Over the past few months I've enjoyed reading the “forehand is best” thread and thought I might chip in some perspective on this underutilized throwing technique. Part of what I'd like to do is answer some of the points made by Mark Ellis on this technique, thus giving him an opportunity to support those positions.
Let me begin by saying that I think the forehand throw has great uses and is the best utility throw out there. That said, I am uncomfortable with the notion that anyone might think this throwing technique is better than the backhand throw for discs. The supposition I will present, and then try and support, is that the forehand throw is a flawed throw that requires more factors to get the disc to fly right, thus making it a more complicated, and ultimately a less favorable throw.
Even in his support of this throw, Mark comments that he thinks it is a more complicated throw. If we simply take that at face value, we should already see a problem. To demonstrate the point I will go to baseball. Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros was one of the best batters during the last 10 years. Jeff was also known for having a unique batting style, some would call it non-conventional, others would call it plain awkward. Jeff took a stance that was too wide and too low, and then when the ball was released by the pitcher he would straighten his stance to something more normal and swing away. Obviously, Jeff had some success with this style - the point being that a great athlete can overcome bad technique. However, Jeff had a problem. It was called the playoffs. Whenever the Astros would get to the playoffs, Jeff would firmly place his hands around his neck and squeeze. Why is this? The argument goes as follows. The brain is capable of handling many different functions and more than one at a time. However, if the number of items becomes to great, the brain begins to falter and we make mistakes. In other words, under day to day play, Jeff's brain could cope with his unique batting style, but when you added in the stress of the playoffs, it was too much for Jeff and he choked. BTW – as an aside, A-Rod a more conventional batter, suffers from the same problem, he chokes in the playoffs. Obviously, the ability of an individual to handle multiple scenarios varies from person to person. A similar phenomena happens with cell phone use and car driving. Under normal conditions a person can do both reasonably well, but if you toss in a third issue say a child running into the road, everything falls apart and you get a wreck.
Why is this important - well, if Mark is correct, and the forehand throw is a more complex throw, then you've left yourself less room for error and less room to deal with other incidental distractions. Your overall error rate will increase and your scores will go up.
Is the forehand throw a more complex throw? I'm pretty confident that Mark is correct in his supposition, but most of the evidence is anecdotal. First, our culture is dominated by the forehand throw, we all learn it very early (remember hitting your little sister on the noggin with that block, did you use a backhand toss?) and yet we gravitate to the backhand throw in this sport. Why? The simplest conclusion to draw is that it is easier. Let's try and make the observation a little more scientific. Good disc flight takes two things, spin and forward motion. Eliminating either results in a pretty poor throw. Dave Dunipace has argued, and the aerospace guys agree, the key element to good disc flight is that spin. You can take a lot of speed (forward motion) off a disc, but if you still have good spin you will get good flight. However, if you take that spin away, the disc wobbles and flies like a wounded duck. We all see it, it's called off-speed wobble. It happens when you make a bad throw and for about 100 feet, the disc wobbles back and forth until it settles out and flies flat.
The position I would like to take is that the backhand throw “naturally” allows the thrower to move their arm through a path that puts good spin on the disc (obviously this is still learned or all newbies would throw monster throws out of the box). Conversely, I would like to argue that the forehand throw does just the opposite, it requires a motion that is not “natural” to impart adequate spin on the disc. Even more importantly, the forehand throw is a power throw, it emphasizes forward motion and literally overwhelms the amount of spin that can easily be placed on the disc.
First, an intellectual exercise. Think about the backhand motion that you utilize. Think about how you move your wrist and hand to snap the disc out and put spin on it. The motion is natural, the hand flexes in and as the arm unbends at the elbow, the wrist snaps forward spinning the disc out. Now compare this to the motion of the forehand throw. The arm does not bend in such a way to get the same flex and snap. In fact in order to get that flex, you have to consciously snap your wrist forward. Is it likely that this motion is going to allow you to impart the same spin as the motion of the backhand throw?
Interestingly enough, Mark, in his instructional video at discraft.com states that the forehand throw imparts huge amounts of spin on the disc. Is Mark correct? I will argue that he is not. Again, The aerospace guys tell us that the consequence of inadequate spin is off-speed wobble. Watch Mark's video lesson and while the video quality is poor, you can readily see that a number of throws made by some top forehand throwers come out with quite a bit of off-speed wobble. Now go watch his instructional video on throwing far. How many of those throws come out with off-speed wobble? Now, think about your own experience, where do you see the most off-speed wobble, in players using a backhand throw or in players who primarily use the forehand?
Why then does Mark argue that you get a lot of spin with the forehand? I don't have an answer and maybe Mark will let us know, but let me guess. One of the most observed tendencies of the forehand throw is that over stable discs are required. This is because discs that are thrown forehand turn over. Why? Many believe that the tenancy of discs to turnover on forehand throws is due to large amounts of spin put on the disc and I'm guessing Mark agrees with this, but is it correct? Well, lets go back to our aerospace guys, and what they write; as I understand it, the more spin you put on a flying disc, the more stable the disc flies. In this case stable means straight, and the effect is the same for under stable or over stable discs, each flies straighter.
So, what is going on with those over stable discs thrown forehand? As I learned to play I took notes on things I tried and what happened so that I could progress without making the same mistakes over and over. One of the things I observed was that initially discs that were slated as over stable flew less stable for me. What I found was that as I developed better snap those discs straightened out. Here is what I believe happens. A well thrown disc flies far, not because of forward speed, but because of the relationship between spin and forward speed. When you remove spin, the disc doesn't fly as far and players, especially rookies, try and compensate by throwing harder. They are convinced that if they can just get enough forward motion the disc will fly far. What we know, anecdotally from the top players, is that if you take some of that forward speed off, and increase spin, you get a better result. Even more to the point is what the aerospace guys tell us, you can't put too much spin on a disc. The more spin, the more stable/straight the flight. There would be no turn over effect with more spin by their observation. Given this, what I would speculate, is that high forward speed with low spin results in less stability and hence a disc that turns over. Therefore, a strong player with reasonable technique, but low spin, will throw hard to get distance, and thus turn over even over stable or moderately over stable discs. This should not be confused with the ability of a strong player who can impart good spin to get an over stable disc to fly straight, that is simply good flight mechanics, and the payoff is very good distance.
If all of that sounds like what is happening to forehand throwers, well, I agree. What I argue is that the forehand throw allows the thrower to put a lot of forward speed (due to the physical characteristics of the forehand throw) on the disc with inadequate spin, resulting in under stable flight, and that is very compatible with both the anecdotal evidence, and the observations of experts in the field of flight. There is a lot that a player can do to compensate, but then you have the problem of the over-complex throw described at the beginning of this note.
One key argument for using the forehand throw is that you get to look at your target! Mark repeats this oft presented point and I thought I would address it briefly. Those who make this argument do not understand human physiology nor the process of learning to throw. Let me give another example, that of Fernando Valenzuela. Fernando was a pitcher with the LA Dodgers in the 80s and boy did he have a unique pitching style. As he lifted his lead leg into the classic pre-delivery pose, he would turn his head up and look to the sky. Then he would deliver with incredible accuracy. How did this guy do it? Well, those who know physiology know that the time it takes for the human eye to find a target is way less than a second. Indeed it is less than a millisecond. Yes, what I'm telling you is that when an accomplished player turns away from the target, they are quite able to find that target and focus on it as they pull their disc through in a backhand throw, and they can do that long before they snap the disc out. However, I think this is fairly irrelevant. The reality is that three dimensional spacial placement and muscle memory are way more important in delivering the disc for both forehand and backhand throwers. Think about a child learning to throw for the first time. She looks at her target, winds up and throws. And she misses her target by a mile! Why? She's looking right at it, she should hit it. The reality is that her mind and body have to learn the right relationship between muscle effort and movement to deliver the ball to the target. Furthermore, no thrower throws the ball at the target, rather they throw it on a trajectory that takes into account other factors, and still delivers the ball to the target. Long before we become accomplished throwers, our minds and muscles learn body angles and trajectories that will deliver the disc accurately, even when our eye is not on the target. Simply knowing the three dimensional space around us relative to the target is more than enough. How do we prove this is true; well short of physical studies, we simply have to watch a Ken Climo or a Barry Schultz deliver a disc on a line to know it has to be true, no matter what the forehand throwers tell us.
The forehand throw revisited. I started this note by commenting that I think the forehand throw has great utility, and I believe that. IMO the reality is that a sharply snapped forehand shot flies flat, smooth, and accurately. The problem lies in distance. When the player tries to throw that disc 400 feet he loses the ability to put adequate spin on the disc, due literally to physical limitations. Over short distances (no I won't give you a number because its going to vary from player to player) the disc can be thrown exceedingly well. Indeed, for most courses that is all that is required. A clear focus on good wrist snap and a deemphasis of forward motion works nicely.
Hopefully, this note will get Mark and other forehand throw advocates buzzing (or at least irritated) so that we can get more commentary, and thought about the throwing technique. But I will leave you with one thought, if it is so great, why isn't it the dominant throwing technique in our sport. As the left handed student replied, everyone is born right handed, but intelligent people can overcome that.