Keeping the Discus Throw Simple and Efficient
by Matthew Ellis,
Primal Athlete Training Center, RI
There are a few very well known facts when it comes to all throwing events, especially the discus. One of the most important is that footwork and movement through the circle needs to be as crisp and efficient as possible. Cutting down on unnecessary movements in the beginning, middle, and finish of the throw saves energy and will help to produce longer and more consistent throws. In this article we will review some of the most common energy wasting movements that a thrower goes through and show why they hurt the throw and how to correct them. The majority of the problems start at the back of the circle. We will cover these first.
The "Nomar" Effect
Many baseball fans know of an erratic hitter named Nomar Garciaparra. His actions before stepping into the batters box are legendary. The way he fixes his gloves, adjusts his helmet, and taps his feet have grown over the years and are all the product of superstition. He may have swung the bat one way before a good hit or adjusted his helmet in such a way before a home run, so he started doing it every time. The movements have grown now into a big ritual before he hits. The same thing happens with our young discus throwers. Before they throw, we can see them taking the discus and swinging it in a windmill motion 7-8 times while tapping their feet and twisting at the waist. They squat down and up in a back and forth motion while pulling at their shorts and breathing rhythmically. Just like Nomar, this comes from superstition. The thrower may have swung his arm or pulled on his shorts before a good throw, so now they always do it. It builds and builds into a big production. Not only does it look ridiculous, but it is bad for a few other reasons. The first is that it wastes their energy before the throw. In an event that can be decided by inches, why waste all that potential energy on worthless movements before the throw. Second, all the foot tapping could result in a foul if they step outside of the circle, especially if it is a painted circle, not recessed. Third, and maybe the most important, it gives the thrower too much time to concentrate on mistakes he may be making and could affect his entire throw. To correct this, you need to slow the thrower down. Calm him down before the throw and get him used to stepping into the circle focused and concentrating without the huge movements. This will be great especially during practice because he will be relaxed and will have a lot of time to make good habits.
The "Spin" Talk
One of the biggest mistakes that we make as coaches is to describe the full discus throw as the "spin." This puts the incorrect visual into the athlete's head of someone jumping and twirling like an ice skater. Once this happens, it is so hard to get that image out of their head and teach them to "drive" to the middle of the circle. Spinning in the circle generates a whole lot of problems like incorrect rhythm of the throw and the throwing arm getting too far ahead of the hips. Also, it slows down the throw by making longer motions with the legs and it keeps the full throw at the same speed without any acceleration. Get the spinning out of your vocabulary from the start to help your throwers. For your upperclassmen who already call it the spin, correct them if they do. Instead you should teach them different terminology like the rotation technique and the reverse seven. This will put the image in their heads of a person rotating in the beginning or tracing the pattern of a reverse seven. Even go as far as taking chalk or paint into the practice circle and drawing a backwards seven for your throwers or paint small dots in the circle where their feet should be landing. This will gradually teach them the feeling of having their lower body be faster than their upper body.
My biggest pet peeve. Teaching someone that their legs and feet should trace two big wagon wheels in the circle is the same as having them "spin." It makes two big swooping motions with the legs and the thrower never ends up driving to the middle of the circle. They just end up stepping lightly, not driving forcefully. Also, the bigger problem is that all of the throwers who learn this style end up looking at their feet. This is another bad habit that we never want to happen in the discus. Also, just like with a "spin," the throwing arm will almost always get too far in front of the hip and the thrower will lose all of the torque he has produced. This is very inefficient. As may be the problem with your "spinners" or "wagon wheelers," they will be great with the South African style, but they can not translate it into the full throw. This is because the South African teaches them to drive into the center of the circle but the wagon wheel technique negates this and the drive disappears. Instead, teach your throwers to turn in the back of the circle and stop in the South African position with one foot outside of the circle, then drive to the middle. This is called a stop turn. All they would need to learn after this is to stop their foot from planting outside of the circle and then drive to the middle. This also makes the entry into the circle much more crisp and quick. Their feet and knees will be in a great position to drive to the middle of the circle, not just put their foot down.
The Second Wagon Wheel
Phase two of why I dislike the wagon wheel style of teaching. Our goal as discus coaches is to build torque and acceleration through the circle. If you teach the wagon wheel style, the second wagon wheel (trailing foot) takes so long to get from behind the driving thrower to the front of the circle that the throw is slowed down. Also, the sweeping wheel motion of the foot causes the hips to open up and the discus to move to a position in front of the hip. That motion alone removes about 20% of the torque that you have already built up. To make this motion more quick and effective (and to save torque) the trailing foot must come through the circle as close to the driving foot as possible, not looping around the circle. The thrower will pivot on the driving foot to make this happen. Think of clicking the heels together like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. As the driving foot plants, pivot on that toe and bend the knee of the trailing leg. Pass the trailing foot as close to the driving foot as possible and extend the trailing foot to the front of the circle. You are now in the correct power position. The arm holding the discus is behind the hip and there should be a great feeling of stretch in abdominal region and the hips. This is the feeling most people will call torque. This is a little tough to master, but once your athletes can effectively do this is a quick motion, it will speed up the end of the throw and make the discus go farther.
OK, we have now learned how to conserve our energy at the start of the throw. We have learned to drive to the middle of the circle in a shorter motion to conserve even more energy. And, we have just read of a cleaner way to bring the trailing leg through to keep our hips closed and conserve all that torque. We all know what comes next: the release. However, there is one part of the release that commonly falls by the wayside. That part is what the non-throwing arm does at the end of the throw during the block. Many athletes will throw the elbow up in a 90 degree angle in the air as part of the block. When this happens it takes all the forward motion that we have worked so hard to produce and turns it into a side to side motion. In some taller throwers, it also forms the habit of pulling the head down and bending at the waist. Others can take an even less efficient means and let the non-throwing arm fall by their side without any blocking force. This is what many coaches mean when they say a thrower has "no block." The arm does not stop and the thrower will simply turn in one spot after the release. So, how do we create a good block while not disturbing the forward motion that we have been building up and not bending at the waist? We do this by forcefully pulling the elbow down the side of the body by our hips and rib cage. Imagine someone grabbing you from behind and you need to get free. You would try to elbow him as hard as possible in the stomach. This type of movement does not disturb our forward momentum, but it will still create a forceful stopping motion and provide a great deal of stretch across the chest to help bring the throwing arm all the way through. This will also put the thrower in a proper, upright position with his head high and his hips up.
In this article, I have illustrated five major inefficiencies that happen with beginner discus throwers and different ways to correct them. There are many other little things that can go wrong as well, so don't just stop here. Make sure to closely examine all the little, unnecessary movements that occur before, during and after the throw to fully take advantage of your athlete's potential. Remember, in an event that can be determined by a matter of inches, making the throw simple and crisp could open up new PR's for all of your throwers.