Technique And Rhythm In The Throws

By Joil Bergeron, University of New Hampshire

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Sound technique and good rhythm in the throwing events are essential elements of efficient throwing.


     Have you ever heard a thrower say after a strong performance "I really felt like I was in the zone"? This athlete would probably describe the state as a heightened awareness and greater control over the body. He might also add that his technique seemed to be "right on" or "working better" on that particular day. The key to this scenario is that technique and rhythm are two essential, interdependent components of a successful throw. Yet they are also two of the most commonly neglected training elements.

     This article is meant to help athlete and coach understand the subtle relationship between technique and rhythm. Coaches and athletes may already realize how useful these facets of training are, but may still not fully appreciate how they are related to one another. Being a discus/shot guy, I'll use the discus to help illustrate some of the following points. However, these ideas can be applied to all the throwing events. In fact these points can probably be used for any technical sporting activity .

     Throwing technique can be defined as the most biomechanically efficient movement a thrower can use to maximize his or her own potential. The simple truth is solid technique produces better performances and is vital to success. An example of this is the athlete who possesses relatively lower strength levels but more efficient technique. This person can oftentimes throw farther than his stronger, less coordinated opponent. But even if elite throwers on the international level (where everyone is very strong) are compared, it can still be seen that the athlete who performs better technically on the given day will win.

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     So if good technique is so important, why do throwers avoid investing more time on it? Any athlete can relate to the frustration first felt when he began throwing. Technique, unlike other aspects of a training program, is undoubtedly the toughest component of a throw to develop. There are three reasons for this. The first is that good coaching plays a major role in learning to throw. Track is an under funded sport where coaching is spread thin. It is not an uncommon scenario to have only two coaches for an entire team of fifty or more athletes competing in several different events!


     Thus, the athlete must rely more heavily on himself if he wishes to improve. Secondly, athletes will neglect technique practice for the weight room because that is the easiest area to gain initial improvement. Athletes always look for the quickest way to results. The thrower spends too much time on being a weight lifter, and too little time on being an athlete.

     What many throwers and coaches tend to forget is anyone can lift and get strong, but not everyone can work to improve technique. This brings up the final, and most obvious reason-great technique is not learned overnight. It takes a lot of patience and time to learn complex movements. There are only a few other sports that require such a high level of technical skill in such a complex movement for success (figure skating and gymnastics come to mind). What people need to realize is that top-level throwers, while none the less being genetically gifted athletes, still had to go through thousands of repetitions in order to master their respective techniques.

     A basic rule of thumb for improving technically is to first try and understand what must be accomplished. Common sense would say if the goal is known, than the steps to reach it can be worked out. If the athlete does not know what he needs to do, than how does he hope to succeed? For the thrower who does not have the luxury of a highly available coaching staff, this is where teaching him or herself comes into play. So how is this done? A great way is to read as much as possible. Another helpful method is to watch successful throwers. But the most productive way remains in the athlete simply spending more time practicing technique and experimenting with different methods.

     One such method is the use of different implements. By using different objects the athlete will gain a greater sense of what is trying to be accomplished with the movement. The learning process is different for each individual. Finding what works for oneself is the key to success. Conversely, there is no one correct throwing technique that leads to success. This point is proven time and again by elite throwers. Coaches often refer to different throwers utilizing varying styles to throw far. This is due to the individualized learning process mentioned previously. A common argument heard over discus technique is whether a wide right leg at the back of the ring is necessary to throw far (see Fig. 1).

     Mac Wilkins and Wolfgang Schmidt clearly use a wide right, whereas John Powell and Tony Washington utilize a narrow sweep. Yet, all four of these throwers have thrown the discus 65m+. Which technique is better?

     Biomechanical experts would argue over which technique is more efficient. However what must be ac- counted for is that technique, while being of vital importance, is not the single deciding factor for a successful throw. An athlete's height, weight, and strength (i.e., special strength) are also all variables that fit into the picture. But there is one common thread that each of these great throwers share: excellent rhythm.




Defined in a dictionary rhythm is "the proper relation of parts producing a harmonious whole." I think a slightly less euphoric and more relevant definition for the throwing community would be "the proper timing of movements to produce the longest throw. " The thrower who utilizes good rhythm will have the most efficient performance with his or her own specific technique. Proper timing (rhythm) causes a summation of forces, creates the greatest speed at the release point, and thus the most distance to the throw.

     The general rhythm of every throwing event is the same; slow to fast. Therefore, a constant acceleration is applied to the implement allowing for a smooth transfer of power. When the athlete breaks away from this rhythm, the results ( or lack of) can be dramatic. Various elements of the throw are compromised and power (and consequently distance) is lost. Each throwing event carries this common thread along with having to relax the upper body, allowing the legs to work first. Unfortunately, learning to do this is easier said than done.

     Increased body awareness is the first step towards improved rhythm. Body awareness is the athlete's ability to perceive and control where his body is during movement. Exposing an athlete to a variety of movements will increase his body awareness. This is why "all-around" or "natural" athletes also tend to be the same people who have played several different sports throughout their life. These individuals have been exposed to a variety of movement types, thus they learned how to control their body through self-awareness of position. Also as a result of this heightened body awareness athletes can pick up new movements more quickly.

     Another common method to improve awareness is repetition. Initially, when the movement is first unfamiliar, the athlete must pay close attention to specific details in order to perform them. With each attempt the amount of reminder for the movement becomes less, and the process becomes easier to do. Eventually, the entire action becomes automatic, and the athlete no longer has to pay close attention to this detail. Now is when something new starts to be learned again and the process starts over. This familiarity with the movement can be accredited to, in lay terms, "muscle memory." When the process becomes automatic and less concentration on details is required, a higher level of mental focus can be obtained. This increased mental focus can be used to improve the greater picture of rhythm and timing.

     An example of this in discus throwing would be waiting for the right leg to drive the upper body around when performing a standing throw. What does the novice athlete always do when he first picks up a discus or shot? The athlete will throw with his upper body.

     After the coach shows that the legs produce the most drive, the athlete must pay special attention to driving the right leg around first. After many attempts the athlete learns to be more patient and relax the upper body to set up a good hip drive. When the athlete can automatically do this, he gains a higher level of mental focus so that perhaps he can now work on timing the block for a maximal transfer of power; the process begins again when a new element is added. This heightened awareness leads to greater mental focus, and from the greater mental focus an athlete can now concentrate on timing the parts of the throw together correctly to create better rhythm. (See Fig. 2)


     Mental imagery is another way to increase focus and more importantly rhythm. There are three ways of practicing imagery: external, where the athlete watches a throw; internally, where visualization of a perfect throw takes place in the mind; and also by setting the movement to a sound sequence. Whatever the method used, the goal is to try and "feel" the movement without actually performing it.

     Scientific research has proven that motor neurons involved in the action actually show excitation in the same sequence as the movement being visualized. Using visualization can help to overcome pre-competition jitters. It can also help to overcome being overloaded with too many small details (a sure sign of this is when the movement is "choppy" and un- smooth). Using mental imagery is an integral part of success.


     Conclusion: it is important for both coach and athlete to realize there is a connection between technique and rhythm. Good technique helps to create good rhythm and vice versa. What happens when a thrower rushes the beginning of the throw in any of the events? In the discus most commonly this results in a narrow base, being off balance, and fouling. In the shot the results will vary depending on the technique being used, but with either glide or spin the athlete will land at the power position with the shoulders already unwound. But no matter which event you look at, rushing the rhythm will cost the thrower distance.

     Once again, this exemplifies that the single common thread between great throwers is great rhythm. By combining sound (not necessarily perfect) technique with good rhythm these throwers can get away with certain mechanical errors.

     Many coaches would argue that the narrow leg sweep by John Powell was mechanically inefficient. He still threw far! Powell knew his own rhythm for his technique. He was able to get the most out of his own style of discus throwing.

     But on the flip side, take a look at Mac Wilkins. Many agree that he was a sound technician. However, even Wilkins had certain things that he was able to compensate for earlier on in his career with good rhythm. Wilkins was quoted once as saying "if you want me to analyze shots of me in 1976, I will show you four major mechanical errors." (See Fig. 3.)



     To throw far the athlete must combine sound technique and good rhythm. The trick to doing this is to realize that as technique is changed in a throw, the rhythm will also change. This is why many coaches tell their athletes not to make any dramatic changes to their technique near the end of the season. This is the time of year that the best performances are needed.

     By changing technique a new rhythm must be learned in order to maximize the potential offered by that movement. Initially, distance may actually be lost as a result of unfamiliarity with the new movement despite the improved technique. The old adage of "one step back, two steps forward" is seen. As the athlete readjusts to the new rhythm increased distance plus additional gains begin to occur.

     The key to success in both technique and rhythm is simply to practice each element together as much as possible. If the athlete does many drills during practice it would be of great benefit to do some full throws at the end of the session to try and work the new components into the bigger picture (the throw). By practicing technique and rhythm on a regular basis athletes will understand these complex throwing movements more clearly, and thus improve more quickly.



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