Getting Better Is About Making Your Worst Less Bad. And Knowing More.
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
This week, we take a break from the Common Mistakes in Disc Golf, and Vortica director Chris Davies, takes us on a round-about tour of his own disc golf game, introduces some micrometeorological ideas, and offers a few things to help you get good. CMiDG returns next week.
This year I have played very average disc golf indeed. And yet I find myself currently 9th overall on the New Zealand National Tour coming into the pointy end of the calendar. Admittedly, that won’t last long. There are players below me who should leapfrog me, after their final rounds.
So I will end up around 12th for the year.
And I will be very happy with that. I’m a Grand Master at age 52, and getting noticeably weaker and slower with every passing year. I weigh 20 kilos more than I should. I have a fused left ankle, and a destroyed left elbow. I am not terribly talented, and I physically practice very little. My scoring at the Majors has been lacklustre and I’ve had bad tennis elbow twice in the last 18 months.
Yet my PDGA rating has never been higher, and I’m playing the best disc golf of my life. So, I put it to you that if I can play good disc golf, then literally anyone can.
How did I get here?
It’s not the fact I’ve now been playing for almost 3 decades. Talented young guys who have been playing for just 3 years regularly kick my butt.
It’s not that I have found some extra disc golf talent. I haven’t! Everything I have ever done physically in this world, such as teaching skiing and paragliding, came at considerable effort for me. I am not a natural athlete of any kind or shape.
It’s definitely not that I practice a lot, because I don’t. In the past I have pounded the basket in the back lawn, but never excessively, and never for longer than 15 minutes at a time. This last year I’ve had very little actual physical practice.
I play 2 to 4 times a week. Every week. Maybe that’s it?
Nah. There’s a ton of people who play more than me, and I can beat lots of them.
So, what is it, then?
I attribute my decent performance today to a few things.
Firstly, my decision in 2012 to actually get decent at disc golf, instead of being just decent at my local course. I made a conscious choice, to follow the National Tour, to work hard on my driving and putting, and to improve my technique.
I hasten to add that despite being Obsessed By Disc Golf, my laziness usually trumps my passion, so I did not hurl myself into disc golf practice like some 18-year old with a one-track mind.
Since 2012, if I have been practicing at all, then I have been practicing specific movements in the throwing motion. Concentrating on developing the feeling of proper movements. Asking myself “How does a straight-drawn disc FEEL, when I pull it perfectly straight?” I also used my camera in slow motion mode, to help me get fast feedback as I tried to make changes to my movements.
I have so little talent I had to resort to inventing a machine to help me feel what proper form is. The Mobius Line Puller worked better than I could possibly have hoped for, in that regard. Buddy Paul "Mc" Deacon even calls it “The Holy Grail Machine”.
So, it took me 5 years to get close to my goal, which was a rating of 950. A younger, more talented man would have done it in 2 years or less!
I Understand the Micrometeorology of a Disc Golf Course
Micrometeorology is simply a big word for weather at the smallest scales; the type of scale we observe and feel physically on the disc golf course.
I think my years of teaching paragliding and intently studying the ground from above; how wind flows around objects, and how far downwind the turbulence extends gives me a much better than average understanding of what’s actually going on in the air. When you are paragliding, and scratching for thermals, you must pay very close attention to every indication of wind movement on the ground, and in the air.
But there’s nothing I do on the ground today that can’t be done by an observant person who is not a pilot.
Air flows through a disc golf course in exactly the same way water would, if the wind were a river – but without the massive destruction part, obviously. Air always prefers to go around things if it possibly can, rather than over the top, just as water would rather go around a rock than over it, in a stream. Standing waves or rotor can often develop in the same place like clockwork, in certain conditions.
It often surprises me how few people know of the single most basic micrometeorological concept called Wind Gradient, or how to use it or avoid it in their game.
Wind Gradient is how the wind speed always increases as you gain altitude.
Wind speed at ground level is always zero. You might not think so, but there it is. It even applies to discs. The air molecules which are on the actual surface of your disc never move, no matter how fast you throw it.
This is basic aerodynamics and physics.
Wind Gradient is why wind turbines are placed on such tall towers, and why they fail so spectacularly if there’s a problem. The air up there is gushing hard.
Players can use wind gradient to their advantage or become a victim of it. Figure 1, shows a very typical wind gradient, with zero wind at ground level, and the wind speed rapidly rising from the ground up. In particular, you should note that wind speed can effectively double simply by climbing from 3 metres to 6 metres altitude – but expect some variance based on the surface features and wind strength. Height, therefore, has a very dramatic effect on your shots.
Throwing a disc above 10 metres altitude means exposing your disc to winds that are far more powerful than those close to ground level. If you can use that to your advantage, then you should.
It means that into a headwind, you need to throw a very fast, very overstable disc with very low glide, and keep It flat and low. I use an Elasto Westside World for this task. The idea behind this is more aerodynamics I’m afraid.
The more glide a disc has, the more lift it generates relative to its drag. Glide is defined as Lift over Drag. Or as an actual equation: G=L/D.
So when you throw a high-glide disc into a monster headwind, it has so much extra airspeed, it generates a lot more lift, and it will often climb strongly, into the even stronger headwinds above. This will cause the disc to turn excessively, and reduce its range substantially. What you planned was a straight throw with a strong fade, but what you get is a short shot which finishes right.
The action of flipping up (and over) will also create excess lift, especially into a headwind, and that is why you will often see your understable discs climbing as they flip up to flat and over to anhyzer.
Wind gradient also means that in tailwinds, you want to get your disc up high and expose the appropriate surface to get maximum push, and lift, depending on your shot selection. You may also want to keep a disc low in a tailwind, to prevent the disc stalling early, and falling to the ground short, which is often the case for tailwind shots.
Another very powerful wind effect is the Compression Zone, and this is what happens when wind hits a slope and gets to the top of a hill, or a ridge.
As wind hits the hill, it really wants to go around it, but can’t, so it gets forced upwards, and the pressure of the wind behind it piles it up against the face of the hill, compressing it a little and thus raising its velocity slightly, and adds a vertical component to the wind direction.
However, the acceleration of the wind is most pronounced at the very top of the ridge, and behind it, if the hill has a flat top, as shown in Figure 2, above.
Wind speed will rise around 40% at the top of the ridge, and this will have a very profound effect on the way discs fly, compared to being thrown just below the compression zone.
This effect takes place on even relatively modest inclines and mound-tops and is also a good reason to never place an elevated basket on top of a mound, ridge, or hilltop. The Wind Gradient is radically accentuated within the compression zone, and particular care must be taken to account for rapidly rising wind speeds above head height.
Teepads placed in the Compression Zone will result in some crazy outcomes, whether people are throwing along the ridge, or down the hill.
Throwing downhill is fraught with its own set of problems, because the air rushing up the hill is climbing strongly, and wants to lift your disc strongly as a result. The spread of landing sites for downhill throws is the largest of any type of throw.
To prevent compression and wind gradient from badly affecting your downhill shots, you should use discs which are more stable than you think wise, and it should be thrown much further downwards, and with more nose-down angle than you think you should. And, because a putter has the most glide of any disc in your bag (believe it or not) and deviates less from its thrown line, I usually throw a putter downhill – even if it’s 220+ metres long. Often the outcome is very pleasing.
Not caring too much about the outcome
As a man with just half the testosterone I had at age 25, I find that I am not nearly so fiercely competitive these days, nor am I upset at losing, which I once was. As a Grand Master, it’s fantastic to beat guys who are young enough to be my kids and even grandkids. But I do not need to win all the time, and I am always happy to lose to better players.
Because I have a far less emotional attachment to the outcome of disc golf tournaments than I used to, I am able to more easily perform at a level which properly reflects my skill.
My enjoyment of disc golf is not predicated on playing well, it’s based on the thrill and challenge of trying to play well. It’s also strongly associated with the friendships I’ve made over the decades, and the joy of being able to appreciate the great throws of all players, even my arch-rivals.
These are real things. I used to suffer from them greatly. To the point where I would feel like throwing up before the first shot of the first hole. Sometimes I would catch myself shivering beforehand. I had very great difficulty in relaxing, and just playing my regular game. On top of that, all that testosterone wasn’t doing me any favours, either – I used to get very upset with myself if I played badly.
These days, I treat tournament rounds the same as casual rounds, but with more formality, and a far greater awareness of not only obeying the rules but of being *seen* to obey the rules. That’s an important thing, I think.
I’ll address the full topic of Tournament Nerves in another blog post, soon.
Knowing what to think about
These days, I have a routine for each shot. It goes like this: I try very hard not to prejudge a seemingly poor throw before I arrive at my lie. Often what you thought looked a bit dire from the teepad, actually turns out to be not-too-bad, and you still have a decent chance at a birdie.
The negativity of stewing about a “Bad Shot” for the entire time it takes to walk down to your lie can hurt you badly. (See the Inner Asshole, below.)
So, I don’t pre-judge my lie before I get to it (unless I know it’s good), and once I get to the lie I quickly decide where the optimal landing zone is, and establish at least 3 possible shots I could play to reach it. The optimal landing zone for a drive or upshot is usually going to be upwind of the basket, all things being equal. You’d much rather a downwind putt than a crosswind or headwind!
Then I assess the footing for my lie and decide if I can x-step aggressively, carefully, or not at all. Then I assess the wind and eliminate the less worthy shot options. Part of this process is working out what effect the wind will have on my chosen throw. This is followed by selecting the right disc for the play. Often this process can take me half my 30 seconds, and at others, it might take only 2-3 seconds.
Before I throw I ask myself what are the dangers associated with the shot. Will I be punished if I throw long? Or turn too much? I ask myself how I can minimise the risk while maximising the chance of success.
Then I isolate the single most important thing for the throw, concentrate on that single aspect, and visualise the shot clearly in my mind’s eye.
For example, if I am shaping up a tunnel shot, I make sure that my pull is absolutely straight, and that I do not try to put any kind of big power into it, to allow me to time the throw correctly, and get the disc down the middle. I will try to keep the disc low, to prevent hyzering out, and so that when the disc touches down, it will skip and slide forwards, rather than across or away from the basket.
If I am throwing an anhyzer upshot, I remind myself that I need more anhyzer than I think I do and more height. This isn’t a slippery slope to a roller, but a way to remind myself that the anhyzer shot always requires MORE height, and MORE annie, than the same shot thrown with a left hand back hand (LHBH).
Finally, and this is super-important, I look at the disc in my hand, and make sure it is the disc I think it is. Almost nothing is worse than thinking you grabbed your hot pink Ape (13 5 0 3), but in your hand is your hot pink Mamba (11 6 -5 1). Ask me how I know that! :P
I set my sights realistically, and plan my strategy accordingly
I play virtual disc golf in my head to put myself to sleep the night before tournament rounds. It sometimes takes me a long time to get to sleep. Often I’ll play 5 or more full rounds in my head before I drift off. In those rounds, I only play shots I can actually make in real life, and I never play better than my true skill level. In those rounds, I make birdies where I realistically can.
On the actual DGC, I play the holes I do not think I can birdie conservatively so that I can be sure of getting par. This ensures that when I can execute on my birdie opportunities, they are not undone by bogies.
And it’s not just for the soporific value that I play virtual rounds in my head. I picture the holes, and each shot very clearly in my mind. I concentrate on the hyzer and nose angles needed, and the flight shape, too. Often I have some insomnia in the middle of the night or have trouble getting to sleep initially, and playing these virtual rounds is a great help to my golf game, I think. It’s a form of “virtual practice” and if you are totally familiar with a course, then there is much value to be had from playing that course in your mind hundreds of times a year.
To benefit fully from virtual rounds, you will need to be brutally honest with yourself, and your own ability, and ensure that in your mind you are not making shots your body can’t deliver when your shoes hit the teepad.
I don’t play the same round every time I virtualise a course. I’ll pick a wind direction, and make sure the wind is coming from that direction before I select my virtual disc and virtual shot. I think this requires not only a lot of self-discipline, self-knowledge and course knowledge but also a lot of imagination, coupled with a solid grounding in physical reality.
MY BRAIN IS TOO BIG! IT ALLOWS ME TO SEE THINGS THAT CAN NEVER BE!
In my mind it is easy to imagine throwing 200+ metres, having spent many hours filming Simon Lizotte in slow motion over a period of several days. See below.
However, as I said before, it’s important not to get dreamy when you are playing virtual rounds! Hell, I have a recurring dream where Martin and I go out and we each throw 18 aces at Lismore Park. By the time we get to hole 7, we have a gallery of about 200 people, and we’re throwing crazy-ass drives straight into the basket every single time. Like it’s just not possible to miss. The crowd is going completely nuts, every time we throw, and then they go insane each time we ace…
…but it’s important to keep your imagination in check and ensure you are only doing in your mind what you can actually do on the course.
Stay Bogie Free
This is dead obvious, I know. But I see a lot of players who stand very little chance of making birdie on a hole, take a bogey because they didn’t play it for par. I do not understand why you would risk that unless you are in the dying stages of a tournament, with no-one close behind you, and only 1 or 2 strokes required to take the lead.
Here’s what an old buddy of mine often says, *Never belittle a shot up the middle*.
I play within myself
I know how much power and distance I have, and I know what I can do, and it is very seldom indeed – because I do not put myself in much trouble – I am forced to attempt a shot I am not fully confident I can make.
If I do not feel like I can genuinely execute my planned shot, then I will play a different one. Even so, mistakes happen, and sometimes it is necessary to pitch back onto the fairway to get yourself back into position. That is known as a “golf shot”. They’re nasty, but you should never be afraid to play one, and you will never be wrong to do so.
When you are in a hole, stop digging
Stop The Bleeding
Take Your Medicine
These maxims exist for good reason! So many great rounds are ruined by a misplaced trust in the skill of the player. Know your limits. Play to your strengths. Do not take risks without appropriate rewards.
Reduce bad throws
This is the holy grail of disc golf. It’s not about throwing massive crowd pleasers. It’s about not taking a triple bogey after ricocheting 60 metres into tiger country! A triple bogey wipes out three birdies and wrecks a round.
It is elementary stuff, I know, but avoiding bogeys is the way to become a much better disc golfer. It doesn’t even require that you play better! It just requires that you play less badly.
Each and every bogey you avoid adds ~10 points to your round rating.
Know your discs
This one is so obvious, I hesitate to include it. You should never use a disc you are not familiar with. Don’t add a disc ahead of a tournament. Never EVER use the tournament disc in the actual tournament.
As a disc reseller, it’s my duty to promote the idea that each disc in your bag should have at least 4 backups. Use premium quality plastics, so that your play disc keeps flying like your backups. Then you’ll have a total of five discs you can really learn to fly when in the field.
You never really learn much by throwing one disc, walking ~200 metres out and back, and then throwing it again. But throwing 5 in a row starts to get yourself dialled into a disc. If you throw a disc 100 times in a session, then you are learning a disc very quickly indeed.
It’s boggling to the mind how few tournament players know the actual rules of disc golf. If you want to become a better player then almost certainly the single easiest, fastest and cheapest thing you can ever do, is become a PDGA Tournament Director. The open-book, no-time-limit online exam costs just 10 USD, and you can sit it as many times as it takes to pass.
The players who win, usually know the rules the best. They know that if their disc is really in the poop, rather than risking 3 shots to get back into position, they can play again from their previous lie. The group will decide where that was, and you can play a second throw from the same spot.
And as we all know, the second throw is dead easy!
Have all the shots
This doesn’t mean what you think it does. I am not advocating you rush out and learn thumbers, Scomahawks, hammers or upside-down shots here, but rather, that you know how you can use each disc in your bag more effectively.
I often carry a disc which is regularly laughed at by most advanced players; a bright pink 167 gram, First Run Champion Mamba. The FR stamp means no one knows what it is, and I don’t tell anyone, either. Oooops. :P
Champ Mamba has the flight rating 11 6 -5 1. On the face of it, an absolutely crazily understable disc that only a total noob would carry. But wait a minute there, sunshine! The Mamba is probably the best far-left-reaching spike hyzer disc you will ever own. Get a light one!
Here’s why. You can take a light Mamba, and spike hyzer it higher than any other disc in your bag. This is fantastic if you need to clear tall objects and also want the disc to glide out far left, rather than tombstone on the other side.
It also means that in a decent quartering tailwind, coming over your left shoulder from the 7:30 to 8 o’clock position, with the basket at 12 o’clock, you can throw a Mamba on a gentle hyzer at 9:30 or 10 o’clock relative to your target, and it will naturally turn over once it gets to 10 or so metres altitude. The instant the disc shows its lower surface to the quartering tailwind, it will be lifted strongly and pushed very far right into the Anhyzer Valley, before it finally straightens out and begins to fade before touching down. This is not an easy shot to make though, with nose and hyzer angle being super critical.
I want to encourage you to try sky hyzers with your understable discs to see what happens to them. Because with sufficient height and hyzer, no disc can flip over to anhyzer. Also try the opposite: throwing your very overstable discs on anhyzer lines, with both high and low airspeeds. The flight shapes they offer are extremely powerful tools.
Work out how far a disc will slide on its back in various stuff. Practice roll shots that only go 15 metres, but on a nice tight line, to get you out of trouble. Make sure you can do a little forehand anhyzer shot for the same reason.
To recover fully from one really bad shot usually requires one outstandingly good shot. Sometimes you will be able to craft a shot that will please the crowd, after making an awful mistake. But mostly, a really awful shot will require a carefully planned and executed recovery shot, for an opportunity to scramble for your par.
Forgive yourself instantly! Or your Inner Asshole will have you for breakfast.
Everyone messes up. No exceptions. You will make mistakes, and you will be upset with yourself for making them – but you simply must learn to forgive yourself super quickly.
The concept of your Inner Asshole that I detailed in my putting article applies equally to beating you senseless when you throw bad shots. This is especially true if you allowed him to tell you things on the teepad. Things like “Don’t go in the pond again, idiot.” And, “Don’t hit that tree in the fairway.” Or, “Playing over that OB did not work last time, you fool!”
These kinds of things are the disc golfers version of the pilot’s Object Fixation: If you look at something you will fly into it. Same with driving a car. But in disc golf, you do not need to be looking at an object to be fixated on it.
Your Inner Asshole using bad language and a bad attitude to bring your attention to it in your setup routine is all it takes to go straight into the pond/tree/OB. Your mind must be totally focused on the Line Of Play, and the shape the disc is going to make and creating that shot. Not worrying about ponds, trees, or OB. Focus your attention on where you want the disc to go, NOT where you don’t want it to go. Visualise the disc going the whole way along your planned flight path, and even what happens to it on the ground.
I have a lot of fun in tournaments. If I didn’t, I would stop competing immediately. I always have great cardmates, and we have a good time together. I don’t let any bad performance drag me down, even my own... :)