Using the Novelty Effect to play better disc golf (without wrecking your game)
January 25, 2022 by Steve Andrews in Instruction, Opinion with comments
I am cursed. Some may say that it is the “novelty effect” or some other term from sports psychology, but I know the truth: I have been cursed to throw every new disc well the first time I throw it. I have been cursed to have every new swing tip and every new drill work like magic the first time I try it.
When I am poking around the stacks at Skybreed Discs, I will always find something that will change my game. Justin Taylor knows when he says, “Do you want to try the new X?,” I will say yes, it will fly great, and I will buy one. Massively overstable discs somehow stay straight and fly true. Flippy beginner discs ride rocket lines before fading gently to the right at unimaginable distances. Putters – all of them, soft, hard, beaded, deep, shallow – find the chains from everywhere. The curse? This all lasts about a week. At most. Then it disappears like it was never there. Those overstable discs crash out at 175 feet, those beginner discs roll, and those putters never again find metal. Those tips that made everything make sense when I committed to totally changing my swing now might as well be in cuneiform.
Novelty is sometimes seen as an important part of sports engagement and enjoyment. It is one of the reasons offered for the popularity of programs like Crossfit or Orange Theory that offer great variation in the exercises during a workout. The “Novelty Effect” is also seen in the way that changes to a workplace – all kinds of changes – can increase workplace efficiency. If you increase light in an office space, productivity will go up. It will also go up if you decrease the amount of light in an office space. Changes have a positive effect. Until they suddenly don’t. As Clive Thompson wrote, “The novelty effect isn’t a sham. It’s not an illusion. We really do experience genuine bursts of creativity or productivity from trying out some new tool. It’s just that the burst cannot sustain itself, because novelty cannot sustain itself.”
I call this the “curse of the new” – and it has led me to spend too much money on discs I don’t (or can’t!) throw, change my game even when it is working, and chase every theory, drill, and teacher on the internet. There is no doubt that novelty can help performance, but how can we get the benefits without wrecking our games and our wallets?
Keep a Bullpen of Swing Thoughts
Sometimes you have real problems in your swing that need to be fixed. But, for many of us, our swings are okay, but sometimes the game seems less interesting and our swings feel stale. For a long time, my tendency in these situations was to videotape my swing searching for things to fix or to go online and look for drills or new swing theories. Sometimes, this would be the start of a halfhearted swing rebuild that would make my swing worse. I was chasing novelty, right off a cliff.
If you have been fundamentally happy with your swing, but you suddenly aren’t getting the results you want, there are ways to use the novelty effect to your benefit. One of them is to use different swing thoughts to feel your swing in a new way.
Swing thoughts are a big part of traditional golf instruction – often used to keep a golfer from trying to think of every part of their golf swing at once. The usual advice is you need to have no swing thoughts (if you can!) or one at a time. The best swing thoughts are focused on large cues and not small mechanical actions. For example, “belt buckle at the target” might help a golfer swing all the way through or thinking “smooth” or “low and slow” might help a golfer who rushes their backswing. You want to avoid overly technical swing thoughts like “remember to supinate 19 degrees on the downswing” and avoid at all costs negative swing thoughts like “don’t go left.”
I have collected a group of swing thoughts that have helped me. I keep a detailed throwing journal that I use to record tournament results, discs I threw on different holes, and plans for my field work. I also have taken to writing down great swing thoughts and cues to help my swing. You may think you will remember them. You won’t. I have often found myself standing in the field or on a tee thinking “man, what was I thinking last week when I threw it so well?” Write it down.
The advantage of a swing thought is that focusing on one aspect of your swing can really change how it feels. This can make you feel like you are making a change, engaging some of that novelty effect, without messing with your basic mechanics. You need to find your own swing thoughts that capture what you feel when you are throwing your best. Some of the ones I have used are “get on your front foot” – which makes sure I shift my weight. Another is “slow first step” which makes me start my walkup with a good tempo. Focusing on taking that first step smoothly is an easy way to slow down my swing. I sometimes think “wide” on my turn to make sure that I don’t round or “hips” to make sure I am initiating my throw with my lower body. When I find a one that makes my swing feel great, I am all set.
Always be open to picking up new ones. Last week, I was literally standing in a field with a Teebird3 in my hand, listening to the new episode of Disc Golf Answer Man, when Eric Oakley said he was working on new terminology – “FFF” or “Follow through Forward First” – to help his forehand release. Oakley said that if “I only focus on forward, it is really difficult for me to then roll my wrist over and push the disc over the top and go Shankenflex.” Sounded good, started thinking about that, threw great, and it’s now in the throwing journal. Thanks, Eric.
After I am using a swing thought for a while, they often fade into the background. It helped me get into a good groove and now I am throwing well without thinking about anything. But I know my swing will eventually go wrong. When it does, I want to have thoughts or images I can focus on and know they will help me right the ship.
This process naturally moves through stages – feels different, feels natural, gone stale. So, even if you find a cue that works great, know that it won’t last. It is frustrating, but the thing you have been feeling or thinking that made you play lights out golf may soon be boring and lose its power. It wasn’t that your thought was “wrong,” you just need to find a fresh one right now. But keep that great thought in your bullpen. After it has sat for a while, you may pull it back out and find it is all recharged and ready to go on another birdie run.
No Perfect Disc
Another way to get some novelty into your game is to change up your discs. A new disc can often give you hope and excitement, and this isn’t always delusional. Just as there are reasons to change your mechanics, there are times when it is a good idea to switch equipment. But I have a storage area full of discs that I bought with absolute confidence they were going to change my game. They did. For a week or so.
It’s not the discs’ fault; they are all great. For example, Felons, Raptors, Firebirds, and Scepters are all good options and – while they certainly have slightly different flights and stabilities – you can hit similar lines with all of them. But it is still easy to get stuck thinking that your discs aren’t up to the job, and you need a change. While all kinds of discs can work, I play best when I am excited about my discs. And sometimes the easiest way to get excited about your plastic is to get new plastic.
When I weigh buying a new disc (or, more commonly, weigh buying five of them), I usually try to convince myself that I am changing discs because the new ones are better and there were problems with the discs I was using. I spent a lot of time convincing myself that I needed to throw Roc3s instead of Compasses because they are better for my game. I told myself it was an objective decision about flight, feel, and performance. Well, maybe. The truth is, I throw them both about the same. But the disc I always throw best? The one I just switched to.
Hello again, novelty effect.
For a long time, this resulted in a constant search for the perfect disc. The hope was that I would buy the right disc, put in my bag, and the search would be over. What I understand now is that there is no “right” disc and there is probably not going to be an end to my need to change things. The goal is to find a way to satisfy the need for change without having to believe that the solution is always new plastic.
Because the sense that what you have is never right is frustrating. And expensive.
Lately, I have gotten better. Now, when my discs are getting stale, I don’t try to convince myself that my Raiders are bad, and the perfect disc is out there waiting to be bought. I know I just need a break. To get it, I will put my Raiders away and throw Wraiths. Initially, the Wraith will be exciting and a clear improvement. But in two weeks or so I know I will go out and throw some Raiders and, you know what? I will rediscover they are still really great discs. The Raider, the staple of my bag for two years, will suddenly feel like the new hotness again. Sorry, Wraith. See you in six weeks.
Make a Change — or Don’t
Sometimes you need to have a little quarterback controversy. The Harp has been my go-to overstable throwing putter for five years. My most consistent upshots and approaches, both forehand and backhand, are with a Harp. But this week I held tryouts for that slot and told Harp that, while I respected his veteran status, we would decide the starter in camp. I spent a couple of field sessions putting the Harp against the Zone, AviarX3, A4, and Berg. Harp won. Putting the Harp up against all the other discs gave me fresh appreciation for it. I finished with total confidence that the Harp was the best disc out there for me. Issue resolved. For now.
There are great players who find something that works and stick with it. James Conrad threw Greenie, his beloved Aviar, for years. Ben Crenshaw, one of the best putters in PGA history, received his blade putter “Little Ben” on his fifteenth birthday and used it for 40 years. Other players, however, constantly change their equipment or mechanics. Many commentators see Tiger Woods’ decision to take apart and rebuild the best swing in golf (three times!) as a fatal flaw. However, that is how he stayed obsessed with the game. Many of us are tinkerers: we must be working on something, we need to be changing things to stay engaged and excited. For us, the challenge is to incorporate enough change to get the benefit of the novelty effect without abandoning the good parts of our game.
None of this should prevent you from making necessary changes. If you have serious swing flaws, it is going to be hard to get your game where you want it just by changing your swing thoughts. However, if you are going through a slump after being generally happy with your swing and your equipment, you can get a lot of the advantages of the novelty effect without committing to long-term, large-scale changes. You may find your game renewed just by tweaking the way you experience your swing, your discs, and your shots.
My wife was thrilled when I told her I was writing about the dangers of chasing novelty by buying more discs. But, while there may be hope for me, I haven’t been able to fully kick the thrill of new plastic.
Have y’all tried the Tomb? It’s really great.