How to find and stay in ‘The Zone’: Disc Golf in a Vacuum, Part 2

I was/he is/she is ‘In The Zone’.

We’ve all heard the term – used most often in an athletic context – but what exactly is ‘The Zone’? And how does one get there- and stay there? All three questions are addressed in this second installment of Disc Golf in a Vacuum.

If you haven’t read Part 1 of Disc Golf in a Vacuum yet, it recounts how I discovered (or maybe re-discovered is more accurate) the primal essence of what is most compelling about disc golf: controlling the path of a flying disc. More importantly it explains why that realization also enlightened me to the fact that true enjoyment and contentment playing disc golf can and does exist in a ‘vacuum’ totally void of things like score, player rating and luck.

For some, that alone is enough reason to embrace Disc Golf in a Vacuum. But others – myself included – enjoy competing against others and the course, and have a genetically coded need to measure performance and results. To this group I’m happy to say that playing Disc Golf in a Vacuum most likely will also generate better scores in addition to a better experience. That, friends, is what is know as having your cake and eating it too. Or maybe in disc golf terms, having your collectible first run night shift Destroyer and throwing it too. And that brings us back to being In The Zone.

First of all, I think everyone understands that being in the zone is a good thing. Someone who is in the zone while playing disc golf is throwing all her shots exactly as intended, and nailing all her putts. She is playing at the absolute peak of her abilities, and intensely focusing on each shot seemingly without any conscious effort.

When I did a Google search using the phrase ‘definition of being in the zone’ the most relevant result was a Wikipedia entry for a psychological term called flow. The concept was originally proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who said “Flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Sounds like being in the zone to me. Japanese martial artists are said to sometimes achieve ‘mushin’, translated in English as “no mind”, which sounds like much the same thing.

 

Ken 'Tank' Franks focuses on reaching the basket 415 feet away. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Ken ‘Tank’ Franks focuses on reaching the basket 415 feet away. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Reading descriptions of both flow and mushin made me realize that those terms as well as ‘in the zone’ are all pretty accurate (and similar) descriptions of what I experienced during that round described in Part 1 of this series. There was the pure joy in what I was doing, the lack of anxiety connected to expectation or results, and most relevant to Part 2, heightened performance (despite the lack of emphasis on score). So – no big surprise – what I termed Disc Golf in a Vacuum is nothing new. But it was good to see that there is agreement on the best ways to get In The Zone and stay there as much as possible.

Getting In the Zone

Achieving the state of flow/In The Zone is desirous for many reasons (again, see Part 1), but right now we’re focusing on only one; improved performance. However, there is a paradoxical relationship at play that mades this a hard concept to grasp. Optimal performance levels are attained when one is In The Zone, but to get in The Zone one cannot be focusing on or even thinking about performance as it is typically measured.

That is the reason Csíkszentmihályi chose the term flow and it’s why the word vacuum seemed most apt to me. It represents the state of total immersion in the moment, which in disc golf means thinking of nothing but the upcoming shot. Reduced to that throw and only that throw, all value in terms of scoring is stripped away and what is left is the simple desire to make the disc do exactly what you want it to do. And the focus can’t even be on the hoped-for flight, because that is also a form of measuring performance. Instead, conscious thought must be reduced to what needs to be done to achieve the desired outcome. Thoughts of the outcome itself  – and this is really the key – can’t possibly exist In the Zone.

Ideally we can get to the point where we have no conscious thoughts in this state at all (“no mind”, and in the Japanese mushin), but that is easier said than done. It’s practically impossible while playing a game as social as golf. However, I’ve discovered a few tactics that at least give me a better shot, and get me back on track when my mind wanders in the wrong direction.

The most specific of these is to not keep track of score- or at least remain as much as possible in ignorance of the current total score during a round. It was hard for me at first, but whenever that thought came up I’d just try to think about something else. Now I’m at a point where towards the end of a round I won’t have any idea of my exact score- even though I use UDisc to record all my scores. I’ll enter the score for the hole but not look at the total (which thankfully in UDisc is in a smaller font).

By the end of the round I’ll usually have an idea of how I’m doing within a couple strokes, but not knowing the exact total makes a big difference in keeping my mind on just the shot at hand. I think more than anything else it provides a specific framework (objective: be uncertain of total score by the end of the round) for the more important goal of not thinking about score during the round. And even before using UDisc, I never had trouble recounting my score on each hole after the round. By focusing intently on each shot, every one was clearly imprinted on my memory. That hasn’t always been the case.

Another exercise that was difficult for me at first but came to be fairly natural (most of the time) is controlling emotional reactions to the results of throws. At first this meant not letting any kind of emotion show outwardly, regardless of whether I was seething inside over a bad shot or bad luck, or pumped up about something good. Even though I wanted badly to let it out, I’d just take deep breathes until it passed, and remind myself that the next shot was all that mattered now. After awhile, I noticed that the ‘zen-like’ non-reaction became natural, and my thoughts would be more reflective, detached and inquisitive (as in, ‘hmmm, what just happened there, and why?’) rather than reactionary and emotional.

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Finally, I just keep reminding myself that when it’s my turn to throw any thoughts other than those required to properly execute the shot need to be expelled. If I’m lining up a putt and start thinking of how much I need this birdie, or standing on the tee and focusing on the tree I sometimes hit – and am able to recognize those thoughts as the impediments to proper execution that they are – I will step back and use a visualization technique to remove that thought and get back on the proper track. The key of course is realizing the presence and harmfulness of that wrong thought before taking the shot, and doing something about it. Seems like we always recognize those after the shot, right? Nabbing and removing them beforehand takes practice, but stick with it and it’ll become more natural. My favorite visualization technique for removing those rogue thoughts, by the way, is a squeegee that wipes the slate clean, enabling me to start fresh.

Ideally I’m in that state of flow or mushin where my disc golf game is on autopilot and I’m not conscious of any thoughts. But in reality Disc Golf in a Vacuum is more of an objective- a place to steer back towards when I get off track. Being In the Zone for any prolonged period of time is pretty rare. But I see it as a target, with The Zone being the bullseye. Most of the time the best I can do is make sure I stay close to the center of the target by using the tactics listed above. At the end of the round, I gauge my performance more on how well I played Disc Golf in a Vacuum than how I scored- but there is usually a close correlation between the two.

 

How to throw sidearm: a breakdown of the basics

The disc golf throwing technique that goes by the names ‘sidearm’, ‘forehand’, ‘flick’ and ‘two-finger’ is the primary (or only) driving method for some players, a useful tool for others, and an enigma for many. Personally I fall into the second group, and before that spent many years with zero confidence in my sidearm shot. Sarah Hokom, on the other hand, is the poster child for the forehand throw, so between us we should be able to speak to the perspective of pretty much everyone who wants to add this shot to her or his arsenal.

We’ll start with Sarah’s detailed breakdown of all the components of proper sidearm technique, followed by some great miscellaneous tips she throws in as afterthoughts. I’ll then add a few of the ‘aha’ moments I recall having when my forehand finally began to improve.

Note how this player's torso is bent to match the angle of the disc. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Note how this player’s torso is bent to match the angle of the disc, yet twisted forward so he is facing his target. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Grip according to Sarah

Place your palm up and make a “gun” with your middle finger, pointer finger and thumb.  Tuck the disc into the space between the pointer and thumb (pointer/middle on bottom, thumb on top).  Feel the inner rim on the underside of the disc with the side of your middle finger. Secure your grip with your thumb on the top of the disc, near where your pointer finger knuckle is on the underside.  The other two fingers can simply rest on the edge of the disc or be tucked underneath- whichever feels more natural.  The grip should be firm but wrist should be flexible in order to create the “whip” during your stroke.

 

 

Footwork/Hips according to Sarah

For a right handed player, line up the left side of your body with your intended trajectory (you will be standing sideways on the tee with the right side of your body closest to the back of the tee).  Take a step with your left to initiate the footwork, then replace the left foot with the right foot in a low sliding motion, exploding forward off the right foot onto the left foot, rotating your hips forward to face your target as you throw the shot.  Finish the shot by releasing your right foot during your follow through.  If possible, get low during the release point to maximize the use of your lower muscle groups and create added power.

Sarah Hokom demonstrates proper sidearm technique during a women's clinic before the 2013 Masters Cup in Santa Cruz. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Sarah Hokom demonstrates proper sidearm technique during a women’s clinic before the 2013 Masters Cup in Santa Cruz. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Arm Motion/Hips according to Sarah

Grab the disc with a sidearm grip and cock your wrist back as far as possible.  Reach your arm back with the disc slightly wing-down and your forearm as flat as possible. Bring your arm through in a straight line with the disc flat in a whip-like fashion slightly leading with your elbow. As your arm comes through, your hips should rotate to face your target. It’s very important that your elbow be tucked close to your body in the middle of your stroke to avoid injury, but as you release the elbow should extend and arm should follow through toward your target.  Finish the shot by pointing your throwing hand at your target.

Sarah’s miscellaneous tips

  • The motion is difficult to break down into words but sometimes visualizing a similar motion that is familiar to you can help you find your sidearm.  Try to tap into memories of hitting a forehand shot in tennis, fielding a ground ball and throwing a sidearm to first base in baseball, or even skipping a rock on a lake.
  • Video yourself trying to throw sidearm and notice how your body positioning and arm-swing vary from experienced sidearm throwers and the techniques outlined here.
  • Typically sidearm throwers prefer more stable discs, so start with a stable driver and adjust the disc choice as your technique improves.
  • Start without footwork, and get comfortable with the disc coming through your body flat and snapping your wrist to your target.  Then, incorporate your hips/core and adjust your swing so the disc comes through your body flat.  Finally, add the footwork, adjust your swing again and develop a rhythm that works for you.
  • As you develop more snap and learn to increase power from your feet and through your hips and core, your stroke will naturally change and you will have to constantly adjust the angles your throw and disc stabilities you choose.

 Jack’s breakthrough moments

After years of having a forehand shot that I used only in situations where there was absolutely no other option – due to my lack of confidence in it – I finally asked my friend Alan for advice. Like most other former Ultimate players he has a refined and accurate sidearm. Two of the things he pointed out immediately resonated with me, and when put into action produced instant results. They are the reason I don’t hesitate to throw sidearm when makes the most sense and even off the tee occasionally, so hopefully they help readers who have the same chronic flaws I had.

First of all, my friend Alan reminded me of how much harder it is to get a smooth, clean release (as opposed to wobbly) compared to the backhand shot. This is a problem as a wobbly disc is more likely to turn over, especially into a headwind when the wind will magnify the effect. Also, we have a natural tendency to turn the wrist over after release rather than keeping the palm facing up. This is especially true of those who have played baseball or softball. Due to both these factors a common flaw is to turn the disc over too much and/or too soon.

Sidearm Disc Golf Tips
Avoid the common flaw shown in this photo. DON’T curl the disc upward when reaching back before the throw. Instead, reach back straight on the exact line and angle on which you want the disc to fly.

The most important correction to minimize this problem is to focus on keeping the palm facing upward upon release of the disc rather than rolling it over (rotating counter-clockwise for a right-handed player). I find that tilting both my torso and head inward (see photos above) helps to reinforce this as I am trying to keep the disc on the same angle.

And speaking of angle, I will often do two things to compensate for the increased likelihood of the disc turning over: First, I still throw a more overstable disc than I would for the same shot thrown backhand (although for expert sidearm throwers this may not be necessary); and second, I will increase the hyzer angle. These are both crutches that can be reduced or removed as technique and form improves. As Sarah notes above you’ll find yourself continually fine-tuning, which is a sign of progress.

The other major flaw my friend helped me correct is something common to many players, and is likely the biggest reason for a wobbly vs. clean release. When I pulled the disc back I would curl it to the point where the edge of the disc was perpendicular (opposite of parallel) to the ground and the line on which I wanted to ultimately throw. The problem with that habit is that it is very difficult to get the disc back on the correct line in the short burst required for a sidearm throw. The result is a loss of power, loss of aim and accuracy, and that wobbly flight.

To correct this I now focus on keeping the disc on the correct line and angle as I reach back, performing a couple slow practice strokes to reinforce the importance of this aspect of the throw. Also, by keeping my elbow tucked in close to my body (as Sarah instructs) the amount of reach-back I can get is limited- which is a good thing. It’s easier to keep the line and angle correct with a shorter reach-back, and since most of the power in generated from the snap, little if any distance is sacrificed.

There is one more thing I usually have to point out when giving lessons to those who struggle with the forehand shot. The hand should be holding the front edge of the disc, not the side of the disc closest to the body. This is important as it helps generate much-needed snap and spin. If the hand holds the side of the disc it will either come out with minimal spin, at a wildly incorrect trajectory, or both.

A big thanks to Sarah for sharing her tips with us. Be sure to check our her website at http://www.sarahhokom.com.