“Reaching back” might be doing more harm than good.
January 11, 2022 by Steve Andrews in Instruction, Opinion with comments
In an earlier article, I discussed how hard it was for me to break the habit of rounding in my swing. I have also been working with some of my clubmates on their swings: many of them are having the same struggle. Given how often it comes up in analysis videos and discussion threads, rounding might be the most common and frustrating impediment to throwing well.
When I was first learning to play disc golf, lots of people told me that the disc golf throw was not like other athletic moves. It was a push back and then a pull through like “starting a lawnmower.” There were lots of visual or kinesthetic metaphors that emphasized the lateral movement of the arm back and then pulling through. While this approach may have worked for lots of players, I think this is exactly the kind of approach that leads to me getting “stuck” and rounding.
But first, what is rounding? Why do so many players do it and how can we stop?
Rounding is how we describe what happens when your body gets in the way of your throw. It creates a curved shape to the path of the disc from reach back to the release point, which bleeds power and accuracy. The proper path of the disc is in a straight line from reach back to release, even as your torso rotates.
There are probably many ways to fall into rounding in your swing. For me, rounding came from a lack of connection between the disc and my body that resulted in the disc getting too far behind me. From that position, it is easy to get “stuck.” You cannot make a correct throw and unwind from the ground up without rerouting the disc around your body. For me, trying to throw from this position usually resulted in nose-up anhyzers that faded out fast because of how little power I could put into the disc.
One of the worst parts of my rounding was that — since it came from my body turn and disc position being out of sync — going faster or trying to throw harder only made the problem worse. This was a recipe for frustration.
This is a common problem in rotational sports. Tiger Woods famously battled getting stuck as a young player. His fast hips would outrun his arms, meaning his swing was out of sync and the club was trapped behind him in the downswing. From this position, he usually hit massive pushes that went dead right. He relied on his hands to “save” the swing by closing the club face at impact which meant occasional blistering duck hooks to the left. When his timing was on, he could hit better than anyone on the planet; when it was off, he could hit it anywhere. He was trying to stop this swing flaw when he overhauled his swing with Butch Harmon in 1998 to make it shorter and tighter.
For me, the problem started with my reachback. Bradley Walker at Spin and Throw has been challenging the idea of a reachback for years, and now the entire concept is being rethought by lots of disc golf swing analysts. Today’s coaches will often not even use the terms “reachback” and “pull,” but in 2016 it was the cornerstone of most disc golf instruction.
The problem for me was reaching back as the first move of my backswing immediately severed the connection between the disc and my body. At that point, I was reaching backwards while my shoulders had hardly turned at all. When I finally turned my shoulders, the disc – which was already in a bad position – moved further behind me. Trying to throw with power or accuracy from that position was nearly impossible. If you swing from the ground up from this position, you are stuck as your hips clear long before your disc is in a throwing position. To compensate, I would spin my front shoulder out, taking the disc in a wide arc that lost power and accuracy.
It is a tough place to be. You know that you should throw from the ground up, but you can’t.
My first fix was trying to just stick my arm in a different position. If the problem was getting the disc stuck behind me, then I would just shove it into a wide rail position away from my body. The disc can’t get stuck if it never goes behind you. This was better, but I didn’t have much power. I was still disconnecting my swing by reaching back with the disc and only occasionally would I be able to get my body “into” the shot. When I did sync up my pull and my rotation, I could throw it great. But it was inconsistent and almost never worked under pressure.
The lesson: you need to keep your throw connected. Make sure that the body turn is leading and any “reachback” is in sync with the body rotation. Whether you have much arm extension depends on your tempo and timing; if you have a brisk swing that transitions very quickly, you may not have any reachback at all. Like Seppo Paju, your swing might be a tight turn back and through: trying to add arm extension might throw off your natural rhythm. On the other hand, if your natural tempo is longer, then you might have a swing that looks more like Will Schusterick or Eagle McMahon. They have a pronounced arm extension, but it is connected and in sync with their body turn.
Having a longer swing doesn’t necessarily mean extra distance – both Seppo and Eagle throw it a mile. So don’t fall into the trap of trying to get a longer swing than is optimal for your level of fitness and flexibility. Eagle can get into that long throwing position because he has exceptional flexibility in his shoulders and torso. Less flexible players sometimes try to “cheat” the swing by reaching past their bodies’s ability to turn. The body stops turning while the arm keeps going. If you have less flexibility and can only get to a 90 degree turn with your shoulders (or even less), it would be better to stay connected and throw from that shorter position.
It is sometimes hard to write about an athletic move, so I have added a short video describing the problem I was having and how I tried to fix it. There are all kinds of beautifully produced disc golf videos out there from people like Overthrow, Robbie C, and Trash Panda. This is not one of those:
Once you get into a good position, you need to keep that connection as you unwind from the ground up. This is where timing and tempo are crucial. If your lower body outraces your upper body, you can get stuck — even if you started from a good position. Find the speed where you can stay connected as you turn back and through.
I am kinesthetically dense; I have no feel for where my body is in space. My bad throw felt fine and that made it hard to fix. One thing that helped me was this drill adopted from traditional golf for testing whether your swing is staying connected:
And another modified traditional golf drill to help you find your best turn position:
It can be hard for some players to feel how passive the arm and wrist needs to be for much of the backhand throw. It took a long time for me to accept that I was more powerful and consistent when my throw was controlled by the big muscles of my body rather than trying to “guide” it with my hands.
It seems like building a connected swing is especially hard for some forehand-dominant players. I was talking with a forehand-dominant clubmate, and he said it was hard to break the habit of throwing “hands first” – reaching back with the arm and leaving the body behind. The forehand requires a lot of hand and wrist activation, and players can throw strong forehands from all kinds of body positions or even from a knee.
One of the things that was hard to learn was that I needed to do so much less in my swing – less hand action, less pulling, and less reaching with the arm. To get in a good position, it was necessary for me to make sure my arm was moving as a response to my body turn. This helped me get into a better position where I wasn’t rounding, and I could keep the disc on the line I wanted. If you are turning back and through in sync, you can rip it as hard as you want without rounding.
There are lots of ways a swing can go wrong, but if rounding is your problem, too, I hope this can help you get your swing connected and play better golf.