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?
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.
Developing Mental Models of a Skill
Eventually, what you want to be able to do is understand at a deeper level what it is that you're accomplishing when you perform a skill. For example, it's good to believe in something like "power is generated from the lower body" but if you've never focused on what it feels like to actually generate power from the lower body, it's just an abstract thought, not an experience. Experiential feelings are what help us perform sports, not abstract thoughts. These mental models grow and shift over time as we get better, focus on smaller and smaller details in practice, and refine our awareness of what we're doing. Keeping track of your learning in a journal helps to consolidate your mental models in long term memory.
Where to Start?
So let's say you are interested in pushing beyond your current level of skill and getting better at this great sport. You're going to take on deliberate practice. Where do you start?
Set Realistic and Specific Goals
I would start with a weakness in your game that you are motivated to fix. What is causing the most lost strokes in a round? Is it 20 foot putts, forehands, driving off the tee with drivers, 100 foot upshots?
Eventually, you want to articulate what do you want to be able to do that you can't right now. For some, that might be "make 80% of my 20 foot putts" or "consistently forehand 250 feet without wobble". The more specific the better it will be, but make sure it's just a bit beyond what you're able to do now.
Research and Learn
Then watch instructional videos or get some coaching to learn as much about that particular skill as you can. When I was learning forehands I watched every video I could, read articles about baseball pitching mechanics, and learned how javelin throwers used their hips. I learned concepts like spin vs. speed and then applied them in the field. I questioned my friends with good forehands how they gripped the disc and planted their feet. I watched slow motion videos over and over again on YouTube of professionals throwing forehands.
Design Intelligent Practice Sessions
According to deliberate practice principles, you will want to push beyond your comfort zone, keep it focused and intense, get a lot of repetitions, and get high quality instant feedback.
A good idea is to make up games and try to beat your best scores. Keep track of your scores and watch your progress. If you plateau, try to figure out what's holding you back and try something new. Maybe you need an updated mental model.
Use an app like Perfect Putt 360 to track your scores.
Play the JYLY putting game. This game's design keeps you focused on the distance where you are weakest.
Or, lay out markers every 5 feet from 10-30 and see if you can hit 5/5 putts from each marker. If you make 5 you move back, if you make 4 you stay put, and if you make 3 you move closer. Starting at the 10 foot station, how many putts does it take you to complete the 30 foot station?
Or, for a full winter I played a putting game I created that used dice to generate random putting distances (10-35 feet, 5 foot increments) and random stances (regular, straddle, knee). I would make 18 highly focused putts from each of these random spots and get a score at the end. Making the putt gave me -1. If I missed I had to make a comeback for par from a certain distance. This simulated putting as if I was playing a round of disc golf. By tracking my scores, I could see improvement over time.
Practice Hitting Gaps
Go to a soccer or football field and set up 200 feet from the net or uprights. Out of 10 throws how many can you throw through the gap? Move back to 250 feet and how many can you make? Practice over and over and watch your scores improve.
Pick a tree or other object in a field and throw 10 shots at it. How many can you put within 15 feet?
Time for a full body workout. Only do this once every couple of days so your body can recover, but this practice is all about crushing the discs as far as you can. Measure them on a marked football field so you can immediately and accurately know your distance. You can also measure your throws using the UDisc "Measure Throw" feature.
By Heqs - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1435800
Get Good Feedback
The examples of practice sessions above all have instant feedback built into them. However, if you are working on form, you need more than just the disc's flight to tell you if you're on track. Inconsistencies and inefficiencies can sneak into your form if you're not watching for them. You should be videotaping your form and reviewing regularly.
There are several places you can post your form for feedback:
The Facebook group "Disc Golf Form Check".
www.dgcoursereview.com forum "Form Analysis/Critique"
Some touring professionals like Will Schusterick will charge for form reviews. See Disc Golf Instruction.
Ask an experienced local to have a look at your throw on video.
If you want to do it yourself, there are a few photo and video apps that can be useful. I use PhotoGrid to capture images to see how my positions line up to a professional model. I've also used the app Fused to sync and overlay two videos at the same time to note timing differences at key points in the throw.
For example, here's a PhotoGrid I made earlier this year comparing myself to 2015 McBeth:
(Note: when you're comparing your form to pros sometimes the differences will be glaring, which you should obviously pay attention to. However, sometimes the differences are subtle but still important. While my positions above are roughly similar to McBeth's, the differences that are there are significant and only a small part of the many reasons why he throws a couple hundred feet further than me and would destroy me by double digits over any 18 hole round. One particular difference is how McBeth uses his left hip and left shoulder, which just happens to be what I was working on when I took the video. No matter what I do I can't copy it and I should stop trying. Let's just face it. McBeth is a lifelong, highly-trained athlete. As of 2015 he had probably a decade or more of deliberate practice on the backhand throw and already had well-developed mental models of throwing mechanics from a childhood of baseball and other sports. Compared to me, he is using a way more advanced and detailed mental model of how a backhand throw works.)
Develop Mental Models of the Skill
As you keep practicing a targeted skill, you should keep researching and learning about that skill. You want to update your mental model of what is involved in the skill and how you're accomplishing success (or why you're not). If your scores in your practice games are no longer improving, why not? Your initial growth took you so far, but now you may need a new mental model. This often happens with learning and leads to growth curves that look like this:
One way to keep pushing your mental models is to keep a journal of what you learned every session and what you plan to try next session.
An example of an updated mental model was when I figured out how to generate power in a putt from my feet, legs, and hips. Suddenly my arm was free to just guide the disc rather than trying to power the putt as well. This led to much more consistency and my scores got better.
Another example of an updated mental model was when I discovered how to use my wrist to spin the disc in a forehand throw. Before, I would try to “throw” like I threw a baseball when I was a kid, which wasn’t good. Sometimes the disc flew okay but mostly it wobbled through the air like a wounded duck. Once I figured out that I had to put spin on the disc purposefully, I experimented in the field, discovered the feeling, and then built up my throw around that "slinging" feeling in my wrist. This led to forehand becoming a useful tool and improvements in my scores.
So What About Playing Rounds
"But I like playing rounds. It's why I like disc golf."
"Of course. Me too."
I don't think anybody should stop playing full rounds. They are fun. They are social. They are outdoors. And for those that are committed to getting better at disc golf, playing full rounds is a perfect opportunity to put everything you're learning into practice, all at once, and test your skills. If you play rounds regularly on the same course, you can use your scores as a benchmark and feedback to see if your field work and other deliberate practice is actually translating to better performances. Rounds also help you identify weaknesses, which you can then target in future deliberate practice sessions. For example, maybe on hole 9 on Tuesday you had a weird lie where you had to straddle out from a knee and throw a short roller using a thumber grip. I bet you never thought to practice that.
And let's not forget, playing rounds is probably the best way to practice your skills in the mental side of the game. Though this article focused on the practice of physical skills, mental skills can and should also be practiced deliberately. Check out my previous article about what I think should happen in your mind during a round of disc golf.
In 2008 Malcolm Gladwell Published Outliers. In the book he told several stories of how famous, world renowned performers in their field of practice became the best. He drew parallels between The Beatles and Bill Gates and how they had opportunities early in their careers to put in over 10,000 hours doing what they loved. Gladwell theorized that this time spent practicing is what led to their eventual mastery and success. After publication of his book, the "10,000 Hour Rule" became a very popular idea: if you can put in serious time doing what you love you will eventually be very very good at it. The common criticism of Gladwell’s work is that he missed or grossly deemphasized the role of deliberate practice in the equation, which left people with the impression that time and repetition over many years would lead to mastery. It’s not that simple.
One person who infamously tried to apply this 10,000 Hour Rule was Dan McLaughlin. He was 30 years old and never golfed in his life, but by using 10,000 hours as a guide and (luckily) some knowledge about deliberate practice, he launched The Dan Plan. The plan was simple: quit job as photographer, take up golf, make the PGA tour, and prove to the world that hard work is more important than talent. Dan logged every practice hour of golf and kept a ticker on his website.
Since beginning in 2010 and quitting due to a back injury in 2015, Dan logged about 6000 hours of deliberate practice and achieved an all-time low handicap of 2.6, which at the time put him in the upper 6% of golfers (for comparison: due to the lower membership I don't think this is a fair comparison, but the top 6% of current registered disc golfers starts at a rating of 958. One reason I don’t think this is a fair comparison is because most people say it is much easier to reach a 958 PDGA rating than a 2.6 golf handicap.)
Dan's plan was methodical and as far as I can tell, sound. For about three months he focused just on putting and then ventured further out to chip shots and short approaches. He did not use a full bag of clubs until nearly two years into the experiment. For more details about Dan's plan, read The Atlantic's article about it.
Back to the 10,000 Hour Rule. Anders Ericsson, the original researcher on deliberate practice, says that the 10,000 Hour Rule is a misinterpretation of his research on talent. What is more important than the amount of time spent practicing is the quality, or deliberateness, of that practice.
So, no, practice does not make perfect, unfortunately. Instead, our favourite idiom should be updated to something like this: incremental changes to your skill level in a particular area of your sport or activity can be achieved over a long period of time by consistently and deliberately increasing the set of challenges you provide to yourself while constantly updating your mental models of the skills you are performing. Catchy, right?