✋Working on your form: torso torque

A throwing form that allows you to throw effectively is something that you can work on. In this post we look at one aspect of effective form— torso torque. The expression refers to the way a shooter twists his torso while throwing. (See Byron Putman: Pétanque: The Greatest Game You Never Heard Of (pp. 82-85)— highly recommended.)

When you watch world-class shooters you will often see this…

  • Before the player starts his backswing, he is basically standing upright, with shoulders level and chest facing forward toward the target.
     
  • As the player begin his backswing, he leans forward slightly— this allows for a higher backswing. His throwing shoulder drops a little and moves backward, causing his torso to twist backward slightly. At the same time, his non-throwing arm starts to move backward so that at the height of the backswing both arms are raised behind his back, balancing each other.
     
  • The player begins his throw. During the throw, his throwing shoulder dips slightly, so that during the throw it moves forward gracefully in a shallow U-shaped dip. At the same time, his torso starts to untwist, so that at the end of the follow-through his throwing shoulder is in front of his body. At this point his posture is “open”— an observer standing to his non-throwing side can see the front of his chest, as in this photo of Marco Foyot. (For more pictures, see How to throw a boule.)

Here is a sequence of clips from the Youtube video of Ledantec shooting during the final of the Masters de Petanque 2004.

Pre-throw.

Start of backswing.

Continuing backswing. Player leans forward slightly. Non-throwing arm starts to swing back.

Approaching full backswing. Non-throwing arm is as high a throwing arm.

At the height of the backswing and just beginning the swing. The throwing shoulder is just starting to drop lower than the non-throwing shoulder.

Throwing shoulder approaches bottom of U-shaped dip. Note the angled slope of the shoulders. Torso has started to untwist. Note that non-throwing arm has continued to move backward, balancing the throw.

Almost ready to release the boule. Torso is almost fully untwisted as throwing shoulder moves forward.

Release of the boule. Throwing shoulder is starting to rise after the lowest point of the U-shaped dip. Note that non-throwing arm remains behind the back, counter-balancing the throwing arm which is now in front of the body.

After release. Torso is fully untwisted. Throwing shoulder is almost finished rising at the end of the U-shaped dip.

Here is the whole sequence as a slideshow.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Almost all of the great shooters (to a greater or lesser degree) demonstrate this ideal form of torso torque. And you will see it (again, to a greater or lesser degree) in pointers as well as in shooters.

Why do players move this way when they throw? Byron Putman calls it “torso torque” because he thinks it is a way for a player to use torso rotation to add power to his throw. Personally, I find that the motion of my body is more natural, and my accuracy is greater, when I twist my torso and bring my throwing arm forward while throwing. I suspect that shoulder anatomy is coming into play here, but I don’t know enough anatomy to be able to say exactly what is happening.

Note that when referring to a player (of unspecified gender), I use “he” and “his” as abbreviations for “he or she” and “his or her”.


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✋Improving your form

See also our other pages on technique “how to”s.

form_traditionelleIf you are trying to improve your throwing, start from the basic premise that there are two fundamental and different aspects to throwing well— form and consistency. They are different, and you need to do different things to improve them.

  • Bad form is form that prevents you from throwing effectively. The crouch is bad form because a player who plays from a crouch will never be able to shoot or even lob effectively. Acquiring good formle beau geste, form that allows you to throw effectively— is of course a matter of practice, but what’s important about good form is that it is something that you can consciously think about and work on.
     
  • Consistency means being able to do something in the same way, over and over again. Consistency in throwing a boule is primarily a matter of muscle memory. This is something that you can’t acquire by thinking about it. It is unconscious, and can be acquired only through repetition. That’s the way muscles learn.

We’ve already talked a little bit about effective ways to practice. Now we will look at how you can work on your form. Here are a few ideas that you can try.

  1. The first step in improving your form is to become consciously aware that there is such a thing as form, and that great players are great (at least in part) because they have good form. Watch Youtube videos of great players in action. Study their form. Look for the way they move their bodies as they throw. Develop your own conscious theory about what good form looks like, and about how you want your body to move when you throw.
     
  2. Human beings learn by imitation. If you watch someone do something, you will find yourself unconsciously imitating what he does. So a useful technique is simply to watch other players doing what you want to be able to do. For example, when I was trying to improve my high lob I found it helpful to watch Claudy Weibel during this marvellous singles competition.
     

    Claudy stands, and when he lobs no part of his body moves except his right arm. When I practice my lob, that’s the form that I try to imitate. Simply watching him do it makes it easier for me to do it.
     
  3. Play solitaire. While you’re playing, consciously try to pay attention to what you feel your body doing— your hand, wrist, arm, torso. If you’re having consistency issues, look for a pattern that might provide a clue to the cause in your form. If your boules sometimes go to the left and sometimes to the right, then pay attention to your follow-through, your grip, and to making sure the boule is coming straight off your fingers. If the boules are sometimes long and sometimes short, pay attention to the height of your throw and to keeping your arm straight (not bending at the elbow). And so on.
     
  4. Find a fellow petanque player who knows what good form looks like (for pointing or shooting or whatever you’re working on) and play a few games with him. Ask him to watch you as you throw and to tell you if he sees you doing something that you might want to change. You may be surprised at what he can see you doing (or not doing) that you’re not aware of.
     
  5. A useful technique is to get a friend to make a video of you while you are throwing, so you can watch yourself and see what you’re doing. A cell phone or digital camera will work, but a labtop or tablet is better because you can immediately watch the video on a relatively large screen, see clearly what you’re doing, and experiment with changing it. (I learned this from Artem Zuev, the Technical Director of the Los Angeles Petanque Club. Thanks, Artem!)

Finally, if you’re reading this and have an idea, story, or tip based on your own experience, I’d like to invite you to share it with others. Drop us a comment.


✋ Left arm back for balance

Suppose you’ve been playing for a while and you’re thinking about how you might improve your game.

Here’s a suggestion. Pay attention to your left arm. (That is, to your non-throwing arm. If you’re a leftie, pay attention to your right arm.)


Here are some pictures. In each picture, look at where the player’s left arm is.

balanced_squat_pointer_lady

As you can see, these players aren’t crouching or bent forward. (We’ll talk about crouching later.) Their torso is basically upright. They keep their left arm straight. As they throw, they swing the left arm back, extend it back behind the torso, and hold it there while swinging the other arm to throw the boule.

The left arm, extended back, is a counter-balance for the right arm as it swings forward to release the boule.

If you don’t extend your left arm back this way, you will be unbalanced when you throw. As you follow through, you will find yourself almost falling forward. To compensate and to maintain balance, you will have a tendency to lift your left foot off of the ground. Which is, of course, a foot fault.
petanque_foot_fault

lifted_foot

This is fixable. If you find yourself lifting your left foot off of the ground when you throw, it is an indication that that you aren’t using your left arm to provide balance. Change your form— stand up straight and start using your left arm for balance— and you’ll lose the need to raise your left leg.


Things to watch for as you practice your form

As you practice your form, there are a couple of things that you should watch out for. You may do them without even realizing it. Ask a friend to watch you and give you feedback on your form. Or even better yet, ask him or her to take pictures of you, so you can look at yourself later.

One thing you should watch for, and try to avoid, is putting your left hand in the small of your back.

A lot of beginning players instinctively imitate what they see experienced players doing. They see that their left hand should be behind them, so they hold it against the small of their back.

This is better than nothing, of course. It’s a step in the right direction. But when the arm is so close to your body it doesn’t provide the amount of counter-balance that you’d get from fully extending your arm back behind you.


When players aren’t using their left arm for balance, many instinctively and unconsciously go into “the crouch”. This is where you keep your balance by sticking your butt out. In order to get the butt back far enough, the player has to crouch down. Crouching can be difficult, so the left hand usually ends up on top of the left thigh to add support and stability.

the_crouch_1
the_crouch_2the_crouch_3

The crouch isn’t inherently bad. It can be a useful stance when you want to point a long, low, rolling boule. But you don’t want the crouch to be your ONLY way of throwing a boule. That would be really limiting. You can’t lob or shoot from a crouch. That’s why it’s better not to crouch. Stand up straight and use your left arm for balance.


✋ Learning to shoot – form, accuracy, consistency

Recently a friend asked me for suggestions about how to learn to shoot. Here are some thoughts on that subject. I’m not an expert, and I can speak only from my own experience.


Personally, I find it helpful to practice shooting with three different goals in mind. I devote one practice session to one of the goals, another session to another of the goals, and so on. I call the goals form, accuracy, and consistency.

1. Form
On the grounds that no one will ever be able to throw well if his/her form is bad, my first goal is to get my form right. This means

  • (a) learning what good form looks like, and then
  • (b) learning the moves. That is, learning how to throw with that form.

(a) is a process of learning what experts do with their bodies when they shoot. A good way to do this is to watch Youtube videos of world-class shooters.

| compilation de tirs | los mejores tiros | championnate du monde |

As you watch, ignore the game and pay attention to the shooters’ form as they throw. What are they doing with their feet? Their knees, their shoulders? Their backswing, their follow-through, their non-throwing arm? No two players have exactly the same form, but there are a number of things that most world-class shooters do. Watch for those things, and create a mental image of your ideal throwing form. Better yet, if you find certain players whose form looks good to you, watch them a lot. They will give you a concrete picture of what you want to imitate.

A DailyMotion video of a recent match shows an expert shooter in full backswing. Note the position of his shoulders, torso, throwing hand, and non-throwing hand. A good model to imitate.

(b) is the process of learning how to imitate that form… learning how to do with your body what you see the experts doing with their bodies. To do this, you need feedback on your efforts. Ideally you’d have a coach to watch you and give you useful feedback. Unfortunately, petanque coaches are as rare as hen’s teeth. Lacking a coach, try to enlist a friend to watch you and provide feedback. If you can, get your friend to use his/her cell phone or tablet to take a 2-minute video of you while you’re practicing. Then you and your friend can watch the video while discussing the strengths and weaknesses of your form.

When you are practicing your form, don’t worry about how close you get to the target. Hit or miss, it makes no difference. Pay attention to how you’re moving your body. That’s what it means to practice your form.

2. Accuracy
Once your form is workable, your second goal is accuracy… hitting the target. This is where you just throw, trusting in your form practice to make your form good even when you’re not thinking about it, and paying attention only to where your thrown boule lands and how close it comes to the target boule. For this, the only plan is throw, throw, throw, and watch, watch, watch.

Sometimes it is helpful to stand at a fixed distance and just throw and throw until you get the distance down. But don’t do that all of the time. Periodically, practice throwing in rotation. Throw a few boules from one distance, and then move to a new position and throw from a different distance. During real play you will need to shoot from a variety of distances, and practicing this way will help prepare you for that.


This was how I began practicing how to shoot. Sometimes I would practice for form, and sometimes I would practice for accuracy.

As I practiced for accuracy, I noticed something. Even though my form seemed to be OK, and even though I sometimes hit the target boule, I realized that my throws were wildly inconsistent. Some were low, some were high. Some were short, some were long. Clearly I wasn’t being consistent about when I was releasing the boule (early release=low throw, late release=high throw) and I wasn’t being consistent about the force (the speed) with which I was throwing (slow swing=short throw, fast swing=long throw).

Realizing this suggested to me that I should have a third goal, something that was sort of like form, and sort of like accuracy, but not exactly the same as either of them. Consistency.

3. Consistency
I began to change the way that I thought about consistency. Instead of thinking of it as consistency in hitting the target (accuracy), I began to think of it as a matter of control— of consistency in the speed of my throw, and consistency in when I opened my hand and released the boule.

To help me practice consistency, I rigged up two ribbons across my shooting pit, just above head height. And then I practiced throwing between those two ribbons, trying to throw to a consistent height. My theory is that if I can throw to a consistent height, then I’m gaining control over the point in my swing where I’m releasing the boule. And if I can throw to a consistent distance at the same time, then I’m gaining control over the strength (speed) of my throw.
netted_shooting_pit_with_ribbons
Practicing with the ribbons helps keep me aware of the height to which I am actually throwing. And it helps me to get a better idea of what is a good/desirable height for my throw. As I adjust my ideas about the best height for the throw, I adjust the height of the ribbons.


Update

The FFPJP (and their training arm, CIEP) sells a kit for use in schools, for teaching petanque to kids. It contains equipment designed to teach the kids consistency by having them throw their boules through vertical hoops. Same basic idea. Here is a picture of Ukrainian kids using the kit.

ukraine_youth_petanque_training.jpg

Here is a picture of a young person with Carolina Petanque trying out the same kit.

carolina_petanque_with_ciep_equipment


✋ Aim small; miss small.

When you’re throwing, it is important to focus on a small, specific target.
aim_small_miss_small
Byron Putman describes it this way in his book Petanque (p. 64).

Great au fer shooters have “the eyes”… for several seconds they lock their gaze laser-like on the target boule as if it were the only object in the universe…. For some shooters locking their vision on the target boule is not enough. They create a more precise bull’s-eye by staring at a single point on the target.

This is called target focus. It is as important for accurate pointing as it is for accurate shooting. Focussing on a small and very specific spot for your donnée is important. That’s why, in the “mental” part of our page on How to throw a boule, we emphasize picking the donnée and paying attention to where the thrown boule lands.

Your mantra here is

Aim small; miss small.

Here’s a good explanation of how to do it.

✋ Two ways to hold a boule

I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a while. I’m not sure they are right. Or, if they are, I’m not sure they are anything new or significant. But I decided to write this post on the grounds that some player, somewhere, might find these ideas useful.

After watching videos of world-class players on YouTube, I think I have noticed that there are two different techniques for gripping a boule.

  • Using the vise grip you hold the boule in the palm of your hand. You close your fingers over the boule so that you are clasping the boule between your fingers and the base of your palm, like you have it clamped in the jaws of a vise. Because you have a firm grasp on the boule, if you turn your hand over, the boule will not fall out of your hand.
     
  • Using the cradle grip you slightly cup your fingers and cradle the boule, letting it rest on your fingers (not in the palm of your hand) rather in the way that a beach ball might come to rest in a hammock. Because the boule is merely resting on your hand, if you turn you hand over, the boule will fall out of your hand.

To illustrate the difference between the two grips, I’ve taken a few pictures. Notice that in the pictures on the left, the fingers are closed over the boule. In the pictures on the right, the fingers (beneath the boule) are almost fully extended. In the pictures on the left, the fingers are pressing the boule against the fleshy base of the palm. In the pictures on the right, the boule is close to the tips of the extended fingers, and you can see a noticeable space between the boule and the base of the palm.

Vise grip
(boule clasped in palm of hand)
Cradle grip
(boule rests on top of fingers)


In the picture on the right (below) you see a hand posture that I’ve noticed in several “cradle-grip” players. The boule is held so far out that it seems almost to hang from the tips of the fingers. The thumb rests lightly on the boule, stabilizing it and keeping it from falling out of the fingers.

One of the most distinctive things about petanque is the way that expert players flex their wrists back and under their forearms. The standard theory is that this unique gesture helps a player to control a boule by giving it backspin.

While it may be true that the purpose of the wrist flex is to put backspin on the boule, I suspect that it serves another more important purpose for cradle-grip players. If you use a cradle grip, you are not actually holding the boule in your hand — if you turn you hand over, the boule will fall out of your hand. Therefore, in order not to drop the boule during the backswing, you must strongly flex your wrist, hand, and fingers back under your forearm. Together, they form the enclosing cradle that allows gravity to keep the boule in the hand during the backswing. That is why a vise-grip player may or may not flex his wrist, but a cradle-grip player will ALWAYS flex his wrist in this dramatic way. For a cradle-grip player, a consistent and serious wrist flex is a necessary component of effective throwing form.

 


GRIPS OF THE STARS!

If you watch world-class players in YouTube videos, you will see that some of them use a vise grip while others use a cradle grip. It doesn’t appear that either of the techniques is inherently superior to the other. Some top players use one grip, and others use the other.

I first noticed the cradle grip in videos of Philippe Quintais pointing.

If you go looking looking for the cradle grip in YouTube videos, you quickly learn to identify a few distinctive hand gestures. As I’ve said, if you carefully watch a cradle-grip player preparing to throw, he doesn’t appear to be holding the boule at all — the boule seems almost to be hanging from his fingers. Once I identified the cradle grip, I went looking for other players who might be using it. I found several. You’ll probably recognize some of them. Marco Foyot and Christian Fazzino seem quite clearly to be cradle-grip players. (Mouse-over a picture for the name of the player. Click on a picture to go into slide-show mode and see slightly larger versions of the pictures.)

 

During my search for cradle-grip players, I found many players whose grip-type I was unable to diagnose, and I also found vise-grip players. Here are just a few players that I think are probably vise-grip players.


Grip type and boule size

I suspect that boule size is important to a different degree in the two types of grip.

For a vise-grip player, boule size is important. A vise-grip player does NOT want a boule that is too big. If the boule is so big that it is hard to wrap your fingers around it, it will be difficult to grip tightly. A big boule will tend to slip out of your grip. You will need to grip the boule harder, and this will produce tired and aching muscles in your forearm. So it is important for a vise-grip player to use a boule that is small enough to be gripped easily.

For a cradle-grip player, boule size is less important, perhaps even unimportant. The cradle-grip player is holding the boule very loosely, just barely cradling it in his fingers. For him (or her) there isn’t much difference between cradling a medium-size boule and a large one. This means that a cradle-grip player can comfortably play with a much larger boule.

This means (perhaps) that learning to throw with a cradle grip might be a useful strategy for women players. Actually, it might be useful for players (of either sex) with small hands. Or even players with large hands, if they play a lot and are tired of having aching forearm muscles.


Updated a few days later (2015-03-15)
Christian FazzinoBy chance I just ran across a post from 2007 on the Petanque710 forum. Someone noted that Philippe Suchaud and Christian Fazzino play with small boules— 71mm. Another commenter ventured the opinion that la facon de jouer avec des petites boules est très différente qu’avec des plus grosses car on joue plus avec le bout des doigts car elles ne tiennent pas toute la main (regarder fazzino jouer , il les tient du bout des doigts). “The way one plays with small boules is very different than with larger ones because one plays more with the fingertips because [small boules] do not take up the whole hand (watch Fazzino play, he holds them by the fingertips).”

So I have one concurring opinion that Fazzino uses a cradle grip. I doubt, though, that Fazzino uses a cradle grip because he uses a small boule. As you can see from the pictures above, a number of top players (notably Marco Foyot) use a cradle grip and a large boule.


✋ The height of the throw

I’ve been watching YouTube videos of great shooters, trying to analyze what they’re doing so I can try to do what they’re doing. One thing that (I think) I’ve noticed is that when they are shooting, they are very consistent in how high they throw the boule.

From an FFPJP training video on Youtube

From an FFPJP training video on Youtube

Almost every player that I’ve watched throws his boule so that, at the top of its trajectory, it is about head-height. If a player is shooting at a longer distance (say, 10 meters) then he throws a little higher, so the boule goes a foot or two above his head.

Marco Foyot gives a shooting demo at the Zanesfield Petanque club

Marco Foyot gives a shooting demo at the Zanesfield Petanque club

This suggests that the great shooters are pretty consistent in the force (or speed) with which they throw the boule. And that means their form is probably pretty consistent — the height of the backswing, the speed of the throwing arm, and so forth.

The difference between shooting at a short distance and shooting at a long distance is therefore the height to which they throw the boule. For a short throw, the boule is released fairly early and follows a lower trajectory — about shoulder height at the highest point. For a longer throw, the boule is released later and follows a higher trajectory — above the player’s head, perhaps, at its highest point. In both cases the path of the boule has the same shape — a gentle arcing curve.

Thinking this over, I realized that I was wildly inconsistent in the height to which I was throwing, and that I should try to be more consistent.

On my practice area I rigged up a frame half way between the circle and the target boules. From the frame I stretched two flexible tapes. The tapes are wide enough to be visible, and loose enough to slip out of the way if I hit one of them. One of the tapes is at about head height and the other is about 18″ higher. With this apparatus in place, sometimes I practiced with the goal of throwing my boule between the two tapes on its way to the head. Sometimes I practiced with the goal of simply getting the boule between the two tapes.
netted_shooting_pit_with_ribbons

I’ve been doing this for a while, and it seems to be helping.

In the process, I found something that surprises me. After I practice shooting for a while (usually with a low percentage of success), I switch from aiming for the target boules to aiming just to get between the tapes. When I do this, my percentage of success (in hitting the target boules) is often higher than it was when I was aiming at the boules! I’ve noticed this several times, so I think the phenomenon is real. But I have no idea about how to explain it.