Training the High School Discus Thrower
By Bill Pendleton
Esperanza High School
Developing a skilled top level discus thrower requires patience but has many rewards. To begin with, the discus is an event that requires a high level of skill. Unlike the sprints or jumps, a decent thrower is almost never beaten by a superior athlete who walks over and dabbles in the event. By becoming technically proficient a thrower of very modest athletic ability will defeat the great majority of his competitors, and a truly gifted athlete will dominate most meets short of the prestigious invitationals. In discussing the training of the discus thrower, I will emphasize coaching approaches and experiences I have found in developing high school throwers. I will discuss everything in terms of a right-handed thrower. reverse all directions for a left hander. Also, in describing the ring, I will refer to the rear where the throw begins as 12 o'clock with the front being 6 o'clock etc. Developing a top level thrower has many stages:
1. Selection of athletes
For most throwing coaches cutting athletes is never a requirement, so the real question is to whom do I devote the greatest coaching effort. If the coach only has one or two athletes, this is simple, but with 5 or more throwers, the coach needs to try and spot aptitude early and nurture it. Ideally a discus thrower is gifted with athletic ability which may be evident as they excel in other sports. Heighth is also of great benefit. Heighth provides two indispensible qualities. First, long arms provide long levers. If two discus throwers are rotating at the same speed, the farther the discus is from the body ( or axis ) the greater the momentum generated. Secondly, a taller thrower has a higher release point if he/she throws correctly. Three factors determine the distance a discus will travel.
1) Velocity of discus at release
2) Angle of release
3) Heighth of release point.
A 6' tall thrower throwing a discus on the exact same flight path (parabola) as a 5' 9 thrower will throw farther since his flight path starts higher and reaches the ground later. Yet, since few of us are gifted with tall and skilled athletes, the best bet initially is the well coordinated athlete while the taller thrower represents longer range potential.
2. Introducing the discus
Ideally the training of the trower can begin in the fall. However, if the thrower needs to begin in the spring following a winter sport, the same training principles apply. The most important factor with beginners is devote enough time to them so that they are fundamentally sound. It is very difficult to take a thrower who has been throwing with major flaws such as diving out of the back and correct them.
It takes less time overall to start them correctly. Firstly, a thrower must walk correctly before he can run. In other words, he must know how to grip and release the discus correctly before he takes standing throws. Then, he must master the standing throw before he throws from a pivot on the right foot. Lastly he must pivot correctly before he takes complete throws. All beginning throwers see older throwers and want to attempt full throws, but when they begin these on their own, they develop and cement flaws which some throwers never lose. The beginner may either spread his fingers or place the index and middle finger together with the joint of the first knuckle on the outside edge of the discus. Have the beginner stand with their arm at their side and squeeze the discus like a bar of soap so that it squirts out forward. Most beginners will release the discus out the back of their hand. Secondly, have two beginners stand 5 yards apart and "bowl" the discus back and forth. This teaches them to release the discus correctly, If they do not release it vertically, it will roll off to the side. They attempt to roll it straight to each other so that the receiving partner does not have to move sideways to pick up the discus. Once they can roll it 10 times back and forth with no one moving, they proceed to "skimming" the discus. This also can involve partners. They stand 20 yards apart and release the discus horizontally working on level flight. They should understand that the faster a discus rotates, the farther it will travel, so a good release is vital.
3. The "Standing Throw"
In teaching the discus we break the throw into four parts.
1). Exiting the rear of the ring as the throw begins over the left foot
2). Driving out of the back and landing on the right foot in the center of the ring
3). Pivoting on the right foot until the left foot touches in the "power position"
4). Throwing from the "power" position.
The teaching progression takes these 4 parts and works backwards. Show the beginner what a full throw looks like and explain that we will master the final step and then work backwards one step at a time. Standing throws should not only provide a warm up but they should emphasize technique that will improve the full throw not just the standing throw. For example, excessive lunging forward during the throw will add distance to the standing throw but detract from the full throw. The type of standing throw I prefer is seen on the Mac Wilkins instructional video. The thrower faces the back of the ring with the right foot in the center. The left leg is extended so that a line can be drawn from the thrower's head to his left foot. The weight is centered on the right foot. To begin the thrower holds the discus in front of him and swings it a little to his left and then draws it back keeping the right arm at full extension until the discus points up at the same angle it will be finally released on at the finish of the throw. The left arm stays extended in front of the body. The left arm needs to stay extended as a counterbalance to the extended right arm. As the right arm reaches as far back as it can, the thrower lifts his/her left foot slightly and then drops it. This foot touch simulates what happens in the real throw as the left foot reaches the "power" position. This touch initiates the throw.
The right foot pivots on the ball of the foot as the right arm pulls in a long "U" shaped path down to a low point behind the thrower and back up to a release as near shoulder heighth as possible. The right foot stays on the ball of the foot as it pivots. Ideally, the right arm will stay as near as perpendicular to the body as possible as it sweeps around the body. The left arm will also be extended as it sweeps from 12 0'clock to 6'o'clock with the thumb pointing at the body. Once the left arm reaches the front of the circle, it should be shortened by bending the elbow until the elbow mleads the arm as it passes parallel to the left shoulder at the end of the throw. This bending or "shortening" of the left arm increases its speed since it is now cutting a shorter arc. This helps the thrower to get a "stretch" across the chest as they throw. This stretch provides the corect action of pulling the discus not throwing it by leading with the arm. At the release point the thrower is striving to release the discus just as their knees lock out to achieve the highest possible height of release and still have the hips ahead of the discus. In a no reverse throw the left foot will remain facing the front as the right foot pivots. "NO REVERSE" throws are a good way to develop a good block. "BLOCKING" is a crucial concept in developing a good thrower. Blocking is a term that describes the stopping of one part of the throw or body to accelerate another part. In the release blocking refers to the stopping of the left side of the body at the release of the discus to accellerate the right side. Biomechanically, at the finish we have a rotating line across the shoulders. If we stop one end of this line (the left shoulder ) the right end ( the right shoulder accelarates. This can be explained to young throwers by comparing it to a skateboard rider riding 10 miles an hour. If he hits a curb, his feet and the skateboard decellerate immediately to 0 mph causing his head to accellerate forward far faster than 10 mph. A common practice is to start the throwing workout with "no reverse" standing throws.
4. The "Pivot"
Once a thrower can correctly stand throw, we begin to work backwards. The phase of the actual throw just before the finish in the power position is the pivot over the right foot to the power position. To work on this we do "PIVOT" throws. In a "pivot" throw the thrower begins with the right foot in the center of the circle and the left at the rear of the circle at 11 o'clock. He/she should be facing the left/center section of the throwing sector. Both hands and the discus are held in front of the body. To begin the thrower bends the right knee to a 90 degree angle ( just as the knee should be when the thrower lands in the middle of the ring on a full throw ) and gets up on the ball of the right foot. The thrower initiates the throw by drawing the right arm back as far as possible while leaving the left arm facing the front. The right arm should be kept as parallel to the ground as possible avoiding the natural tendency to scribe a vertical pendulum with the discus. Once the discus gets as far back as possible, the thrower should pivot as fast as possible keeping the right knee bent ( the head should not rise up during the pivot ). The left foot should land on the ball of the foot at 5 o'clock so the thrower is in a good heel-toe relationship just like the standing throw. When the left foot hits, the thrower should have the discus back over his right hip and his left arm slightly bent pointing at 11 o'clock and then execute all the fundamentals of the standing throw but with the added momentum of pivoting.
The two keys to a pivot" throw are
1). keeping the thrower's weight in the center of the ring instead of rocking to the front foot and lunging on the throw. This can be worked on by having the thrower stop the pivot as soon as the left foot hits the ground and immediately pick the left foot up off the ground a few inches. This is impossible unless the thrower's weight is in the center of the ring over the right foot.
2). keeping the discus back. The natural reaction of beginners is to lead the body's rotation with the discus, so the shoulders are always parallel with the hips instead of staying "wound up" with the shoulders trailing the hips, so that when the left foot hits, the discus is facing 12 o'clock and the "throw" ( the distance the discus will be pulled after the left foot hits ) will only cover 180 degrees or half a circle instead of a minimum 3/4 of a circle up to a full circle pull achieved by keeping the discus back over the right hip. To keep the discus back, the thrower must keep his left arm in front of him as he/she pivots. They must remember the arms basically should operate at 180 degrees opposite of each other. If they pull the left arm around too fast at the start, the right arm will also rotate too soon. One way to work on keeping the discus back is to imagine the shoulder has a "latch". Once the discus is pulled back, the "latch" clicks and the discus is locked there until the power position is reached.
A thrower can also work on keeping the discus back by momentarily pausing when the left foot hits on the pivot, to feel the discus back, then finish. Beginners especially can benefit from "3 point pivot " throws. In a three point pivot the thrower will cup the discus with his fingers over the discus so they don't drop it. they will pivot 3 separate times and throw only on the third pivot. On the first pivot the left foot hits at 5 o'clock as always and the thrower pauses ( they can also pick up left foot briefly here to see if weight is back ). Then they pivot again continuing to rotate counterclockwise bringing the left foot back to 11 o'clock again. They again pause; this time they regrip the discus so they can throw it. Then they pivot again to 5 o'clock and throw. The 3 point pivot gives a lot of repetiion in keeping the weight over the middle and keeping the discus back in a short time). It is very important that the thrower stay up on the ball of the foot at all times and never let the heel touch. Once a thrower is proficient at "pivoting", they can work on increasing rotation speed two ways. They can "kick" themselves in the rear by bringing the left heel towards their rear as they rotate. This shortens the swing (arc) of the lower leg and thus speeds it up. They can also think of "squeezing" the knees by bringing them together quickly as they rotate. This also speeds up rotation.
5. The "Step In" or "South African"
Once a thrower can correctly stand throw, we begin to work backwards. The next step is coming out of the back of the ring. There are two common methods of working out of the back off the left foot. Both begin with the thrower facing the front of the ring. The "STEP IN " throw emphasizes rotation while the "SOUTH AFRICAN " throw emphasizes being dynamic and explosive.
The STEP IN begins with the thrower facing the front of the ring. Both feet are together with the heels against the rear of the ring. The thrower holds the discus in front and then draws the discus back parallel to the ground as far as possible. As the discus is being drawn back, the thrower leaves the left arm facing the front of the ring. Also, as the thrower draws the discus back, they step forward with the right foot to the center of the ring. Normally, in a full cross ring throw the thrower's right foot lands facing approximately 2 o'clock. In the step in, however, we want to have the thrower work on rotation so we make them exaggerate the rotation. They step in and point the right foot at
6 o'clock ( straight ahead ). This forces the thrower to rotate 360 degrees on the rigth foot before throwing. They must stay on the ball of the foot and keep their weight over the right foot to cmplete the throw. This throw must be done a little slower than a normal throw so the thrower can rotate completely. Once the thrower rotates and the left foot hits the power position, the coaching points are the same as the standing throw.
In the SOUTH AFRICAN throw the thrower again faces the front of the ring with the left foot at 11 o'clock. The right foot, however, is outside the circle similar to where it will swung when the right leg is swept wide out of the back in a full crossring throw.
Here, though, the foot is stationary. A line drawn through both feet will point at 5 o'clock. To begin the throw, the thrower again swings the discus to the front and then draws it back as far as possible letting the body wind with it. When the discus is ready to be brought forward, the thrower drives forward off of the left foot sweeping the right leg in a wide arc. He should lead the right leg sweep with the inner thigh of the right leg, not the right knee. The thrower will exit the back of the ring with his eyes focused forward and upward. The left arm will be slightly flexed but long as the thrower drives forward off the ground. As the thrower leaves the ground with their left foot, the coach should see the right leg driving forward at a right angle to the body with the knee also at a right angle to the thigh. while the discus remains held behind the shoulder. This distance between the right knee and the trailing right shoulder is called 'seperation". The more separation the thrower achieves, the better. Good separation enables the thrower to land on the right foot, rotate and hit the power position with the left foot while keeping the discus held back as far as possible so the thrower gets aong "pull". A thrower who usually brings the discus forward at the same time as the right leg usually achieves little or no separation. In addition, the discus should scribe a wide arc with its lowest point at 12 o'clock the sweeping out and up as it is brought around past 11, 10 and 9 o'clock. The thrower should drive towards the right-center portion of the sector since the momentum created by the sweeping right leg being brought back inside will push the thrower to the left. A thrower who drives straight ahead will end up on the left side of the throwing circle while a thrower who drives to rightcenter will usually end up correctly positioned. After the thrower's left foot leaves the ground, the right leg is actively pulled underneath the body to increase rotational speed. As the right foot is pulled into the center, the discus should scribe as wide an arc as possible. Ideally the arm carrying the discus remains perpendicular to the body. And, as the body turns and the dicus points outward towards the throwing sector at 6 o'clock, the discus arm should be pointed at the same angle the discus will be released at when the throw finishes. The discus' orbit will be low in the back and high pointed at 6o'clock. Once the right foot hits the center facing approximately 2 o'clock, all te coaching points of the "pivot" and "standing throw" apply.
6. The "Full Cross Ring" Throw
Once throwers master the preceding steps, they are ready to begin throwing from the back of the circle. All beginning throwers will want to move to the back very quickly, but if they are not ready, they develop bad habits which can be very hard to break. If the coach is not always with a thrower because he is working with older throwers, young throwers throwing full cross ring throws prematurely often develop incorrect "muscle memory" ie. patterns of movement which become difficult to correct. Try to spend the majority of time with the top throwers of any grade, then beginners ( especially promising ones of any grade level) and then older throwers ( sophomores, juniors, seniors ) of average ability.
To begin the full throw, the thrower assumes a position with his navel aligned at 12 o'clock. the feet should be evenly distanced from that point and the knees flexed about 45 degrees. If the thrower begins with the discus in their right hand at their right side, all they should need to do to initiate the throw is swing the discus back a little and then across the body to the left beyond the chest. Then the thrower should draw the discus back until it is behind the thrower and almost over the left foot. They will rotate the body as they draw the discus back. The left arm should be relaxed and slightly flexed staying 180 degrees from the throwing arm. As the discus is being drawn back, the left leg should be pivoting on the ball of the foot and maintaining the same angle at the knee.
In the interest of stability, it can be advantageous to keep the right foot flat on the ground as the arm is withdrawn and starts forward. The thrower's weight can also be shifted over the right foot as the discus is drawn back. If a coach has all throwers uilize this simple start to the throw ar any equally quick and simple start, he will avoid the waste of throwing time lost when throwers crank the discus back and forth several times. With many throwers using the same ring, this is an inexcusable waste of time. Excessive cranking the arm gains nothing. The thrower should get mentally ready to throw before entering the ring not step in and crank until he feels right.
Once the thrower reaches the farthest point of drawing the discus back, it is important that they initiate the throw by shifting the weight towards and over the left foot and begin to rotate the left knee forward. They should not initiate the throw by starting to bring the discus back. Again, they can imagine a "latch' clicking when the discus is completely back keeping it back. The left side of the body turns in unison at teh start of the throw. The left foot, left knee, and left arm all point in the same direction as the thrower begins to turn. It is important that the thrower develop a wide right leg sweep to generate power. To utilize the wide right leg, the thrower needs to pick up the right foot off the ground when their chest reaches a point about 10 or 11 o'clock. Once they pick the foot up, they should keep the knees apart to avoid leading the throw with the right knee. A common error among throwers is to pivot both feet until they are 90 degrees from the starting point and facing directly left before picking up the right foot.
If a thrower does this, they will almost always swing the right foot out and back in a pendulum motion leading the throw with the right knee. Often they accompany this with excesive leaning and falling out of the back instead of driving up off of the left foot.
The right leg should sweep outside the circle slightly flexed and as the thrower's body reaches a point where they are facing down the right foul line, the leg accelerates forward leading with the inside of the thigh instead of the knee. The thrower's eyes and left arm should be aimed just above parallel to the ground. All this time the angle of the left knee should not change. If the coach stands behind the thrower at 12 o'clock, the coach should not see the bottom of the thrower's shoe when they drive forward. If the sole is visible, they are leading with the right knee not thigh. The side of the show should be seen by the coach.
When the thrower drives out of the back, they should be driving to the right of center since the wide leg sweep will pull them left when it is drawn back in. Whether they drive at the foul line or just right of center depends on the thrower. The aiming point should be adjusted be observing the thrower's feet when they hit the power position. If a line drawn between the thrower's right heel and left toe is to the right of a line drawn down the center from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock, the thrower needs to stay on the left leg longer continuing to rotate before they drive out. If this "heel-toe" line is to the left of the center line, they need to drive off the left sooner. Ideally, the "heel-toe" line will be the same as the center 12 to 6 line.
When the thrower's left foot is leaving the ground, the right hip and right knee should be as far in front of the discus as possible. As discussed in the SOUTH AFRICAN section, this is "separation". Having separation insures that the thrower is keeping the discus behind them and that when they hit the power position, they will have a long pull.
Many throwers will have the discus even with the right hip as they exit the back. This leads to a short pull when the power position is reached since the discus will be around 1 o'clock when the left foot hits not 4 or 5 o'clock as it should be. The body should be upright during this "unseating" or exiting of the back. When the thrower leaves the ground, the right thigh should be actively pulled in underneath the body to increase rotational speed. The vertical axis ( a line drawn through the head to the rear) of the body should go from near vertical upon unseating to tilted toward the back as the discus is rotated toward the front of the circle. Ideally the chest remains erect and the head is an extension of the spine not bent forward.
When the right foot makes contact with the center of the circle, the foot will be somewhere between 1 and 3 o'clock. It should also be very near the center of the ring.
If the thrower lands in the back half of the ring usually accompanied by the foot facing 12 o'clock, they are not generating the speed across the ring that they should be. In this incorrect scenario they will also usually lunge forward while throwing instead of turning on a tight axis after driving to the landing position. If the thrower lands correctly, the left foot should be pointing 180 degrees away. Beginners should not rush the right foot coming down but should rush the left coming down after the right. The rhythm of the throw is "sweeeeep, boom-boom" as the feet come down. If a thrower consistently fails to drive across the ring, a towel can be laid across the ring half way across from 3 o'clock to 9 o'clock. Then makes the thrower drive out of the back to clear the towel as he sets up to throw. the rhythm of the entire throw is constant acceleration. A beginner should be slow to fast. An accomplished thrower can be moderately fast to faster. However, the great majority of throwers are too fast out of the back. Beginners usually leave the back too fast and then have a hesitation in the throw due to faulty technique. For example, they may fall out of the back with a lot of speed; and then land on a flat foot or lunge forward at the finish stopping their rotational speed resulting in reduced speed at release. They must understand the only speed that matters is velocity at release. Any speed that is generated must be able to be carried through to the release.
After the thrower hits the power position the coaching points are the same as for the standing throw. The thrower must try to release the discus at shoulder level with an extended arm and a good block. Ideally, the kees should be locking out as the discus is released. A thrower, however, who generates great speed may still have the right knee bent on release. The thrower should "chase" the discus trying to maintain contact as long as possible. The majority of throws should land in the right-center section of the sector.
A thrower should not rush the reverse. the emphasis should be on driving off the ground and let the legs reverse naturally. Once the thrower has driven off the ground, they should land on the right heel not the ball of the foot. This increases stability and helps the thrower avoid fouling.
The best position for a coach to view the throw is from a spot outside 10 o'clock about 10 - 15 feet away. From this spot they can see the right leg sweep, and thrower exiting the back, and the power position. the best videotape is also taken from this angle. Other views also can be used. For example, from the rear a thrower's line across the ring can be checked.
"FALLING OUT OF THE RING ON THE LEFT SIDE"
This is probably the mostcommon fault especially in beginners. They finish the throw with the head pulling down to the left, the arm well above the shoulder. Usually the discus has the outside edge far higher than the left and the thrower falls out of control out the left side. This is caused by the thrower not transferring their weight over the left foot as they begin the throw. As a result their center of gravity is not over the left foot and their vertical axis is tilted too much toward the 3 o'clock side of the ring. They continue to rotate and throw on that axis and fall out that side. Throwers working by himself should know this and any time they fall out of the left side, they should get over th eleft foot more exiting the back on the next throw. No Reverse or "stop" throws ( the thrower begins a full throw but cups the discus with his hand and stops when they hit the power position ) If they are on balance, they can hold the power position when they hit it and not fall left or right. Throwers with balance problems can work on this by going on a large hard surface such as blacktop or cement and working on driving out of the back to set up on different lines. For example, they line up with their feet on a line and then wind and drive out on a line directly to their left instead of straight ahead to 6 to a stop. Their heel-toe line should be perpendiular to the left from where they started. Then they move to driving and stopping on a 45 degree angle to where the started on the left side. Then straight as usual, then a 45 degree angle into the hole and then perpendicular to the right side. To do this they must get over their left foot and learn when to drive off it. They learn to be "on" the left foot and not fall into the throw.
"ENDING UP IN THE HOLE "
The "hole" is the section of the ring by 4 or 5 o'clock. If a thrower ends up in the cornerbut is not falling out on that side, they are on balance but not on the desired linear path from 12 to 6 o'clock which produces maximum power. They are probably staying on their left foot too long and overrotating. They need to work on driving out of the back at an earlier point. They can also use the drill where they drive out at different angles described above.
"THE DISCUS" ITSELF IS TOO VERTICAL DURING FLIGHT"
Several problems can cause this. First, the thrower may be driving too far into the hole ( left side of the circle ) causing them to be leaning back into the center with the upper body. This means as they throw their vertical axis is tilted left to right as viewed from the back of the ring so their throwing arm is lower than it should be even though it may be perpendicular to their body. If the coach watches the thrower's feet, they will see the thrower's right foot come down left of the 12-6 o'clock line and the left foot also come down left of the line and also probably not get past the right into a heel-toe relationship. They will usually stumble a little back to the right as they throw. To work on this, have the thrower do no reverse throws and stop throws. This makes them stay over their feet as they throw or stop and they can develop a feel for being over their feet correctly which helps them ge to a vertical axis. One other reason for a vertical flight may be that the thrower's orbit is reaching a high point at 3 or 4 o'clock as they turn instead of 6 or 7 o'clock. This means that the bottom of the orbit before release is at 8 or 9 o'clock. When the low point is this close to the releases, the thrower does not have time to pull the discus back up to a correct release point near the shoulder.
"THE DISCUS" LOOKS ROUND LEAVING THE THROWER"
As viewed from the rear, correctly thrown discus will have the right edge a little lower than the left edge ( and it will flaten during flight ). The front edge will also be a little higher than the back. It not, however, appear as a "moon" (almost circular). A discus that looks round is not very aerodynamic. With a beginner the usual cause of this is that they are getting the hand too perpendicular to the ground with the right thumb up as they throw. It should be only a little above parallel. With all throwers lunging forward in the power position also causes this. Since the thrower is lunging and can't throw the discus perpendicular to their chest, they turn the hand up in an effort to get the discus' flight up.
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