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Field of Dreams: If You Practice, Skills Will Come

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

I have become inspired lately by several members of our club in Grande Prairie. They are taking on the sport with passion, learning new skills, breaking through plateaus, and beating personal records. I have also been getting lots of questions from people about improving form and how to do field work. I started this year uninspired since COVID-19 shut down my summer tournament plans. Seeing others learning new skills has reminded me what I love most about disc golf: obsessively developing and perfecting skills for no purpose beyond the joy of learning.

This article was borne from this spark. I hope to do two things here: inspire others to discover the joys of getting better at disc golf and provide a road map for how to do it.

(Now, if only somebody could inspire me and provide a road map on how to create a non-cringe-worthy title for a blog article, then we'd really be sailing.)

Growth and Learning Principles

Our bodies and brains are designed to adapt to challenges. Here's a video of what happens in our brains when we learn something new.

Neurons create new pathways between each other, becoming faster, more efficient, and more powerful. However, this only happens when we push ourselves to do something we can't yet do. If we just keep doing things we are already able to do, the brain has no reason to create new connections, so our brains don't change as much and we don't get better.

Bodybuilders know that the same principle works in our bodies to build muscles. If you keep lifting the same weights for the same amount of reps you will grow stronger and bigger to a point and then plateau. This plateau happens because the body has developed as much as it needed in order to lift what you make it lift. Put simply, to bust through the plateau you have to try to do something you can't yet do: increase weight or increase repetitions.

However, trying to jump too far to a new skill will lead to frustration or injury. You have to strive for a skill just out of reach, not one that you are impossibly far from. So, no, if you're currently throwing max 300 feet no amount of determination (or watching pros on YouTube) will have you throwing 450 feet in a few weeks. It takes time for the body and mind to adapt to increased challenges. Just like the neurons in the video took time to connect, we need time and rest to learn new skills.

How Only Playing Rounds Prevents Improvement

Using the idea above that you need an increasing set of challenges that you repeatedly push yourself to overcome, I believe that only playing rounds of disc golf will eventually leave you with a plateau. You might even be confused: "I've been playing for 8 years but I've never gotten any better. People who have been playing for less time have surpassed me."


Part of the answer involves some simple math: only playing rounds means that in about an hour you get to throw a disc 50-70 times and each throw is different from the next. If on Monday you tried a backhand on hole 1, but didn't quite make it and you want to try a different disc next time, you might have to wait until Wednesday to try that one shot again. Our brains don't respond well to delayed repetition and feedback. Our brains like immediate feedback and immediately repeated experiences.

Another part of the answer is that during a round you might only encounter a handful of situations that truly challenge your skills and push you beyond what you can currently do. That's not a lot of opportunity for growth.

So I believe that the best way to speed up your progress and avoid an early plateau is to do field work. Here's an example of where somebody truly committed to getting better might choose to throw most of their discs:

(Note: the gloominess and soggy long grass in this picture helps illustrate my belief that if you're really committed to getting better you can't be a fair weather golfer.)

Great, you have a stack of discs, a basket, and an open field. Now what?

Deliberate Practice

The method of practice most validated by science to build skill the fastest is through deliberate practice. This idea was researched by Anders Ericsson and written about in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Deliberate practice debunks many myths about practice:

  • No, you don't get better at something just by doing it a lot. Practice does not make perfect. It's not as simple as putting in 10,000 hours of repetition.

  • No, your genetics are not the biggest determining factor for why you are good at something, rather, it's the quality of your practice.

  • Yes, you can get really good at a skill if you practice properly and are motivated enough.

The key principles of deliberate practice are detailed in this graphic:

Targeted on a Specific Goal

For practice to be most effective, it has to be targeted to a small skill, not a whole range of skills. Going to a field to throw discs back and forth in whatever way is comfortable is much less effective than going to a field to practice, say, backhand anhyzers from 150-250 feet using putters.

Challenging Beyond Current Level of Skill

For practice to be most effective, you have to push yourself to try to perform skills you can't yet consistently perform. If your strength is backhand midrange hyzers, then going to a field to practice them probably makes you feel good but doesn't push you to grow and learn. You should be focusing on skills that you can't already perform. Focus on your weaknesses.

Highly Focused Practice Sessions

While practicing, you should be intensely focused on what you are doing. You won't learn if your mind is wandering. If you are practicing a new form such as forehands, you should be paying attention to what happens when you change your grip a little bit, or what happens when you turn your shoulders back a bit more than usual, or how it feels when you brace your front foot harder than usual. By focusing deeply on what is happening with your body and mind when you throw you will consolidate your learning at a deeper level. How long should a practice session be? As long as you can and still maintain focus. General advice is about an hour.

High Quality, Instant Feedback

As soon as you perform an action, what your brain wants to know right away is "was that good or bad?" If it is good, the action is filed away as a model of "good". Your brain will rearrange itself (think of those neurons connecting) to create that action more often. The longer you have to wait for that feedback, the less able your brain is to rearrange itself effectively. Therefore, putting is usually a satisfying thing to practice. You know immediately if the putt went in or not. Max distance driving can be less satisfying sometimes. You might feel like you crushed a throw, and your brain is already arranging itself, thinking "that's it, you got it!" But then you get to the disc with UDisc measuring for you and find that you're 20 feet shorter than you thought. Design your practice so that feedback is high quality, and instant.