We Are Teaching it Wrong: Throwing Without the Body

Fury's Nancy Sun throws a low release backhand in the semifinals of the 2013 Club Championships.
Photo by Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Traditional wisdom says that power in a frisbee throw is developed from the ground up — what you might call the full kinetic chain. You generate power by pushing against the ground, transferring force through your legs, hips, shoulders, and arm in just the right way to propel the disc off into the distance.

Of course, this is all true – a floating astronaut with no ground to push against would struggle to generate a lot of power.  And certainly when we throw a full-effort huck we must start with the lower body.

But when we’re throwing at less than 50 percent effort, do we really need the whole kinetic chain? We can throw perfectly well with a kinetic chain that only starts from the shoulder – moving the arm, elbow and wrist, but not involving the legs or hips [except to form a stable base] or any rotation of the trunk. Are there any advantages to being able to do it that way?

I believe there are real, sizeable, game-changing benefits to throwing with a simpler motion. Many shorter throws will still have some small amount of body in them – but if you’re looking for a ‘swing-thought’, a cue that will help you learn, then ‘rotate your hips and shoulders’ is a bad one. If, as a coach, you’re deciding whether to teach short-to-medium-range throwing as a full kinetic chain movement or as an arm movement, I’d strongly recommend the latter.

The fewer moving parts involved in the throw, the easier it will be to learn the timing. You’ll get cleaner and clearer feedback as you learn the movement – there are fewer things you could be doing wrong. 

Separating the arm from the body facilitates the learning process by resolving the throw into simpler movements. Creating these separate motor-program ‘subroutines’ – like how to move the arm, and how to move the body – is part of the very useful process of breaking a throw down into its constituent parts. If you want to be able to throw with variation – different angles, different postures, different release points, etc. – it’s far easier to combine a bunch of ‘subroutines’ in new ways than to create a new throwing motion from scratch each time; I’ve talked about this before if you want to read more.

But the biggest advantage of throwing with the arm alone is this ability to throw from different positions.  It’s not just that it’s easier to learn new throws, as just discussed, but rather that there are many throws that would not even be possible with the full kinetic chain.

If I get into a really low, wide pivot, there’s not a lot I can do with my hips; if I’m in a backhand stance and need to quickly release a forehand, I’m not going to be able to rotate my shoulders in any useful manner. If I want to throw a give-go while starting my running motion it’s obvious that I’ll be better off using my arm (or even just the wrist) to throw and my body to run rather than trying to throw with my hips.

In other words, developing a throwing motion that doesn’t rely on a whole-body movement enables me to throw (with consistency) from more positions and in more circumstances.  And that is a huge advantage given the unpredictability of Ultimate, where few points are alike and none are the same.

There’s also usually a speed advantage. If I’m standing square to the target, in a neutral position, and I need to rotate my hips or shoulders to make a throw, then I’ll need to ‘cock’ them first by rotating the other way – whereas if I can throw just with the arm I’ll be much quicker to release the disc.

There are other things too. Arm-only throws tend towards a later release point and a more straight-line throwing motion; both, in my opinion, generally good things, but worthy of a whole article in themselves to properly explain why I think that.

To be clear – I’m not advocating anything that most players don’t already do. Nobody deliberately rotates their hips to throw a give-go, and almost every decent player is capable of a quick-release throw that doesn’t require the involvement of their body. Many throws in games require only very little body in the actual throwing motion, and most experienced players can do this without thinking.

What I’m talking about is an approach to coaching and learning.  Think of a mental concept of ‘how to throw’ that will more quickly create consistent but innovative throwers, as compared to the alternative approach that focuses on and teaches driving from the legs. I don’t want my players to focus on spinning around, on driving the throw with the hips and a big shoulder turn –unless they’re specifically looking to generate something close to maximum power. Every year, I meet a few beginners who throw principally through body rotation, and they are consistently less able to achieve different release points or trajectories than those who start with the arm.

With brand new players, it’s often helpful to have them include a pivot as part of the throwing motion as they learn, since many will otherwise never move their feet. And when talking about longer throws, it’s important to coach the use of the body. So I’m not saying that we should teach complete beginners that the body should be static in a throw. But I am saying it will be helpful to realize that they don’t need to start every throw from the ground up.

Fairly early on, it’s worth trying to separate all the different aspects of a throw where possible. Part of Ben Wiggins’ excellent Zen throwing routine works on separating the backswing from the throwing motion, so that you can take advantage of situations where you’re already in the right place to start the throw. The principle here is the same: often you don’t need to (or can’t) use the body, so why not practice throwing without it? 

I’ve found that one session on throwing using just the arm can sometimes transform people’s ability to break forces and to control their throws. Of course, I’ll be delighted to hear in the comments from those who disagree!

  1. Benji Heywood

    Benji Heywood is the full-time Director of Ultimate at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is also a coach-educator for UK Ultimate, and sits on the WFDF Ultimate Rules Sub-Committee. You can find more of his thoughts on the 'Understanding Ultimate' blog.

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