October 12, 2020
By Grant Lindsley
Skill Work: Throwing
One of the biggest opportunities for raising the level of play in ultimate is individual skill work.
When most teams gather for practice, they focus on group cohesion like offensive flow and defensive schemes. They should. It’s not the best use of limited team practice time to focus on repetitive, solitary movements. But that now leaves players on their own when it comes to refining individual skills.
Take throwing, for example. I’ve been playing on top teams for more than fifteen years and throwing a disc for more than twenty, yet I can only think of two instances when I was given clear, individualized instruction that significantly altered my throws.
The first instance was my freshman year of high school when my backhand developed an “air-bounce”. I found the flight pattern pretty, like a bird skimming low on the water before banking up in the air, but the bounce was susceptible to popping up in the wind, and it limited my distance on hucks. My coach taught me to tuck my thumb along the edge of the disc and straighten out my swooping up-down-up throwing motion.
The second time was more recent. My inside-out flick was unreliable. It often popped up or fell behind my receiver. A coach offered feedback that I’m continuing to incorporate and build on.
First, he said, adjust the footwork. Turn your pivot foot in so that you’re basically doing a lunge. This alone was a significant change.
Before this instruction, my form for inside-out flicks consisted of a wide step out with my toes pointing in nearly opposite directions, my chest facing my target, and my arm flinging the disc off the side of my hip. If that’s hard to picture, it looked sort of like this, except worse:
Imagine a disc in her right hand. Notice her toes pointing in opposite directions and the orientation of her chest. A great yoga pose. Not great flick form. Photo credit.
Now, I was told to step forward instead of wide and point the toes on both feet in the same direction, while aligning my chest with my toes and throwing the disc across my body. Sort of like this:
Excuse the illustration. Notice toes and chest pointing in the same direction. I miss the beach. Photo credit.
As soon as I began to incorporate these changes, my flick improved. I was more balanced. The disc popped up less. But come scrimmage later that day, I reverted back to my old form. I knew what to do but forgot to do it.
Skill work takes time and repetition to settle into muscle memory, time players may not have at practice. Drilling some small movement over and over again on our own can be boring. But in a critical moment of a big game between two top teams who are both in great shape, a small breakdown in skill – a flick that pops up – can be the difference between winning and losing.
If you can find a way to make tiny adjustments interesting, devoting hours to individual skill work can be almost enjoyable. In most endeavors, the better you get, the smaller and more subtle your improvements will become. Here are a few more avenues to consider:
Examine how tightly you hold the disc. Experiment with less and more.
Notice where you look as soon as you release the disc. I’ve noticed that my accuracy improves if I keep my eyes focused on my target instead of watching the disc fly.
Refine your target. Instead of throwing to a general “person,” try hitting that person on one shoulder, imagining that there’s a defender on the other. (As an aid, I’d like jerseys someday with the right sleeve a different color than the left – in addition to team tights, which aid everything).
Hold your follow through. Ever notice how basketball players keep their arm raised until the ball hits the net? See what happens if you hold your follow through until your receiver catches the disc. It may improve accuracy and expose areas of imbalance.
Throw from the hips. Generate more power on hucks by consciously twisting your core.
Consider footwork. How do you orient your pivot foot? Where do you step with your non-pivot foot?
On hucks, try grunting loudly. Just kidding.
Practice throwing long unders. This is perhaps the hardest kind of throw, because the margin for error is so great. Throw 30- to 50-yard unders on a clean, head-high line intended for a receiver running at you full speed.
Talent can be developed. While some is innate (see: Jack Williams), plenty is earned. Teams work together to grow greater than the sum of their parts. Players work on their own to become better parts. The off-season isn’t just a chance to lift and run. Consider honing a small new skill.