You don't have to do a deep, straight reachback to throw far
July 13, 2022 by Steve Andrews in Instruction, Opinion with 0 comments
When I first started playing, I watched all the videos that were recommended to me and tried to learn the game the “right way.” This was before YouTube offered thousands of options for instruction and my main guides were Will Schusterick videos, the very popular Sexton and McBeth clinic, and the classic Discraft teaching series.
These sources all encouraged players to take the disc straight back and then pull straight through the “power pocket” position into the release. Danny Lindahl, in one of his early videos, said that “it’s not rocket science,” it is “important to reach your arm away from your body straight back.” Simon Lizotte, in his Flying Circus clinic, also encouraged players to “reach back and extend on a 180 degree straight line” because there was greater accuracy and power in a lateral reachback and pull.
I tried it; I really did. For hours and hours in the field for eighteen months. My swing could be brilliant, then be gone. Maybe it’s because I am thick and stocky rather than long and willowy like Lizotte and Schusterick, but I could tell that it wasn’t what my body wanted to do. Eventually, I started to deviate from the model swing. Looking for some justification for abandoning the straight pull, I found some discussions of a technique that seemed to match what was more natural to me – the wide rail. I discovered that analysts like seabas22 and Bradley Walker had been posting videos and drills that went beyond advocating a lateral pull. However, while it had advocates, other swing analysts cautioned against it and described it as an advanced move that wasn’t meant for beginners.
Despite this, it felt natural, so I just dove in. I found that my accuracy improved and my swing became more consistent. If you are having difficulties timing the straight extension swing, let me make the case for giving the wide rail a try – even if you are a beginner. In fact, if this works for you, starting with this kind of technique might save you months or years of unlearning a swing that doesn’t fit.
The Straight Extension
The straight extension swing – which is generally described as a straight reachback and a lateral pull on that same line – is often seen as the gold standard of disc golf form. It is the swing style of great players like Lizotte, Schusterick, and Eagle McMahon and produces an efficient, powerful, and aesthetically beautiful swing. These players get so far into their extension that their form is sometimes described as a “Deep Reachback”:
For me, the problem was not necessarily getting into this backswing position but getting out. This technique requires a lot of core strength and keeping the disc on line throughout the full swing requires a well-timed combination of arm pull and body turn. I know that “pulling” gets a lot of criticism in current teaching, but for me it seemed crucial to making the straight extension work.
When I timed the pull of my arm with the unwinding of my body, I got the disc into the “power pocket” as my hips were clearing and my shots had power and accuracy. When it worked, I could feel why this was a great way to throw. However, it was hard for me to get that timing correct shot after shot.
If I pulled early, my swing became weak and disconnected. I left my body behind and threw with only my arm. On the other hand, if I tried to minimize the pull, I would often turn my hips and shoulders before my disc got anywhere near the power pocket, so the disc would drop behind me into a rounded position. The disc could go anywhere.
I was chasing those great results that came when I could sync the arm pull and body turn, but if I was a little bit off, or tried to go even a fraction too quickly, I could get horrible throws. I am sure this timing is second nature to players like Simon and Eagle who have great athleticism and tons of experience, but it was hard for me to dial in. I would have good days and disastrous days.
This is not fault of the straight extension technique. It isn’t “wrong” in any sense and is used by some of the very best players in the world. It just wasn’t the best fit for me.
The Wide Rail
To try and avoid letting the disc sneak behind me, I started moving the disc wider on my backswing. I felt weird, like I was violating some kind of disc golf law. Online discussions about the wide rail made me feel that this was a legitimate way to throw. However, there were heated debates about the wide rail. Some people praised it since it was the way many top pros (including Paul McBeth) threw, but other commentators advised against trying it. Lindahl, for example, described it as an advanced move that some good players evolved into over thousands of throws but was “not recommended for most people.”
The basic mechanic of the wide rail is that the disc is extended into a wide position on the backswing. Rather than moving back and through on the same line, the disc moves away from the body on the backswing and then back into the body on the forward swing. The excellent swing teacher seabas22 describes the powerful leverage available in what he describes as a Wide Narrow Wide swing.
This swing style – though the exact technique and amount of width varies a great deal from player to player – is used by great players like McBeth, Nate Doss, Barry Schultz, and Philo Brathwaite.
For me, the wide rail has never been about getting more power. It just made timing the swing infinitely easier. For me, the disc comes back into the body (into the power pocket) as a result of the turning of the hip and shoulders. As long as I kept my arm loose and swung from the ground up, I could unwind my body as hard as I wanted, and the disc would still come back into a good throwing position. The biggest challenge was resisting my ingrained tendency to pull the disc and simply allowing my body turn to set the disc into the slot. Unlike the straight extension swing, in which I was always struggling to synchronize my arm pull and body turn, the wide rail’s reduction of the importance of the pull made the timing infinitely easier.
I say reduction because there can still be a feeling of pulling in a wide rail, but for me it doesn’t seem to happen until late in the swing – as the disc is coming out of its position close to my body. Some wide rail players really emphasize a late pull or ejection to add power, but I haven’t found it necessary to think about it to throw good shots.
Wide Rail Technique
So, if you want to try to wide rail, how do you do it?
There are a few different techniques that players use to get into the wide backswing position. The first is an early extension, in which the arm moves directly out from the body early in the swing. Players like Schultz and Brathwaite have a very distinct move where the arm is largely straight and extended away from the body very early in the swing. The arm remains straight deep into the backswing, and they hold this extended position as they turn during the x-step.
An extended arm is also part of many of Bradley Walker’s Spin and Throw swing drills, though Walker has declined to describe his swing as a wide rail. Josh at Overthrow Disc Golf also made a great video about his “twirly bird” drill that helps to engrain this feeling.
This early extension can feel very unnatural if you haven’t tried it before. A variation on the early extension is a forward press. This is a move in which the disc is moved outward or forward towards the target (or both) as part of a press or pump in the early part of the swing. It is very similar to Brathwaite’s move, and it is certainly possible to describe Brathwaite and Schultz’s extensions as a forward press, but I want to draw a distinction between how they throw and how players like Doss and McBeth get into their wide extension.
For these players, there is more of distinct pump forward and then a backswing rather than turning with the arm fully extended. This move was a very clear part of Paul McBeth’s swing for a long time and makes Nate Doss’ swing so distinct.
Doss pumped the disc outward and forward to start his backswing, but his arm was not as extended as Schultz or Brathwaite:
Look at this swing from Doss. In his backswing he takes the disc back on a straight line, but that line is drawn from where he sets the disc in his forward press – distinctly away from his body:
However, both an early extension position and a forward press can be hard to incorporate into your swing if it doesn’t feel natural. The early extension can feel very strange and make it hard to feel that you are turning back into the shot – your arm can feel profoundly disconnected.
Similarly, if you have been playing for a while, then adding in a forward press will change how quickly you get the disc into your backswing. It can really mess up your timing until you get used to it. As an aside, if you tend to get into your backswing too early, a forward press is a great way to give you a little more time in your runup before you take the disc back.
In 2012, McBeth’s swing had a very distinct forward press that went outward almost like Philo’s. After this press, however, he did not follow a straight path backwards like Doss. Instead, he brought the disc back in towards his body and then back out into a wide rail position. This curve remained a feature of his swing for years.
Here is McBeth throwing in 2012:
While it was a little less pronounced in 2019, it was still a clear part of his swing:
Since then, McBeth has tightened his swing and seems to have deemphasized the forward press. You can still see traces of his forward press, but he has minimized the out, in, out curve that was so apparent in 2012.
These variations make it clear that there are lots of ways to throw with a wide rail. If making a wide circular path into the backswing or adding a forward press feels unnatural, another way to get into a wide rail position is a swinging set more like McBeth’s current, quieter swing.
You can start your swing as you would for a “normal” straight extension swing but then move the disc wider at the end of your backswing extension. Rather than starting wide at the beginning of the swing like Philo or using a big forward press like Doss, you wait to swing the disc outward until you reach the end of your backward extension. You reach back and then swing the disc out into a wider slot. Once you are there, you can use your body rotation to get the disc back into a strong throwing position.
This all may seem hard to envision, so I have made a short video describing these different methods:
Find What Works
Your goal should not necessarily be to copy any pro, but to focus on getting into a wider position and realizing that there are lots of ways to get there. What feels most natural for you will depend on your strength, flexibility, and – perhaps most importantly – how long you have been throwing with your current form. If you have been throwing with a straight extension and a forward pull for a long time, throwing with a wide rail will feel very strange. It may take a while to sense how to “get your body” into the shot.
There are many teachers and analysts who have been working on breaking away from the long-common wisdom that a straight extension is the best way for every player to throw a disc. There have long been discussions about other ways to swing, whether they are about the wide rail or what was called the “Swedish style.” Even some instructors who championed the importance of a very linear swing path, like Lindahl, have softened their position.
Generally, teachers who deemphasize the pull and argue for more body rotation are advancing ideas that work well with learning the wide rail (even if they don’t directly teach a wide rail swing.) Bradley Walker’s Spin and Throw can be a little dogmatic in its technical recommendations, but it also teaches a lot of drills that help eliminate the tendency to pull.
I found that a wide rail swing was a more comfortable and repeatable way to throw a disc. While I didn’t immediately see a huge increase in power, it was easier to have a consistent swing path and release when unwinding the big muscles of my legs and hips controlled my timing. For me, simplifying my mechanics has made it easier to play good golf.
If you have a swing you like, then don’t change. An unnecessary swing change is a solution in search of a problem. But if you have been struggling with some of the same things that made disc golf so frustrating for me – rounding, inconsistent timing, falling back, or difficulty in getting into (and out of) a straight extension position – then give the wide rail a try.