revert back to your normal swing on the first tee. Improving your positions can definitely improve your swing, but it requires dedication and time.
Imitating a pro’s swing can seems like a cheat code. It feels logical that if you can hit the positions of a pro in the same sequence, then you can throw like a pro. However, the swings of most pros are more than the sum of their parts. It is not just about positions, but also about speed, flexibility, tempo, and timing. So, if copying pros positions can’t always get us their swings, what else can we learn from them?
Look at the Big Things
It is easy to get so focused on the small details that you miss the things that can be most helpful. I have sometimes gotten so focused on searching for a secret move that Kevin Jones or Drew Gibson uses in their back shoulder or trailing knee that I lose track of more obvious factors.
The biggest thing amateurs need to do is make their swings more athletic. Disc golf has its own specialized mechanics, of course, but most players could get better by embracing the idea that throwing a disc is an athletic move. Bending your knees, flexing at the hips, and engaging the big muscles of the legs are all things that are natural in playing shortstop or hitting a backhand in tennis and also pay dividends in disc golf. You can’t be quick on straight legs and you can’t rotate powerfully without engaging your hips. Moving into your throw on your toes and turning your shoulders rather than just reaching back – things common in all kinds of hitting and throwing sports, are also the basis of a good disc golf swing. There are things unique to the golf swing, but many players become so focused on those factors that they lose sight of the basic athleticism of the throw.
Look at this picture of Gibson from the GBO. Yes, there are undoubtedly things about his swing path, elbow position, and the technical details about how he uses his off arm that are worth copying, but focus on the overall athleticism of the throw – bent at the hips with his legs engaged as he turns into the shot. Many amateurs would see rapid improvement just by committing to adding more athleticism to their swings.
So, yes, work on your technique – but to make those positions work you also must focus on building core strength, flexibility, and power. The truth is that the “secret move” to more distance might have as much to do with weight training as nose angle.
Seeing the Diversity (and the Similarities!)
Here is one of the most common videos used in discussions of golf swing mechanics. It is a great, synchronized view of the swings of Paul McBeth, Jeremy Koling, Will Schusterick, and Dave Feldberg from 2013.
It is easy to see this image and come away with the belief that a distinct reachback is important to a good swing. These players all seem to be hitting a very extended position, and trying to get into this outstretched arm position was the Holy Grail when I was first learning to throw. It seemed it was the key to power, to unlocking a “pro swing.” The fact that Will Schusterick’s introduction video was seen as a “must watch” part of disc golf instruction in 2016 only made that point more powerfully.
But getting into and then throwing from this position requires excellent flexibility, great timing, and good core strength to get the arm back out of that long extension while delaying the rotation of the shoulders. If you spin out early or release that tension too quickly, the disc can easily slip behind you and the disc can go anywhere. Copying this position can be extremely frustrating, but it seemed like the common factor in great swings. Is it necessary to reach back long to throw the disc well?
Enter Seppo Paju. Looking at a wider variety of pros reveals that there are lots of ways to throw like a pro. Paju never gets anywhere near Schusterick’s extension but throws it just as far.
It is not that Seppo’s arm doesn’t extend, but his extension is a natural part of his body turn. His disc is not fully extended but has a beautiful connection to his torso. What this reveals is the diversity in the “pro swing” – the commonality in these great swings is not the technically difficult arm extension but the much more fundamental rotation of the hips and shoulders. All of the pros have a full shoulder turn – that is essential – but the arm extension varies a lot.
Don’t wreck your timing trying to add an arm extension that doesn’t come naturally. The arm extension is part of your turn, not a distinct reachback. A big turn and a full extension can add power, but only if you have the athleticism and timing to do it effectively. As long as your arm extension and your turn stays connected, you can throw it great even if the disc barely goes past your back shoulder.
Tempo and Timing
One of the greatest gifts of disc golf video is being able to see how pros put it all together. Tempo and timing often receive much less attention than positions when it comes to instruction in nearly every sport because it can be so hard to see tempo on video. Tempo and timing can seem unique and ephemeral, something that great athletes have and can’t teach.
I disagree. Imitation is a powerful tool. I think watching the swings of these pros and then imitating not their positions, but their fluid and soft acceleration, can lead to getting the most out of your swing. Watch great throwers like McBeth, Gibson, and Bradley Williams and then try and copy their smoothness, not their form.
It is shocking to watch how easy and fluidly Gibson moves down the teepad before throwing it 600 feet, or to see how Paul McBeth, in his field work, takes smooth, light steps and then throws his shots 400 feet with little apparent effort. Often, we marvel that these players throw so far when they look like “they barely throw it” – but that is how they do it. Danny Lindahl’s popular catchphrase is “slow is smooth and smooth is far,” but amateurs still rocket down the teepad. The goal is not to slow down for the sake of being slow, but to find a speed where your timing can let your mechanics work at their best.
It’s hard to know what smooth and powerful looks and feels like – but here it is. Watching and emulating this tempo, literally trying to copy this speed and softness, often does more for me than a week of fieldwork drills:
Watch Paul McBeth throw field work, chatting while casually throwing bombs:
Here is Bradley Williams testing out discs on different angles. All with a smooth tempo, great balance, and gradual acceleration.
These videos – shot in the field – are often more helpful than tournament coverage, when players are forced to go for maximum distance or hit precise angles. Here you can see a purer expression of their form when the pressure is off. You can see Williams, for example, throw about 50 shots in ten minutes – hitting different lines with the same set of fairway drivers, which reveals the consistency of both his form and his tempo.
In these videos, you don’t see the hallmarks of so many amateurs’ swings – jerkiness, quick transitions, spinning out, or stumbling off the pad. Quickness comes in the final moments before release, not at the start of the throw. Sure, McBeth and Gibson sometimes go faster when they want to nuke one, but amateurs should emulate the smooth tempo that gives repeatable great shots.
And it isn’t just on drives. Look at McBeth’s tempo on a must-make shot on hole 17, chasing down the 2021 USDGC title. This is maximum pressure, facing a long putt to stay in the hunt, but McBeth’s tempo in his downswing stays buttery smooth. You don’t throw or putt with your backswing, and his tempo allows him to get everything behind the putt. And become US Champion (again.) You may not see an immediate benefit in copying McBeth’s grip, his stance, or the way his back foot grinds the ground – but adding a smooth downswing and transition to your putting might help you right away.
It is important to remember what Philo said about watching Jacky Chen in 2020. It wasn’t just that his positions were like McBeth’s: Chen had also copied the mannerisms, the timing, and the smoothness. If you are going to copy from the pros, copy that first.