This is the second post in our series, ‘How We Practice.’
It’s been two months since a friend invited you to your first pickup game and you caught Ultimate fever. In the beginning, your forehand flopped like a quail. Now, 1000 throws later, it feels pretty solid. In fact, it has become your favorite throw. Weirdly, in the process, you seem to have lost the ability to throw a crisp backhand. Though that was the first throw you ever learned — tossing a Frisbee around on the beach — your backhand release is now awkward and inconsistent. The disc feels sticky when it leaves your hand and you’ve lost distance and confidence. What’s up with this?
Let’s call the phenomenon “backhand lag.” Anyone who has spent time teaching Ultimate will be familiar with it. It can be a mild effect or a significant one; it can last for a few months or longer than a year. Some players describe their backhand as worse not only relative to their improving forehand but relative to the backhand they began with – not just a developmental delay but a skill regression. This dynamic of learning to throw is common enough that it’s worth thinking about how coaches and players can address it.
Are there effective ways to coach yourself or another player through backhand lag? There’s no discussion I can find in the Ultimate coaching literature. Indeed, the Ultimate community rarely compares notes on common learning challenges like this, which affect new players of many ages.
Backhand lag is counter-intuitive. Aerodynamically, the forehand is the less stable throw. So why does it take some novices longer to progress to competency with the backhand?
At first glance, four explanations seem plausible:
The rich body of research on the neurophysiology of throw development can help us sort through these four possibilities. That literature clarifies the phenomenon of backhand lag and suggests some practical ways to address it.
Skill acquisition in throwing: biomechanics
To date, most of the research on throwing relates to overhand throw development in ball sports. But the basic principles apply to the classic sidearm throws of Ultimate.
All throwing involves a complex “kinetic chain”, a standard biomechanical concept that sports physiologists use. Force is gathered in one part of the body and transferred sequentially, with increasing momentum, to the object in play. To assemble that sequence and deliver force through each step in a controlled way is a physically and cognitively demanding task.
This description of an overhand baseball throw by the researcher Greg Downey captures just how complex and demanding that task can be:
Using Downey’s language as a template, here’s my attempt at describing the kinetic chain of a backhand throw of a disc:
And imitating Downey again, here’s the sequence of actions in a forehand throw of a disc:
All this unfolds at incredible speed. In a study by Sarah Ann Hummel, an experienced player completed the acceleration phase of a backhand throw in about a tenth of a second. Using a radar gun, Hummel clocked the release speed of her test subject at 22.4 m/sec. or about 50 m.p.h.
Comparing these sequences, several differences are immediately apparent that help explain why beginning throwers might acquire a competent backhand more slowly than they do a competent forehand. First, a backhand engages more of the body in a potentially wider range of motion – particularly in the degree of rotation of the hip, torso and shoulder. There may be similar degrees of freedom in each throw; Hummel’s model of the backhand isolates six articulated segments from torso to hand alone (p. 60). In a forehand, however, the non-dominant side of the body (the pivot-foot side) is arguably less dynamic.
Second, note that in both throws the acceleration phase begins in the lower body and large muscles, delivering force through the torso to arm and wrist to progressively smaller muscles. With a forehand, the thrower begins and ends this sequence facing in the direction of throw. Yet a backhand adds an additional complexity: a thrower begins with her back to the direction of throw, looking over her shoulder.
With each movement, the more the range of motion, the more difficult it is to control so many degrees of freedom. A forehand stance more easily allows beginning players to isolate the large motor components of the throw (legs and torso) from the small motor components (shoulder and arm). They can shorten the kinetic chain if they need to, to control the transmission of momentum and the amount of force transferred from large to small muscles. This might make it easier for the brain to assemble parts of the sequence more quickly – and thus get better sooner at throwing a forehand.
Moreover, this research makes it clear that learning a new skill requires the reallocation of neural resources. It’s normal for these processes to advance unevenly. As Downey explains, kinesthetic studies by Mary Roberton and others have shown that throwing ability “advances unevenly in different parts of the body;” as a player’s brain assembles the different elements of a throw, “one part [can] grow more sophisticated while another part [lags] behind.”
Developmental and social factors: forehand forces and glam throws
Practice and game dynamics may also contribute to backhand lag. Repetition has a significant affect on the body that adapts to practiced activities and on the nervous system as well. Yet, as Downey emphasizes, it requires sufficient “stress on the body or nervous system to change them and adapt them for expert throwing.”
In youth Ultimate and in other beginning play situations, it’s common practice for opponents to force forehand; in anticipation of this, beginners tend to practice that defense against themselves more than they do a backhand force. This makes some tactical sense. But it means that beginning players are likely to have more high-pressure experiences of forehand throwing – precisely the kind of situation that stresses the nervous system to adapt.
Lastly, there’s a glam effect of the forehand for beginning players that should not be ignored. The ability to throw a clean forehand like a pro can gain a young player a lot of attention among non-Ultimate-playing peers. This is especially true for girls. Indeed learning a forehand is likely to be the only throwing experience they have in which they can acquire a skill as quickly as boys do. The adrenaline of impressing an audience may be just the sort of contextual stressor for brain development that fosters effective neural reallocation: wanting it more and getting positive reinforcement for doing it speeds anyone on the path to competence.
Counter-intuitively, the backhand may in fact be the more difficult throw for a beginner to advance with. Players and coaches can redress this by creating frequent neural and physical stressors for backhand throwing. Scrimmage with a backhand force. At every practice, get outside of your backhand comfort zone for distance, extension, and how hard you throw. As a simple strategy: count how many backhands players can complete in a minute; then add three to that number and have them compete to surpass that.
Just a little consistent pressure like this can get players over backhand lag more quickly.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Leclaire at Ultiphotos.
 Downey, 2009. See also Mary Ann Roberton and Lolas E. Halverson, Developing Children: Their Changing Movement. A Guide for Teachers. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1984, 24.