Thursday, October 02, 2008
The questions are eerily similar every time.
"How do you throw it so far? Do you use a different grip? Can you teach me how to do it?" From young to old, freshman to super senior, handler to cutter, everyone is looking for the easy answer. The thirst for ultimate knowledge is generally unquenchable – but finding answers is not always as easy. Often it takes adaptation and experimentation strolling hand-in-hand, slowly ascertaining small truths. But this quest for understanding can really only be realized through the journey itself. There is no one miracle tip – rather a streamline of intricacies that, when choreographed together, create poetry from motion.
But how should one approach this journey to self-discovery? Perhaps through observing and emulating – perhaps through learning and creating – or (if you are indeed asking me), through the hips. The hips? Absolutely.
The strongest major muscle group of the human body is the legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes) and coincidentally, the hips connect that concentrated power to your core. Meaning, when the body needs to create a powerful force, the energy comes from the legs, is transferred through the hips, through the core, and then - if timed correctly - through the arms depending on the desired movement. This was one sport specific concept I'd have loved to have understood years before the dawning realization reached me as a fledging, furiously cocky junior in high school.
I had played competitive sports my entire life, and wanted to dominate any sport I could sign up for as a youth (save the intensely boring game of baseball – which was a wonder anyone could stay awake long enough to play). My childhood coaches, sports camp directors, and mentors all seemed to understand the concept of utilizing power from your hips, but despite their complex descriptions and illustrations, understanding was always just out of reach. In each sport they referred to hip power with a different example; calling it the triple threat position in basketball, the breakdown stance in football, the driving shot of a single leg takedown in wrestling, the explosive arcing path of a corner kick in soccer, the top spin of a forehand winner in tennis, or the crack of a home run in baseball. Whatever the sport, what do all of these sport specific movements have in common? The explosive power always generates in the hips and, when performed correctly, can translate vectors of force coming from various appendages into one perfect fluid motion. It is truly training the muscles to fire in the correct sequence, while overcoming the body's natural resistance to learning those firing patterns.
It will take time and practice, trial and error, but the first moment you generate that power and feel the difference, new doors to performance will be opened, as if leveling up and finding all new attacks. However, the hips and core strength are two tricky animals to tether. Getting those muscles to fire in the correct sequence is difficut. But don't be discouraged – it takes practice, hours, days, weeks, and months of clumsy, stupid, awkward practice to finally hone into a movement worth memorizing.
But where should this expedition begin? Where all journeys of great importance begin – at the fountain of motivation. Wanting to perfect anything will take the time and dedication. The desire must be strong enough to endure the days when it would be easier to not practice, to not a make that sacrifice. Because it will take a sacrifice – whether that is chaffed and bleeding knuckles, a sore back, or the abstinence from homework or television – it will take time and it won't come easy.
Once the proper motivation is in place, formal mechanics and fruitful visualization will need to follow. The best way to present this idea articulately would be with a handful of analogies and stories, that when spliced together, can create the narrative.
A few general ideas will be necessary before we crack the whip, so to say. Imagine a young and inexperienced high school ultimate player – easy. Upon first picking up this piece of plastic, the only way to toss it is with a feeble and uncoordinated backhand wobble – no spin, no hizer, just jerky arm-propelled movement. There is no fluidity to the movement, no speed of release, no tight grip on the edge, no well-placed pivot to balance the movement. The attempt is ill-conceived and maneuvered without confidence. But as the player practices more and more – the disc begins to flatten, the number of Z's slowly increases, and soon the speed of the release increases as well. It took practice, but even now the player is only half-way there.
The easy lessons are replaced with more difficult concepts to grasp; degrees of torso rotation, exact finger placements of force on the rim, angles of release, and intention of S curve. As the player wants to develop his ability he must move into realms of advanced study, using forces and muscle memory to expand his range and power. But the backhand was the easy part: grip it like a handshake, and rip it. Grip it harder, throw it farther. But that elusive forehand has such different mechanics, how could you possibly understand advanced theory without anyone showing you properly? You experiment and adapt. You take lessons from other sports and walks of life – and apply their principles. The cliché holds: practice makes perfect.
Now when trying to teach this same high school player how to throw a forehand – it takes much longer because the principles are far less intuitive. There are several joints now propelling the force in a snappy action, quite different from the big backhand wind-up. The analogy which best suits the mechanics of a forehand is the crashing car scenario. A car is driving fast and there is in incredible amount of force being built up. However, the unbuckled passengers can not yet really appreciate this strong acceleration, until another force acts upon it. When the car hits a solid object and suddenly stops, all of the acceleration now lands upon the passengers, thrown forward through the windshield – going from 0 to 100 in the split second it takes the car to stop. Now imagine the disc is the passengers and your arm is the crashing car. The elbow and arm swing forward aggressively and only when the wrist snaps to stop and recoil does the disc speed out of your hand. This is the first step – understanding where the force of the movement is actually coming from. The second step is maximizing this force expenditure. This is where predetermined athletic ability, flexibility, coordination, agility, and muscle strength begin to blend into a cohesive movement – the 90 yard forehand sniper bomb.
The closest examples to a forehand sonic boom are the cracking of a whip or the hurling of a baseball pitch (close seconds would be a baseball swing, judo throw, or golf drive). These movements take energy from one part of the body and transfer it into an athletic movement that creates a huge implosion of force.
When a whip is snapped, the energy from the initial thrust moves easily along the whip, but when the wrist stops and snaps, the crack is generated from all the force traveling the entire length of the whip. When a pitcher hurls a baseball, notice the wind-up of his leg, the turning of his hips, the torque on his shoulder, elbow, and wrist. The pitcher has taken force from his legs and the ground, and then twisted his body, only for his arm to follow through on the motion, whipping the baseball using energy from his legs, hips, and core. The same goes for a baseball swing or a golf drive – the legs push into the ground, creating force, the hips turn to change the direction of the force, and the core clenches – transferring this force to the arms and hands – gripping very tightly to not lose any of the transferred energy, and when contact is made – BOOM. The same power of the hips is found in football on a tackle and even in wrestling on a head throw. If these conclusions are so obvious in other sports – why hasn't it translated to hucking in ultimate? Because no one has taken the time to break it down proper.
We will start with the secret of the shoulder jerk and then move into the realms of unknown – the hip & shoulder jerk – articulated as the super sniper bomb. The shoulder jerk begins with a powerful stance, shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, head and shoulders up, and two hands on the disc. Anyone who has to travel to throw obviously has not done their homework and clearly has not realized the benefits of a firm pivot. That pivot foot is the focal point of the force, pushing from the legs, transferring through the core, and synchronizing with a shoulder jerk to send the disc sailing. Now, the shoulder jerk involves generating force from the upper body, swinging one shoulder to create momentum, and blasting the second shoulder through, as the torso violently twists. The elbow and wrist stay locked in close to the body, but noticeably behind the shoulder attending to the violent twist. Are you still following? First, the left shoulder swings to left, creating a slight shimmy, the weight shifts from left to right and back again, but this time, the left shoulder fires forward, as if cocking a gun or pulling back a bowstring. When the left shoulder pushes forward, it is go time – turn the hips and crank on the torso, jerking the right shoulder as far forward as possible – then as long as the wrist and elbow are locked in place – all of that energy from the shoulders and core is translated perfectly into a lightning fast release, wrenching the elbow like slingshot. Theoretically it sounds easy, but the synchronization of the movement and timing of events is the most crucial part. If the timing is incorrect, the result will be likewise.
Two other considerations to the shoulder jerk, a slight step forward also brings extra momentum and the friction of the release point needs to be clean. Meaning, the "power point" of the release would be better suited if the last point of contact with the disc is smooth and crisp (like say athletic tape), rather than sweaty and sticky (like say the skin on your hand). That makes sense right? Generate force and momentum from powerful parts of your body like your legs, chest, and core, and transfer it through the arm and into the disc by the grip of the hand. The aim and curvature of the disc are also important, as the release angle of the disc should come off so IO, and with so many Z's, that it flattens and then comes back OI, usually biting just to left, right over the defenders head, setting up an easy read and total bitching. The exact grip placement of the fingers is quite crucial, first knuckle of the middle finger. Every little intricacy matters because every ounce of energy lost in the transfer – is one less Z on the disc. Lots of players have picked up the shoulder jerk and at most elite levels – this will get you a solid 50+ yards, even without a step.
But now we will move into realms of ultimate knowledge never revealed in any ultimate book. For the originals of the mythical forehand super sniper bomb are only cited in the deepest legends of Hodag Lost Dark Arts. I give full credit to Tyson Park – who ripped a 85 yard forehand in 2003 National Finals – walking the disc to the line, yelling at Joey Dombrow, and pointing deep – there was nothing either Wiggins could do: the biggest throw coupled with the fastest player is an unbeatable combination. Tyson, a proficient golfer, clearly understood, even with his small frame that turning the hips and stepping forward can create power unknown to most ultimate players. This feat has only been outdone once – in 2007 Nationals Semifinals Wisconsin vs. Stanford. After an injury time-out (Mabrowald sick layout D) the disc laid at least 10 yards deep in the Hodag end zone. Malecek put the disc into play there, and similar to Tyson, yelled for Shane Hohenstein to take off deep, already 40 yards away. The marker Cahill waited patiently at the end zone line, too slow to realize the disc was in play, and Muffin proceeded to sonic boom sniper bomb it 90 yards for the 1 pass goal – outdoing his mentor and completing the biggest throw ever.
To reiterate – the extra power comes from perfect coordination of a shoulder jerk, coupled with a strong forward step initiated by tapping into that hip power.
Now, why would I reveal all of the deepest never explored secrets of ultimate prowess? Because there are many factors that go into the delivery – predetermined genetic athletic ability, flexibility, coordination, agility, and muscle strength. For the 90 yard forehand sniper bomb to go off without a hitch – you might need to be able to bench 300 lbs – because the pectoral shoulder jerk is going to need some oomph on it. Your grip will need to squeeze so hard, that your fingers will be at risk for dislocation. So if you were not blessed with superior athletic ability, never quite developed that hand-eye coordination, or never hit the weights hard enough to recognize an increase in muscle strength – this Dark Art will still remain unknown to you.