Observe, Learn and Test: The Engineer’s Approach to Disc Golf

The School of Disc Golf recently hosted a team-building event for a group of engineers and other techies from a Silicon Valley company.

There were a few naturals in the group, especially one guy in particular who was launching some impressive drives and hitting long putts within 90 minutes or so of starting. I don’t think the group as a whole would mind me describing them as people whose finely honed instruments are their minds rather than their bodies.

This is not to say they were in bad shape — just not a group that, when looking at them, you’d think were jocks. They were average folks, like most golfers.

I noticed several instances of participants being able to observe their discs flying a certain way and quickly assess why. They then went about experimenting (with the help of our instruction) and making modifications to their techniques.

The really cool thing that made me want to write about that outing is the one trait this group of very regular people with very modest athletic skills had in common — an analytical, engineering-type mind. For people who are curious about how things work and enjoy solving puzzles, there aren’t many more interesting sports than disc golf.

The participants at this event improved noticeably from the beginning of the day to the end. They asked a lot of questions and, as I mentioned already, made adjustments — often dramatic — as if to test out theories for themselves on why their disc went straight up in the air, or sliced immediately left.

And give ‘em credit. Most were able to get their throws flatter and straighter by making changes, monitoring the feedback, and then making more changes based on the results.

Disc golf is known for being easy to learn, but hard to master. The aerodynamic principles of a flying disc has a lot to do with that. Leave it up to engineers to make the most of something like that. A perfectly round ball with a smooth surface will only react very subtly to efforts to manipulate its flight path, but a flying disc is totally different. It interacts with the air flow much like the sail of a ship, with even the smallest variables magnified and their effects plainly obvious.

One player really heeded the instruction he received on the differences between classic putting and throwing backhand. Once he understood the idea that a putt is more of a forward thrust than a throw, he really got the hang of it and started hitting the chains on everything. The thrill of solving the puzzle was quite obvious.

Another mild-mannered computer programmer was able to practically double his distance by employing the basic instruction of reaching back with the disc as far as possible on backhand shots before beginning the throw. He recognized some universal principles of physics — I think he mentioned catapults as being analogous — and was excited when he saw that they clearly applied to disc flight as well.

Today’s key point is to be like this group was, even if you’ve played for years. Do some research, experiment with your technique, and pay close attention to the results. Then experiment some more. Make full use of your mind as an instrument for improving your game.

Getting better, when you understand why it happens and can therefore consistently employ the improvement, is one of the most satisfying aspects of any sport. With its many possible throwing styles and the aerodynamic properties of a flying disc, disc golf makes it easier to do that than most others athletic endeavors. Take full advantage of that and you’ll get even more out of the game.

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