What a Summer on the NexGen Tour Taught Me About Throwing

by | February 16, 2015, 8:15am 37

Everyone wants to get better at throwing. But how do we actually do that?

Before I started on the 2012 NexGen Tour, I thought I was a pretty good thrower. I was throwing full field backhand hucks, 40 yard flick hucks, and low release breaks on each side, both inside-out and outside-in. All things considered, that skill set was pretty strong.

But once I started the tour, I saw my NexGen teammates using unique throws to create winning opportunities when normal players would have thrown a lesser throw.

It showed on the scoreboard: we were beating the best club teams in the country. We were young, but I think man for man, we had better disc skills than the teams we played, and that was a huge contributor to our success.

Alex Thorne as a prime example of that skill. Throughout the Tour, he threw scores in ways other people just couldn’t. Check out this no-pivot quick around outside-in backhand to space:

And check out this around high release dagger to the break side:

…can you do that? It seemed like wherever Thorne had the disc, he had a throw in his pocket that could score.

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Here’s another example of skillful throwing: several times, we completed hucks to receivers that were not open vertically, but did have some horizontal separation from their man. This throw from Thorne stays mostly over the breakside and lands more on Tylers line than the defender’s line. As a result, Tyler has the more direct angle on it, despite Tyler not being completely open in the first place.

With a lot of precision, he turned a covered deep cut into a goal.

And it wasn’t just Alex. The bus was brimming with throwing talent that got us out of sticky situation after sticky situation. EJ’s flick huck to Will Driscoll is another shining example of how hucks over the breakside turn covered cuts into goals. No hesitation, just execution.

So, a summer with throwers as good as the NexGen Guys got me thinking. What did I need to do to reach the top of the throwing game?

After another year of club, I had an idea: in order to get better at throwing, we need to be more specific when we talk about throws.

For example, great throwers don’t just throw forehands. They throw something much more complicated; perhaps a step-back mid-release outside-in 40 yard around forehand breakmark huck (with low nose tilt to combat the wind). A throw like that is definitely something special. So in order to learn advanced throws, we need to increase our vocabulary to be much more descriptive.

Here some components I’ve thought about so far:

  • release point
  • angle on the disc (IO or OI)
  • breakmark/not breakmark
  • nose up/nose down
  • angle of pivot
  • throw distance
  • direction of throw (is the throw’s trajectory towards the inside or outside)
  • bodily momentum
  • height the throw reaches at its peak.

Here is another example of how being descriptive can help you learn advanced throws. Saying that Jimmy Mickle has a great flick huck doesn’t help anyone learn how to throw better. What we actually want to say is that Jimmy Mickle commonly throws flick hucks that have a hip level release point, very slightly OI, with a low nose tilt, pivoting slightly forward but mostly laterally. He turns his left shoulder to the target while winding up, and the throw at its peak reaches about 20 feet. If we use the right words, we can really capture what is special about his throws, and in turn that allows us to learn.

In regards to how you can use this vocabulary to improve your game, improving at throwing is as simple as identifying a new throw and then checking it off your list. Whereas a traditional goal might be to “work on my backhand breakmark throw,” it should really be “master the low IO cross-body backhand with a 90 degree step out that reaches exactly the receiver’s shoulder height.”

My advice: pick one or two new specific throws to work on now. In a couple months, maybe you’ll get the hang of it. Then, pick one or two more. Imagine the improvement you could make in a year by being so focused on the details.

The more of these hyper-specific throws you check off your list, the better of a thrower you’ll be. To throw like a superstar you’ve got to have the repertoire of a superstar.

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  • Melissa Witmer

    Love this! Being specific and paying attention to the details is the difference between just tossing around and a truly deliberate practice. Thanks for putting this into works (and video) so eloquently!

  • Zack Purdy

    I agree for the most part, but disagree on a crucial point. I agree that it is important to practice specific skills for specific game situations, and I think it’s really useful to watch and copy great throwers to learn these skills. I disagree with your emphasis on vocabulary and throwing “components”. I’m definitely a subscriber to the “Inner Game of Tennis” mentality. Here is an excerpt I think about a lot:

    “My next lesson that day was with a beginner named Paul who had never held a racket. I was determined to show him how to play using as few instructions as possible.; I’d try to keep his mind uncluttered and see if it made a difference. So I started by telling Paul I was trying something new: I was going to skip entirely my usual explanations to beginnings players about the proper grip, stroke, and footwork for the basic forehand. Instead, I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand. He was to repeat the image in his mind, several times then just let his body imitate. After I had hit ten forehands, Paul imagined himself doing the same. Then, as I put the racket into his hand, sliding it into the correct grip, he said to me, “I noticed that the first thing you did was move your feet.” I replied with a noncommital grunt and asked him to let his body imitate the forehand as well as it could. He dropped the ball, , took a perfect backswing, swung forward, racket level, and with natural fluidity ended the swing at shoulder height , perfect for his first attempt! But wait, his feet;they hadn’t moved an inch from the perfect ready position he had assumed before taking his racket back. They were nailed to the court! I pointed to them and Paul said, ” Oh yeah, I forgot about them !” The one element of the stroke Paul had tried to remember was the one thing he didn’t do! Everything else had been absorbed and reproduced without a word being uttered or an instruction being given!”

    Kinda long, but the point is I think watching and visualizing a throw, and then trying it yourself is way more productive than trying to describe each component and then work on all the components consciously. Of course, when talking to other players it might be necessary to mention a few specific things of note, but I think the vocabulary we use is not nearly as important as watching footage (As you have conveniently done in this post), visualizing, trying yourself, and if possible filming yourself to see what looks wrong about your own motion as compared to the player you’re trying to emulate.

    Thanks for the article Tommy!

    • Neeley

      I think that having words to describe the things you learn and develop kinesthetically is huge. The better you are at throwing, and the more you develop, the more you understand why releasing at the hip is different from releasing at the knee or shoulder, or why slight IO is much different from lots of IO. Vocabulary and “files” helps you solidify the understanding.

      In other words, I think doing something and being able to describe it go hand in hand when it comes to being very advanced. The empirical evidence that comes to mind is that when Alan Kolick and Sean Keegan, two teammates who are among the best throwers I’ve played with, talk about their throws, the words they use are noticeably more precise.

      • Zack Purdy

        Two counterpoints:
        1. It’s unclear to me which way the causation runs, but I would wager that the vocabulary comes AFTER the physical learning that happens.
        2. Markham Shofner, who I assume is another one of the best throwers with whom you have played, is all about “letting the disc throw itself”, so I’m not sure if we can draw a conclusion from just Sean and Alan.

        • neeley

          Check out this Radiolab: http://www.radiolab.org/story/91725-words/

          One of the basic takeaways is that as we develop, having words is actually what solidifies concepts in our minds. In some cases, we’re totally unable to grasp something until we have the language for it.

          In practical terms, I know that when I was learning to throw, finding out people used words to describe the difference between that one threw I had just thrown and that other one I threw after that made it a lot easier for me to think “ok, there’s a difference. Now try to observe that that difference feels like when you produce one versus the other.”

          If I do something naturally and then find out there’s a name for it (bail technique as a defender, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9TszNvExvw), practicing it and thinking of how it applies becomes a lot easier.

          I don’t disagree that feel has a lot to do with things. But codifying the specifics can give us a much better starting point for what we practice feeling out, and how we think about it.

          • jennyfey

            Ha, Neeley here’s a This American Life transcript from an episode called “Our Own Worst Enemy.” (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/462/transcript) You can read all about how athletes fall apart when they begin over-thinking the mechanics of their sport.

          • Neeley

            When they’re playing or when they’re practicing/planning out practice?

          • jennyfey

            won’t even scan it yourself, huh buddy? the piece looks at tragic falls from great heights, so professional athletes part way through their career, but it also applies it to coaching. I guess it’s for already-elite athletes, at least those were the ones in the study. Here’s some quotes: “Two researchers named Steven Weiss and Arthur Reber have a paper called “Curing the Dreaded Steve Blass Disease,” …published in the Journal of Sports Psychology in Action.” “And they argue that when well-meaning coaches tell an athlete in a slump to focus more on the mechanics– which they say is common still– the coach can actually make things worse, not better, because he’s telling a player who’s already thinking too much to think even more.”

          • Tommy Li

            So what should you tell players in a slump? Something tangible or intangible?

          • jennyfey

            i think encouragement and high expectations is the best approach to handling a slump. talking it through too much may exacerbate the problem of over-psychoanalyzing. but as neeley suspected, the slumping issue is not necessarily applicable to the building skills issue that you are bringing up tommy. i tend to agree with zack on this, that too much language can be problematic, especially for developing (or collapsing) players.

            neeley and i both love language though so i’m not trying to knock the process of analysis and articulation. i love finding the right word for something and you have identified a lot of the things a disc does in flight succinctly. still, i don’t think i added a single throw to my arsenal by describing it.

          • Neeley

            I don’t think I added any throws to my arsenal by describing them either, but I know I got better at throwing certain throws and at differentiating which ones were best in whatever situations by moving them them from being nebulous things in my brain to throws that had names and descriptions.

            An analogy I’d draw: we play ultimate, and we could just leave it at that. Or we could say we’re playing vert stack, making cuts to both the open and break sides, and looking to swing the disc after we dump it. I didn’t learn to do any of those things my naming them, but because they have names, I have a better understanding of what my options are while playing offense. I can design drills that focus on swinging the disc, hitting the break side, and then throwing to a deep cutter that’s moving from the open side.

            From there, I don’t want to think about all of these things in a game– indeed, I just want to play– but because I’ve been deliberate about identifying and practicing them individually, they’re likely to come more naturally.

            If nobody had ever created those words, I’d be stuck just “playing ultimate,” which would be great, but not as great as it could be.

          • jennyfey

            ya, of course i agree that we need to label things for strategy, and that includes throws. still, a lot of that analogy is about coordinating movement as a team. to work together as a group you have to communicate verbally and create systems. different than throwing a disc or watching someone else throw it and internalizing how you might manipulate its flight. in all cases, i think articulating ideas is important but can be over done.

          • Neeley

            I could “reply to this comment” or I could write sentences, using punctuation to indicate pauses and emphasis, and making sure I have something called a point, which I’ll actually phrase as something called a question: as long as you’re not crossing into the territory of thinking and not playing, which I agree is detrimental but also don’t think that was ever what Tommy advocated, how is fully recognizing the difference between Action 1 and Action 2, which we do through names like “huge OI blade” and “throw that rode the wind ’cause I put some OI on it,” going to harm your game?

            I imagine you see my point. I also see yours that it’s possible to overdo articulation. I might want to be more specific than “eating” by saying that I’m making breakfast, and perhaps I’ll say that I’m cracking eggs or cutting onions or something. But I don’t really need a word for every single step I take from the counter to the stove to the fridge and all that.

          • Neeley

            *make sure. My whole point is ruined!

          • Tommy Li

            I think effectiveness in game is most important. And the effort spent learning language needs to be justified with on-field results. So if this is bogging down your learning then I say axe it. This is just a thought tool to help some people improve. Some great players don’t care about these details and they play just as well.

          • dusty.rhodes

            1. Go watch Tin Cup.
            2. If you don’t have time for the whole movie, just watch this scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5CkmKGQDb0

            Seriously, Tin Cup is an underrated sports movie about some of the exact the notions folks (a few of whom had a snow day in DC and more time on their hands than usual…) are typing about here.

            Advice in slumps is the sort of thing your “caddy” tells you. That player or coach on your team (or off) who knows you better than you know you. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all kinda thing… The point isn’t to make someone think “The One Right Thing” it is to help them short circuit a pattern they can’t grasp, let alone solve. (Understanding that we needn’t always understand in order to solve can be a big hurdle too!)

            The best way out of a place we can’t fathom is frequently a path we never considered.

        • Gabriel

          I think the point of the article is that developing a richer vocabulary helps you identify what you can and cannot do, and then work on filling any gaps. You may have a good flick, but maybe only if released from certain height or with a specific tilt – so start working on expanding your toolbox. There may be players with a more instinctual grasp of it, but this is still a great approach!

      • RISEUPmario

        I think both of y’all are right, depending on context. Teaching beginners is different than teaching an intermediate thrower who wants to be more advanced. Different context means different goals, different sets of vocabulary, different points of emphasis, different degrees of specificity on certain things.

        Also, Purdy’s coaching philosophy is likely different than Neeley’s, which is another example of differences in context. This will (and should) affect how we teach. Purdy, to me your comments indicate that you cater more to visual learners, Neeley more emphasis on vocab and ideas. Both can be extremely effective, but I bet neither will be a one-size-fits-all that works best for every player we coach, as every player/person has a unique learning style.

        Both of y’all know what good throwing looks like, and have an intentional plan of how to get there. That’s the most important thing.

        Great leaders and coaches are constantly evolving and refining their approach to teaching. I think we should always be trying to learn from other leaders to assess and refine our own approach and philosophy.

        • dusty.rhodes

          A great addition to this is the sufficiency of descriptors.

          I don’t need to tell you exactly what speed the disc is spinning to relate how different rates of spin affect throws.

          The danger with language is to go too deep: Is a “low IO cross-body backhand with a 90 degree step out” a sufficiently different throw from a “low IO cross-body backhand with an 85-degree step out” that it necessitates different practices? What of a 75-degree step or 65?

          I’ve been on record for years as a “let the throw throw itself” type and despite all of the words I write about ultimate have incredible difficulty understanding how anyone can learn to throw while their brain is devoting energy to grappling w/ language, words, and meaning.

          One of the best points of this piece (And there are many good thoughts here!) is the idea of delivering the disc to a receiver on the side of the body opposite the defender or hitting the receiver on a specific body part or in a specific portion of the catch-zone. “Throwing a receiver open” is a skill acquired through practice over years. The throw, is not just a way to get the disc from point A to point B: it is also a block of information the thrower is conveying to the receiver. It can tell the receiver where the defender is, how quickly the defender is closing, which direction the receiver should turn or look, and any number of other things depending on the offensive system/strategy. This is the difference between Kurt Warner and many other quality QBs. The former protected his receivers with information and accuracy, the others just try to complete passes.

          Is “breakmark” vs “non-break” a particularly useful description? A good mark doesn’t just pressure breakside throws, but pressures all/most throws. Is the breakside determined by the position of the mark or by the higher-order team defense? Is it determined by where the throw is released (inside breaks are frequently released from the openside w/r/t the mark) or where it is caught? Is it defined by the position of the downfield defender (conceding one side)? If the defender hasn’t applied a mark yet as a result of trailing the play (Think of an upline cut), is the breakside then behind the thrower?

          My experience leads me to believe that this is a false choice which frequently leads players to think things like “I can’t break the mark” which in turn leads them to miss opportunities to use very easy throws to break down the defensive structure at the point of attack because they think of throws to a whole side of the field as inherently more difficult.

          This comment of mine is exactly the sort of thing that I love to think through off the field and then let it simmer on my brain’s back burner. If I thought or said all of this before I went out to practice my throws in-context, I’d probably crawl into a fetal position and rock myself to sleep. This is the essence of the two minds that “The Inner Game of Tennis” describes.

    • Good teacher, mediocre thrower

      I’m also a huge fan of The Inner Game of Tennis, and that philosophy often guides how I teach everything from music, to dance, to ultimate. I think Gallwey (the author) accurately notes that players over think and over analyze body movements, which can negatively affect results. Most people realize that telling a thrower to have their wrist at X angle, elbow at Y angle, and velocity at Z is not going to result in a mirror image of the throw you want to achieve. More likely, that throw’s going to be really ugly. However, when you tell people to focus on results instead of movement, their body is going to know what’s best, and after a couple repetitions, they’ll likely have what they want. Sometimes you can give input (telling someone to use their wrist more, add spin, engage core, keep the disc close all have varying levels of specificity), but largely, if you tell someone to throw further, they’ll figure it out. It might take a couple repititions, but they’ll get it.

      However, there may not be any intentional deviation between those far throws. The situation calls for a throw to curve around and sit in front of the cutter, but they throw a laser, because they only know “throw far.” Once you increase the vocabulary, you increase the possibilities. After that point you can start figuring out what words you’ll use (or not use) to teach/learn how to manipulate the release point, angle, etc.

      Personally, I know that when I started thinking more about precise angle, my throws got better. When I thought about whether it was a break or not a break, my throws got better. Some of the vocabulary terms I’ve never even considered, and I’m excited to utilize them to make my throws even better.

      • Morrison Luke Smith

        so, good teacher mediocre thrower, you’re using the inner game of tennis to teach dancing to middle class frisbee players? I’ll be holding my breath for step -up -5. Then I’ll be not holding my breath for my sister to explain to me that there is such a thing last step up 5. THEN I’ll be realizing that, while I was hating on step up 1-4, channing tatum was becoming channing tatum, and I didn’t even know he was cool until I saw 21 jump street? and then I learned that there was this whole ‘step up thing?’ so, yeah, you do your flash dance bro.

    • Tommy Li

      (for the record, Purdy and I are great friends and we played together in college)

      I wrote this piece for players who can throw well already. For players in this audience, improvement comes from small tweaks rather than learning entire motions.

      Yes, in reality, if you and I were tossing in person, I wouldn’t be using so many words. I would just say- “check out THIS throw.” And then I wouldn’t have to use so many words. We still may talk about very small details though like in my examples above.

      No, I don’t think a 90 degree step out is much different from a 85 degree stepout, but I do think there is a distinction between breaking the mark by 1. stepping forward or 2. stepping 45 or 3. stepping laterally.

      I think right now most people are just saying “breakmark” as a catch-all. That language doesn’t improve the body of knowledge around throwing.

      Lastly, this level of thought is for practice only. When you are playing a game, you just go play.

      Glad you enjoyed the article!

  • Robyn Wiseman

    Tommy- such a great read. I have admired your throws since we played together at Poultry Days and spent a lot of time discussing a lot of the points you list as things to consider when throwing.

    I think in order to be a “great thrower” you have to take risks to throw these throws in game situations to gain confidence. I like the way you break them down into different components, as trying to break down these parts of throwing (height of throw, angles, etc.) is an important thing I struggle with as a coach. How do I encourage people to try different throws or experiment with different throwing aspects. The way you break it down at the end of the article helps me better communicate that idea:

    “In regards to how you can use this vocabulary to improve your game, improving at throwing is as simple as identifying a new throw and then checking it off your list. Whereas a traditional goal might be to “work on my backhand breakmark throw,” it should really be “master the low IO cross-body backhand with a 90 degree step out that reaches exactly the receiver’s shoulder height.”

    Thanks Tommy!

  • guest

    Enjoyed the second half of the article, but I’m not sure that the throws you point out from NGN games are that special. Thorne threw a nice no-pivot backhand, but a lot of other guys could have thrown a full pivot around there and achieved the same result. The second one is even less spectacular – thorne’s mark is 7 yards off of him, that’s a pretty easy throw, technically. I think Alex just happens to have a naturally high release on his forehands.

    The hucks that trail to the break side are better examples, but have been fairly common in high-level men’s ultimate for a few years now.

    • Johnny Chimpo

      I agree that the throws weren’t a 10/10 in difficulty but I think they worked very well in illustrating Tommy’s point. Alex is an extremely creative thrower, and he has to be considering his size. His range of release points is truly impressive. This creativity shines through in the selected clips; it’s clear that you’re watching a guy who has a wealth of tricks at his disposal. Even the forehand mid-range huck, while very open, is noteworthy because of the way Alex chooses to throw it. That bladey trajectory struck me as pretty much perfect when I first saw it. So many throwers would go much flatter there (and in this scenario it probably wouldn’t matter 9/10 times) but putting some OI on is absolutely the right play given the receiver’s position on the field and relative to the defender. Truly elite throwers make you appreciate the geometrical beauty of the game. Great article, best I’ve read in a while.

      • Johnny Chimpo

        I retract the 9/10 part. Just rewatched it after not having seen it in a few hours and remembered that he has to get it over the mark. Putting a bladey flick on a dime 45 yards away is a skill that relatively few elite level throwers possess.

  • Ross Kinsman

    Awesome article! I love thinking about throwing and taking apart/reconstructing my throws. I try to do focus on a new person who’s style I’d like to incorporate into my own rather than learning specific new throws. I think another component worth thinking about is touch. I’m not sure what the proper vocabulary is for talking about it though. Is it velocity? Float?

    • dusty.rhodes

      It is also angle and path.

      A pass which goes from point A to point B in a straight line arrives faster than a pass which travels in an arc. This is less relevant the longer the flight path, but on something shorter like a reset, choosing a slightly longer path allows the receiver to adjust and make the reception at their preferred moment.

      Similarly, a well-chosen curving path allows the receiver a wider variety of reception points than does a straight-as-an-arrow throw. It needn’t necessarily curve toward or away from the receiver’s path (as either can increase the possible reception points).

      A blade is harder to catch not only because it is in the air for a shorter period of time, but also because it asks to be caught in a specific fashion (ie clap catches are a very difficult way to catch blades whereas clap or claw may be applied to less-angled throws).

      • Morrison Luke Smith

        dusty, i have a question for you; is there a certain distance where the blade is faster than the flick? where a blade gets there by brute strength, but the flick floats? thoughts? i think i can ‘touch’ a pass to make it get there slower than the blade.

        • dusty.rhodes

          I think you can too, and I feel like you knew the answer to the question you were asking: Yes, of course.
          …but it isn’t at a certain distance: It is over some distances, at some speeds, traveling some paths, taking some angles.

          At what angle does a throw become a blade anyway? What speed makes a looping throw into a blade? And what gave the impression that I was directly comparing blades to flicks? It works for all throws, including the float-throw that you’ve specified. If the same amount of float is applied to a curved path, the throw will take longer to arrive. A curved path does not require a steep angle.

          Past that, the descriptors of a disc in flight are not static over the flight path, so all of these observations (angle, speed, rotation, &c) are actually snapshots of a specific moment in time. If we wanted full information, it would not be a single value, it would be a set of complex equations describing a changing dataset.

          This is all an expansion of vocabulary&information which may be useful to some and may be overwhelming to others. (As The Police put it over three decades ago: “Too much information / Running through my brain / Too much information driving me insane” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUwd737mioM])

          There exists more than one throw in any given situation which will render the defenders useless… which reminds me of a Mr. Hu I played with back in the not-so-old days who was fond of saying “There is a speed at which any throw can be the right throw.”

          *EDIT*: Anyone know how to shrink the size of that video preview? That’s pretty much my whole screen!

  • John

    Really well put and great food for thought. Sharing this with my club team!

  • Martin Gottschalk

    I feel like i have been annoying everyone around me with this for ages!!!! Maybe they´ll listen to your well written article, great footage examples and catchy final phrase.

  • datbeezy

    I think… most folks who become good throwers start to connect these dots automatically.

    One thing i’ve always told people – cutting a lot will make you a better thrower, throwing will make you a better cut. one commonality ALL good ultimate players have is excellent field vision – knowing what the other 13 players on the field are seeing, what they except to see, what they are ceding, where they do and don’t want to go, where they can and can’t go. There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat. I’m a little dubious that giving a language to it is meaningful, but it probably can’t hurt. My fear is that we’ll see most “practitioners” over-emphasize the technical aspects while missing the bigger picture

  • smellis

    My individual takeaway:
    “No hesitation, just execution.”

    • dusty.rhodes

      If the only thing this article does is get smellis to take this lesson with him to the field of play, it will be a smashing success.

      And yes– that’s a great takeaway. For any&every one. Not just for smellis who has so desperately needed to import this exact notion to his game for like a decade.

      (In my best dwk voice: “Hi buddy!”)

      • smellis

        We all see what we want to see.
        (Only coincidentally related to the above [and below] discussion), my mechanics were also skewed/compromised. Both (the mechanics and hesitation/execution) are being (very slowly… when I have time) worked on. Unsurprisingly, improvement in one facilitates improvement in the other, fortunately.

        See YOU soon

  • NPQ

    regarding the huck that turn into blades at the end that Alex Thorne throws, Furious and Jam uses this for years in the mid 2000s, go watch some videos of Jeff Cruickshank’s forehands, or Gabe Saunkeah’s backhands