Witmer’s Wisdom: Quick Improvement in Throwing

Are you using optimal training methods for acquiring new throwing skills?

A Stubble player throws a forehand at the USA Ultimate U17 Youth Club Championships of frisbee.
A few improvements can help players learn better throwing technique. Photo: Isaac Wasserman — UltiPhotos.com

Many players in North America are still shaking off the rust while preparing for series tournament action.

I always prioritize efficiency in training. But with the shortened ultimate season, the quest for max gains per time invested may feel particularly urgent this year.

Here are my tips for Quick Improvement in Throwing.

I’ll be using throwing practice as the primary context in this post. But the same principles apply to any motor skills acquisition and most decision making skills also. These tips are based on some of the most robust findings in the field of motor skills research. Further suggested reading can be found at the bottom of this article.

Variability in Practice

One of the most vigorously-researched findings in motor skills research is the superiority of randomized practice over blocked practice. An example of blocked practice would be throwing ten of each throw in sequence: ten flat backhands, ten flat forehands, ten outside in backhands, etc. Does this method seem familiar?! Yes, it’s what many teams do at the beginning of each practice.

The more effective way to get adaptation from your throwing reps is to vary each repetition from the repetition before it. Try one flat backhand, then a flat forehand, then a scoober, then and outside-in backhand, etc.

Why does this work better? The theory is that each time you execute a skill, your brain creates a motor neural plan and then executes that plan as you execute the skill. If you do the same type of thing over and over, it’s as if the brain can be a bit lazy. It only has to create the plan once and then execute the same plan over and over. So you don’t actually help the brain to practice creating it’s motor neural plan.

Develop a Curiosity-Driven Practice Mindset

Motor skills are learned by the nonverbal part of the brain. It is important to understand that the conscious brain cannot learn motor skills nor can it control the speed in which motor skills are learned. The motor skills brain learns by attempting to produce results by trial and error.

If you think back to how you learned as a child, it was through play. This state of open curiosity that we have in play is the state in which the motor skills brain learns best.

This does not mean that all of your practice needs to be gamified, or that all of your practice will be fun. But it does mean that practice should feel interesting and exploratory. And if you’ve ever watched a toddler, you know that learning stops when frustration and temper tantrums set in. The same is true for adults.

Frustration is the opposite of openness and exploration.

When you feel frustrated, you will also notice more tension in your body. Extra tension inhibits the body’s ability to efficiently generate the motor-neural map required for planning and executing motor skills.

So if you can feel curious and open, you will notice that your body carries less tension. This is the state in which your body can most effectively generate new motor neural pathways in repetitions of trial and error.

The cerebral cortex or “verbal” brain should feel more quiet. It’s job may be to decide what to practice and when. It can provide some coaching cues and bring attention to various parts of the body. But overall, the motor skills brain is in charge.

Focus Your Attention on the Specific Result You are Trying to Produce

The role of the conscious brain in motor skills practice is to decide on the specific objective. It can be helpful to think about the conscious brain asking the motor skills brain, “Hey, can we do this?” or “We’d like the end result to look like X, please sort it out. Thanks!”

Though it sounds silly, this framing fosters the correct relationship between the verbal and motor skills brain.

What the motor skills brain needs is a specific result to aim for. And it turns out, the further away from our body we can put the focus of our attention, the more easily our motor skills brain can take over and produce the result.

So for example, often new throwers will try to bring attention to where the arm is being held or how the wrist is moving. This invites conscious control over what should be a motor skills brain job. If instead, we can focus on external results – such as a disc with no wobble – then the motor skills brain is more likely to produce the required release to make that happen.

In throwing practice, as we develop more skill we can be more and more specific about the result we are trying to produce. This may mean being more specific about the angle or trajectory of the disc or defining more and more narrow targets for the end point of the disc. For example: attempting to hit a throwing partner’s right hand or left shoulder versus the throwing partner’s torso.

Do a Deep Dive into One Skill

I recommend to my clients that they pick a particular skill and focus on it for 4-6 weeks. There is nothing magical about this time frame for motor skills acquisition. But in my experience, it seems to be a good amount of time to allow time for progress and to do a proper analysis of strengths and weaknesses within a particular skill.

This is different than the approach that many players take of just picking up tips here and there and applying them in a haphazard fashion.

Doing deeper practice requires time to figure out specific weaknesses within a skill and figure out drills, coaching cues to address them. Or time to find visual examples of how exactly an athletes wants to do the desired skill.

Further Reading

These principles are based on highly repeatable research done over many years. Some books written for popular audiences that touch on some of the ideas of deliberate practice and the mindset of effective practice include:

“Peak – Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

“Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey

Reading on concepts of Blocked vs. Variability in practice and Focus of Attention are more easily found in textbooks and research papers.

  1. Melissa Witmer

    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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