Disc golf, like golf, is multiple games in one. Play them separately.
February 15, 2022 by Steve Andrews in Instruction, Opinion with 0 comments
One of the fascinating parts of football is that it is not one game. It is five games – or more – in one. The jobs of linemen, wide receivers, running backs, kickers, and quarterbacks are so distinct that they are essentially all playing different games simultaneously. Most linemen are not very concerned with running a 4.3 40-yard dash; kickers don’t worry about their arm strength. These overlapping games have become so specialized that, in professional football, the athletes are basically incompatible. In a pinch, you can put a third baseman into left field or have a forward play center in basketball, but you probably shouldn’t ask your punter to step in if your left tackle is injured.
There are also distinct games within traditional golf. Putting is so different from driving that it’s almost like playing two separate games. It’s like making the last frame in a game of bowling a round of darts. Ben Hogan, one of the best golfers of all time and an absolute technician of the long swing, thought putts should count less than a full stroke. There is not a single golf swing in traditional golf – there are at least five in every good player’s game. The full swing used for drives and most long irons shots is not like the putt, pitch, or chip. And the sand shot is nothing like any of the other swings – you open your stance, crank the clubface flat, and then focus on missing the ball. Hitting any other shot with the fundamentals used for a sand shot will end in absolute disaster.
This same approach can help your disc golf game. Many new players hurt themselves by thinking that most of their shots will be thrown with one basic swing. They won’t. For example, beginning players often put themselves at a huge disadvantage by trying to putt with what is essentially a shortened version of their full throw. While there are ways in which the putt and the throw are related, it is better to just accept that these are very different athletic moves trying to accomplish very different things. Thinking of the various shots in disc golf as requiring different setups and techniques – like the variety of shots in golf – can help you get better results.
Each part of the game needs attention to what those throws are trying to accomplish. And this may require purposefully doing things with one swing that are awful swing flaws in another. It is better to think of the various shots in disc golf, especially in the short game, as mini-games. You are often trying to do something very different from your standard throw, so these other swings demand specialized attention and practice. Just as you can’t get better at chipping by hitting drivers in traditional golf, it’s much harder to dial in your upshots if you throw them like drives.
Focus on the Setup
Disc golfers who have been playing a long time often make changes to their throw without much conscious thought. They know the flight they want and can feel what they need to do get there, often changing the nose angle or release mid-throw. That is a great skill but one that can’t easily be replicated by newer players.
One of the best ways to create these different flights is by changing your setup, putting yourself in a position to get the release angle you need. This is like how a traditional golfer changes their stance for a chipshot – narrowing their feet, putting the ball back in their stance, and moving their hands ahead of the ball – to set up a short descending blow that gives them the low flight they need. That is much easier than trying to manipulate the clubface mid-swing.
We can use this same insight to set our release angle, grip, stance, and foot position to set the flight we want. Setting these positions before you start also helps prevent confusing your mechanics. For example, it’s easier to make sure throwing your upshots nose up won’t affect throwing your drives nose down if the setup between the two throws is completely different. Use your practice time to develop an arsenal of different setups that all generate different flights.
Upshots and Approaches
One of the keys to throwing great drives is getting the nose of the disc down. It is one of the fundamentals of getting discs to stay in the air and fly on-line. Throwing nose up is one of the most common and frustrating swing flaws because a nose-up release makes the disc lose speed quickly, stall, and hyzer out. This kills distance.
But this “flawed” release is perfect for approaches and upshots. Throwing your approaches with your normal swing often produces shots that come in too hot and skip. This makes landing upshots on your target more difficult and requires perfectly calibrating how hard you throw the shot. Throwing your approaches and upshots nose up will keep them from flying too far past the basket and cause them to land softly.
You can use your setup to generate a nose-up flight that will always land softly. One of the best keys is to set up with your wrist above your elbow, which helps assure that the disc will come out nose up every time. In the video from 2014 below, Paul Ulibarri shows how this simple change in your setup can allow you to land shots softly. This gives you a wider margin for error in how hard you throw you upshots because you are taking a lot of the speed and glide out the disc, assuring that it will fly shorter and land softer.
This video is short, simple, and has probably saved me more strokes than the other ten thousand hours of instruction videos I have watched combined:
Getting it In and Keeping it Close
Many players find a putting style and stick to it – cycling through lots of reps to make sure that their form is dialed in and repeatable. That’s smart. If you have a putting stroke that is effective from lots of positions and distances, then don’t mess with it. Never change a game that is working. But, if there are weaknesses in your short game, it may be worth thinking about adding other tools.
My belief that I had to be committed to a single putting stroke held back my scoring. My regular putt is a straddle push putt that is very strong from inside 20-25 feet and seldom misses left or right. However, it comes out so softly that it is hard to make from much further out and is brutalized by the wind. It is designed to avoid three putts, not make long ones. For a long time, I felt that I just had to accept this trade-off. I experimented with a more powerful spin putt which was better from long distances, but from short range I would get a lot more spit outs and lose some of my accuracy. Switching didn’t seem worth it.
I saw changing my putting stroke as an all-or-nothing proposition, I either went with my trusty soft straddle putt or adopted a new spin putt. But there is no reason to throw every putt the same way. Obviously, we all change our stance and stroke when we need to putt around an obstacle – but distance is just another obstacle. It is totally fine to have a putt you use from close and then switch to a different putting style further from the basket — and then have another setup for jump putts. This approach is used by some great putters. Nate Sexton, for example, putted his short putts on one foot for a while. He still changes his stance from straddle to stagger and adds more spin as his putts get longer.
On the other side, developing a softer putt from close range is very helpful for putters who always putt firmly. There are players in my club who are great from long range, but putt just as hard from 20 feet as they do from 35. This can produce huge comeback putts if they miss the basket or a lot of spit outs and putts that blow through the chains (especially on old baskets.) The answer could be as simple as “putt softer,” but it can be hard to make those kinds of subtle changes in your timing and you could wind up hurting the putting stroke that is so effective at long range. Instead, a firm putter could develop a straddle putt or a push putt to take some of the pop out of their stroke without hurting their regular mechanics.
When you are putting from outside the circle, it is also important to control exactly how your disc is going to fly and land. You can use different setups to change how the disc approaches the basket. Developing a nose down putt allows you to be aggressive from longer distance since a missed nose down putt has such little glide it will still land close. This is how Ricky Wysocki can run at every basket from 80 feet and still have a short comebacker. If you know your putts will be straight and land soft, you can attack baskets with trouble behind them while minimizing the chance of blowing past the basket. If you also have a spin putt, you can use that when going long isn’t as punitive or you face a must-make from further out.
I have been trying to develop both and found it was very easy to avoid confusion by throwing my spin putts from a staggered stance and my push putts from a straddle. I can set the nose angle of a putt in my hand to increase and decrease the glide. Using different setups and starting angles makes it easy to keep the mechanics separate.
My practice got a lot more efficient when I thought about the game more like traditional golf – a set of challenges that each required a different technique. As a newer player, I wanted to change my setup to get those flights as automatically as possible and without having to adjust my mechanics mid-throw.
My upshots don’t feel anything like my drives and that’s okay – they’re a different game.