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5-on-5: Should We Throw With Minimal Movement?

5-on-5 is a new Ultiworld feature that asks five prominent coaches, players, or analysts five questions on various topics. Have suggestions for future 5-on-5’s? Email us at editor@ultiworld.com.

Benji Heywood, one of the excellent new columnists at Ultiworld, put out his bold thoughts on teaching throwing mechanics to young players earlier today.  We reached out to respected players, coaches, and minds to ask for their perspective.

1. Based on your experience coaching, do you think younger players are taught to throw with too much of their body early on?  Should coaches do more or start with teaching smaller, wrist-focused motions?

Tiina Booth, NUTC Director and Ultiworld Columnist: We often have a new kid come to day camp who has “good” throws that they have learned on their own or with a parent.  Most likely they are throwing only with their wrist, with a little help from their arm. Because the disc flies, they see no reason to change anything about their throw, when we ask them to pivot or use more of their body. It is much more difficult to change this habit than to teach another kind of camper with little throwing experience. We start with teaching the full range of motion but we work with them individually, WITHOUT a disc.  That makes it so much easier to see any hitches and once we put a disc in their hand, it usually flies well.

Lou Burruss, Oregon Fugue coach and Skyd Magazine Columnist: The biggest issue I see is that new players are taught to throw the ‘right’ way.  Changing from one ‘right’ way to another isn’t going make people better, merely shift problem from one area to another.  You want to develop versatility as a thrower; you want the ability to throw whole body for power and the ability to throw arm-only for certain short throws. 

Benji Heywood, coach-educator for UK Ultimate: The first question, I’m not sure. I don’t know if many coaches specifically teach too much body in short throws; rather, a subset of players will see the body rotation on longer throws and imagine that’s the only way to throw. The second question – a tentative yes. I wouldn’t start with a complete beginner by teaching them to throw this way – but quite early on I would look to introduce it. And certainly for those who show strongly body-dominated form on short passes, I’d work with them as soon as possible.

Brett Matzuka, Ring of Fire and Team USA handler: I do believe in teaching smaller, wrist-focused motions as a starting block to build off.  This can instill an understanding of the basic mechanics and allow an individual to build confidence in a particular skill before moving onward.  Teaching with too many moving parts early can be cumbersome, confusing, and difficult for one to completely grasp at an early age.  An anecdote: When I was a professional tennis instructor, we would teach a simple, basic principle of the ground stroke to the children during clinics so they would build a solid understanding of this component (“low to high” – nothing more).

Matthew Brady Meisenhelder, former Machine coach and creator of PulledDisc.com:  I would say so, though it is an assessment based on a very limited sample size. I do find players who don’t have the ability to make the ‘quick, lower-body-less’ throws that Benji mentions as a benefit of teaching throwing with smaller wrist/arm focused motions. Overall, I generally agree with Benji’s article and I follow similar methods when I teach throwing, so I do think more coaches should adopt this as part of their methodology.

2.  What’s the biggest advantage of developing throwing motions that don’t rely on whole-body movement?

Booth: For those new players who tend to let the disc leave their hands with little rotation, I can see this working.

Burruss: There are a lot of situational throws where you need to work the disc around a defender, either by breaking the mark or by throwing someone open.  Separating the throwing chain opens up a greater range of possibilities.

Heywood: For me, definitely the variety you can achieve, and the improvement in your form even when you do use the whole kinetic chain.

Matzuka: Much like any machine, the fewer moving parts, the more efficient and robust it is typically.  A foundation built off of simple mechanics means the individual can focus on understanding more areas of the game sooner.  A individual who has a simplified motion will be able to get the disc off quicker.  This means they are unlikely to spend as much time trying to set up their throw, but more time looking downfield and understanding the offensive scheme.

Meisenhelder: As Benji indicates, I think one will see a quicker learning curve for full body throws and one will gain a more dynamic throwing repertoire (quick release backhands — which I discussed in a recent skills video, low release backhands, etc).

3.  What’s the biggest disadvantage of learning or relying on those shorter motions?

Booth: I think the first way you learn to throw becomes your default method of throwing. I have seen players who rely too much on the quick, no pivot throw — which simply does not work in bad weather or with a strong and smart defense.  In addition, if you are under pressure, you often revert to the way you first learned ultimate and throwing without your body in those situations can result in turns.

Burruss: None.

Heywood: Sometimes players attempt to throw with no body when they actually need slightly more power than they can generate like that – and once you’ve started the throwing motion it’s too late to ‘include’ a bit of body at the last minute. You get discs that reach the cutter too late, on the back shoulder, and get blocked. But people quickly learn their limits, and it’s not usually an issue.

Matzuka: Much like any learning procedure, it can become a crutch for the individual to lean upon.  While short wrist motion throwing has many advantages, there are instances where you will need to utilize the full force your body can generate, such as hucks.  Getting too ingrained or reliant on a certain throwing motion can prevent growth in other areas.

Meisenhelder: I don’t believe there is a disadvantage in learning this way unless that is all you learn or all you practice (relying on those motions alone can definitely be problematic). I find it helps early on to show and talk through full body motions so people see the complete picture, even though I usually move right away to teaching wrist and arm dominant throws in different positions. As with any skill, balancing the different objectives of skill development is important (and where it helps to have a coach or experienced teacher handy). People will generally bias practicing something they are good at executing or to which they are familiar. So there are some caveats to using the techniques Benji lays out, but that is true with all skill practice.

4. What drills, ideas, or teaching techniques would you recommend to teach players to throw consistently from different positions?

Booth: After a few point blocks or poaches, they figure it out.  Seriously, it is not something I teach, other than to tell them to hit their target in the gut or at the correct side, away from the defender.

Burruss:  Both the Kung-Fu and Zen throwing routines are excellent for this.  Warming up with intent and visualization is essential.  Too many players laze their way through their warm ups by throwing without thinking.  Unintentionally they are building muscle memory and making it harder to learn other methods.

Heywood: Lou Burruss’ Compass Throwing from his Kung Fu routine is quite good – if you can pivot to all sorts of uncomfortable angles and still make the exact same throw you’re on the right lines. I also get people to throw on one leg, or to kneel down (and sit right back on their own heels) to take the lower body completely out of the throw. And of course, throwing 5-yard quick passes, in pairs, with just the wrist and minimal arm movement, will give you lots of reps very quickly and teach you how much power you can generate with just a bit of timing.

Matzuka: A number of throwing regiments have been developed (Kung Fu throwing, Zen Throwing, etc.), but they all achieve the same motivation.  Push the limits of what the thrower finds useful and comfortable.  Place people in situations where their comfort zone is inadequate and motivate them to utilize the benefits of a high release flick, scoober, large step out around backhand, and other less common throws.  I often would do three man mark drills with individuals and try to illustrate the advantages of increasing your arsenal of throws —  it greatly increases the difficulty for your marker.  Let alone, it makes your bread and butter throws often easier (a mark respecting the scoober has his hand high which makes the normal backhand much easier to throw).

Meisenhelder: My throwing website shows instructional videos for throwing (and was recently recommended by Beau!). Here are four good videos that relate to Benji’s points.

5.  How big of a problem do you find the issues Benji addresses are in the populations you work with?  Is it a problem mostly seen at lower-level or do you think players carry this issue with them throughout their career?

Booth: I definitely see top club players making the mistakes I described in #3. I understand the importance of quick throws and a quick offense, but when it turns into a hurried offense, you are in trouble.

Burruss: This is a huge issue for college throwers.  Developing versatility is a great way to plateau up, but unfortunately many players are never able to get the hang of it.   

Heywood: I think there’s self-selection to an extent – people with really bad form on short throws either have to improve or they simply don’t play at higher levels. Though I did see a few years ago a Great Britain mixed player, two yards out from the endzone, take a full wind-up to throw a 3 yard pass – the poor receiver put his hands up to protect his face from the expected power-throw and dropped the disc.  More commonly, I think a number of fairly experienced players could improve their options if they were able to generate power more with the arm and less from rotation – if you regularly find yourself impeded because your follow-through will hit the mark in the face, it might be worth trying to work on a throw where you finish pointing at the target instead of spinning all the way around.

Matzuka: I honestly think this is an issue that is carried throughout many players’ careers and prevents many good players from becoming great.  I would even go so far as to say it is a more endemic problem within the United States than other countries, in my experience, as we put a such a heavy price on athleticism. We do not emphasize the value of good throwing and throwing mechanics.  All the while, it is the team with the better throwers that obtains victory on the field of battle.

Meisenhelder: The most common issue I run into in my populations is that players could have learned faster before I worked with them if they had been taught the approach Benji lays out.  Some people carry this (or other throwing issues) quite far. It is often dependent on what they are able to ‘get away with’ and still get playing time. If you are the only deep thrower on your high school team and you have a slight air bounce on your backhand huck (which I see at times), there is often not a lot of incentive to fix it until you step up to the next level of competition.

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