Learning by Feel in Disc Golf: Why, and How

Companies that market formal clothing love to tell us how their garments lead directly to success in business.

“If you look good, you’ll feel good”. Heard that one before?

The idea is that men wearing chic, expertly-tailored suits and women wearing designer labels gain extra confidence. There may be a kernel of truth buried beneath the B.S., but that’s beside the point. What matters is we can use it to communicate some useful info to disc golfers wanting to improve skills and consistency. It’ll take a bit of ‘splainin’ to get to the meat of the lesson, though, so hang in there. It’ll be worth the 10-minute read.

First off, this tip flips those ad slogans around. Feeling comes first. Also, I am using the word ‘feel’ in a totally different way than them. We’re not talking about the touchy-feely emotional kind of feel (as in, ‘you hurt my feelings’). More like the physiological use for the word, as in ‘that toilet paper feels like sandpaper!’ (Cringe-worthy mental image, but it got the point across, didn’t it?) Finally, since we’re talking about a different kind of ‘feel’, the word good doesn’t work as well. So if we had to have a pithy slogan similar to theirs to sum up the lesson, it would be more along the lines of “Feeling right leads to playing better, and (for those who care about such things) playing better makes you look good.

Ok, we’re done laying out our tortured analogy. Onto the actual message.

The School of Disc Golf has previously mentioned the concept of ‘muscle memory’ no less than six times, with good reason. It’s a scientific explanation of why and how practice makes us better. On Wikipedia, it is summarized as “a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.”

By that definition, muscle memory is something that happens automatically, behind the curtain of your conscious thoughts. It’s one of the benefits of repetitive practice. I’d like to believe that as disc golfers (or any athlete working to perfect a craft) we can take it further than that. We can try to consciously maximize the process and benefits. I’ll explain using a couple commonly accepted tips.

Putting

Whether you prefer the spin putt or the push putt, the in-line or straddle stance, following through, dramatically, should be a constant. We talk about it in detail in this post and even include a video tutorial of an exercise to practice follow through and better develop the key muscles used in this particular way. Every putt should end with a rigid throwing arm stretched directly toward the link of chain you’re aiming at. Your elbow should be locked, arm and even fingers perfectly straight, with your thumb pointed straight up at the sky.

Now, as you read this, don’t focus on what that description of following through looks like. Focus on what it feels like. If I was giving you an in-person lesson right now, I’d explain follow through, much as I just did in writing above, and show you what it looks like. Hopefully after seeing me do it you’d make your best effort to replicate what you just saw me do. Assuming you did it correctly, I’d tell you so, and you’d accept that you just did it correctly based on my positive feedback. But here’s the thing: I can’t follow you around for all your practice sessions and rounds of disc golf. My lessons are reasonably priced, I think, but that would get costly quickly! And even if that were feasible, the key to the lesson (that follow through is a key to good putting) would not penetrate beyond your logical mind. In other words, it won’t be carved into your muscle memory. That kind of learning requires feel.

Let’s go back to the word picture I offered:

Every putt should end with a rigid throwing arm and hand stretched directly toward the link of chain you’re aiming at. Your elbow should be locked, arm and even fingers perfectly straight, with your thumb pointed straight up at the sky.

As you read the words, stretch your throwing arm toward a focal point across the room. It doesn’t matter what it is, but keep your eyes locked onto it. Now zero in on the key words and phrases, “rigid throwing arm and hand”, “stretched”, “elbow . . . locked”, “arm and even fingers perfectly straight”. Rather than thinking about these descriptions look like, or what you should look like emulating them, let your mind dwell on what each of these things feels like. An arm stretched straight ahead to its extremity feels very different than one that is dangling at your side, or resting on the arm of a chair. Get that feeling locked into your long-term memory and recall it before every putt. Remind yourself that unless you feel that sensation of stretching and straining directly toward your target, you’re not doing it right.

This post is meant to be more about the importance of learning and recalling by feel than a putting lesson, but we’ll make one more point. At the end of your putt, just before, during and after you release the disc, the feeling should also include a quick, sharp burst of movement. Don’t misunderstand all the talk of stretching toward the target and conjure up thoughts of slow motion Tai Chi. For more on that check out the follow through post referenced above.

Backhand Drive

Since we went into pretty good detail about the importance of ‘feel’ in the putting example, this one will be short and sweet. It should help drive (no pun intended) the point home using a different type of scenario. We’ll focus on one particular aspect of good, consistent driving: Balance.

One of the key points in our comprehensive post ‘Building Blocks of Basic Backhand Technique‘ is the relationship between balance and weight transfer. When it comes to throwing a golf disc properly the two are intertwined, and the difference can definitely be felt when done correctly vs. incorrectly.

First off, when you’re setting up to throw, make sure you begin with good posture (knees still slightly bent, but back mostly straight and body not ‘hunched over’) and weight evenly distributed between front and back foot. As you execute the throw, remember the goal of keeping that weight centered as much as possible. Yes,  you need to transfer weight to the back foot as you reach your disc all the way back and transfer it forward in sync with the disc as you throw. But to retain the most consistent control of where your disc goes, you must remain well balanced. If you feel yourself falling off to one side or, more commonly, falling forward upon disc release, your balance is off and likely so is your aim.

This is why, in the backhand post cited above as well as all lessons I give on the subject, I urge players to begin by learning proper backhand technique without a run-up. It’s important to lock in the feel of proper balance and weight transfer so you can recall it when needed, and identify flaws when they arise.

This post doesn’t include any images, for a good reason. Visual aids do have a place in learning. But when it comes to muscle memory it’s all about learning through feel, and realizing that feeling is the best way to learn.

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