Fly Casting Practice Update 2.1: 80% is a Magic Number

If you search the internet for something like “learning practice skills 80/20” you’ll get a surprisingly broad range of hits on everything from the Pareto principle to corporate sales success and rock climbing. Refine the search by adding “sports” between “practice” and “skills” and you will get leads to a wide variety of sports and fitness training. I’m not into numerology but I do find it interesting that the 80/20 split bobs up so often, in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts.

Back when I wrote the article on fly casting practice I noted that a lot of elite level sports coaches rely on identifying the 20% of things that matter most and get their players to spend 80% of their time working on those things.

My frequent use of a medium distance (my comfort zone) was mentioned. Back then it was about 60′ which is a tad under 80% of the outer range (80′) of fishing casts I wanted to make confidently and reliably.

I also noted advice given to me by John Waters to practice casting technique refinements at about 70% of the speed and effort normally used for a given distance. To do that you need to shorten up the actual target casting distance but use the range of movement you would normally use for a longer cast. (Call that longer distance 100%,) Use a 100% range of movement for a “70%” distance but only use 70% of the usual speed and therefore, effort.

More recently I added Practice Regime Update 2.0 (and see also the blog post Fly Casting Practice 2.0 ) to reflect my contemporary objectives which have modestly extended fishing distance out to 90′ (from 80′). In the last few sessions I’ve made progress in increasing efficiency by reducing effort – especially after becoming even more ruthless in detecting and excluding effort increases disproportionate to distance increases. I’ve noticed that 70′ seems to on its way to becoming my new medium distance comfort zone. Guess what, 80% of 90 is 72.

Without over-egging the pudding I think 80% is quite a useful number:

  • I’m staying with an indicative time allocation of 80% for the most important 20% of skills to master.
  • Eighty percent of the maximum intended distance (with accuracy) is a good place to look for a casting comfort zone within which we can find the effort profile we want to preserve as distance is increased (or decreased) from there.
  • Pursuing more distance with less effort I reckon 80% is roughly the absolute ceiling on how hard I’m prepared to go at any cast.
  • Progressive increases in cast distance serve to indicate overall progress on technique refinement and to identify exactly where technique begins to falter. Back up to about 80% of that marker and repeat the process.
  • Very little time is now spent on maximum distance casts – less than 5% probably – and then only with restrained effort.
  • One hundred percent of effort or practice time seeking maximum distance is very bad juju.

Casting Efficient, Narrow Loops – Why, What and How

There I was down at the park again dodging rain showers by standing under some fir trees with their obligingly dense foliage. While I waited I played with side casting using PUALDs and false casts producing delivery casts out to fifty something feet. Circumstances limited how far I could cast and how vertical my casting strokes could be but they put me in a modified triangle method situation where I could see everything that was going on. Had time on my hands so I used it to explore just how narrow I could make the loops and how consistently I could throw them.

To understand my thinking it might help to catch up on my earlier and more recent stuff on practice, efficient effort and sensory motor learning. It’s all there in the blog. Before I get to where it lead me today a very quick return to mechanics is in order (see Physics For Fly Casting – the Einstein Series in the pages menu) . Newton’s second law of motion tells us that net Force in the intended direction of the cast will equal mass times acceleration. Efficient casting optimises net Force and inefficient (over powered casting) reduces net Force.

From there we jump to the five essentials and touch base with the Straight Line Path (SLP) which is the path described by the rod tip which tows the line. To optimise net Force we need to cast in straight lines and with straight lines (minimaL slack and good tracking). Logic says a longer SLP will generate more net Force. What Fitts Law tells us is that moving slower (smoother) enables us to move more accurately. A longer, smoother, slower stroke will mean more control and thus greater efficiency where that is defined as moving so as to optimise net Force in the intended direction of the cast..

That all begs a not so obvious question. Where, exactly, is the intended direction of my next cast? I’ll get to that in a minute.

How About the How?

What none of the above tells us is how to do it. Casting “instructors” are taught to tell their students about the faults in their technique which are working against producing narrow loops at will as a result of moving efficiently. This kind of direct teaching is somewhat useful for beginners but saying what not to do because it’s wrong isn’t always going to facilitate learning how to do it right, especially when the student’s technique is fairly settled at an advanced or even intermediate level. There are crucial differences between learning a basic movement technique and learning to refine that technique.

Concentrating on what the body bits should or shouldn’t be doing in a fixed sequence and with desirable effort (timing and force application) is known as internal cuing. It has been clearly established that external cuing works better. External cuing assumes people have sufficient movement control over their body bits to achieve a specific result or purpose. Clarity of purpose and trust in the student’s processes of self organisation and self discovery are better tools for teaching movement than finding faults and picking nits. Most of us will be familiar with useful casting similes like painting the ceiling or flicking the potato off your fork. Those are examples of external cues – prompts to adapt already learned movement routines to another similar movement routine.

Like a lot of fly casters I can get reasonable results by focussing on what the line is doing including loop size and I can use that as an external cue which prompts me to vary my movements until I get what I’m seeking. It’s not exclusively about loop size before turnover but for the sake of simplicity let’s pretend it is. When we are fishing it’s almost always desirable to put the fly where we want it to go (range and bearing thing) as well landing it in the way we want – tuck, pile, rain drop or plop etc. Again for simplicity I’ll leave out everything but narrow loops and full turnover/extension so the fly lands deftly on target.

When we are practicing to improve our casting technique aiming at targets on the deck is certainly helpful, not least in training for “see the shot, take the shot” fishing scenarios. However, if we want to improve technique by casting narrow loops what I discovered underneath those fir trees was about aiming the casting stroke itself (rather than thinking about the fly) at a target. Picking a tree and a fork or bark patch as the target was where it started – where do I have to aim so that the stroke optimises the SLP and thus narrows the loop? What I finished with was somewhat different. It concerned where the stroke itself was aimed, how I moved to direct it at that target and, perhaps most importantly, how I finished the movement. It was more like aiming the whole movement at an unmarked point in the air towards which the rod tip moved smoothly and then stopped on that unmarked spot – end of movement, cast completed. The whole movement now had a specific purpose – hit that target.

That might sound a bit weird so let’s go back to painting the ceiling only this time we do it so that the brush or roller repeatedly travels along the same straight line and then stops repeatedly and exactly at the chosen limit of our reach. Take that a half step further and beyond the limits of normal brush control. Stop the brush repeatedly at a transverse pencil line so the finished brush strokes form an even, straight line or edge of the painted area. If the pencil line doesn’t work for you maybe think about stopping at the cornice edge or the corner where the ceiling joins the wall making one of those two the straight line we want to paint to – and no further. Either way this is what I was trying to do by aiming my casting stroke. That was my purpose and my exact intended direction of the cast.

To achieve these brush strokes of a master artist or fly caster we will need to carefully and thoughtfully adjust both where we aim and how fast we move. An ultra narrow loop in the fly line with fly leg and rod leg in the same plane without casting tails and with full unhurried extension of the leader is actually quite tricky but it will demand exactly the sort of stroke and effort control needed to land the fly on a saucer placed underneath overhanging branches, between two tree trunks or into a gap in the rocks.

I’m putting this out there in the hope that it will be of help, especially to those who want to refine their technique beyond the basics. I don’t know to what extent my “aiming the stroke” at an invisible target will help you because I haven’t tried it with anyone else. Take what you want from the specifics. Maybe you need to find another external cue that works for you like your exact hand position at the end of the stroke. Please feel free to use the contact button to let me know via email how you got on.

The more general message here, of which I am quite confident, is to find and follow a purpose for your casting movements during practice. Work on something or a couple of things at a time. It’s generally wise to start at about the short-medium distance, lengthen out and shorten up trying to maintain form.

Repetition for it’s own sake gives a cents in the dollar return compared with mindful practice. By “mindful” I mean being purposeful as well as focussed and relaxed. When any of those three things begins to wane irretrievably I start thinking about wrapping up a practice session.

Fly Casting Practice 2.0 : Efficient Effort

Let’s begin by briefly touching base with the the Famous Five Essentials or rather the most important essentials, the Straight Line Path (SLP) and its best friend Smooth Power Application (Acceleration). The SLP is what happens when we apply power efficiently – basic mechanics. Producing an optimal SLP is virtually impossible without smooth power application to our body bits which move the rod which tows the line.

Taking that a couple of steps further, when we apply power we subjectively experience that as effort. When we make any movement, such as a throwing movement, with sundry body bits each bit is given an intended range of movement, speed of movement and a slot in a movement sequence. We regulate effort to control how far and how fast we move. We can make adjustments to the movement by adjusting the effort we make when and if sensory feedback tells us that things aren’t going as expected . All this was dealt with in my previous post on effort as an organising idea for control . Historically, I’ve banged on about efficiency ad nauseam so enough already but take and make of what follows as you choose.

Ok then so what would happen if we decided to apply those ideas absolutely – not just as good ideas which influence how we cast but to take them to the limit and build a casting stroke with strict adherence to them – maximal efficiency from minimal effort? I’ve been trying to do this just because I’m curious and for other equally good reasons one of which is that casting with optimal efficiency is very enjoyable. Also, several years ago my casting shoulder started to hurt occasionally after long practice sessions so to prevent that injury increasing until it terminated my fly fishing I needed to make some stroke changes.

Excess effort diminishes efficiency by reducing the Straight Line Path and the smoothness of power application which in turn can result in tailing loops. In the parlance of fly casting instruction over powering is a common fault. I think, however, that  there’s probably more to it than that.  As I recently discovered (in my own casting) it also impedes the refinement of technique because excess effort diminishes control. The behaviour of the fly line, in particular loop shape and alignment of both the fly leg and the rod leg (in the same plane), gives us solid evidence of and visual feedback for mechanical and biomechanical efficiency. We get additional sensory feedback from the subjective effort to objective result comparison – how easy or how hard we needed to move to make a cast. I experience effort feedback during the movement sequence – how hard at what stage in the sequence did I just move my upper arm, forearm or hand for example? That is, “what was the effort profile of that movement sequence”. Adjustment happens by feeding forward changes in the effort profile – relatively more or less forearm or hand effort for example.

As Fitts law tells us, movement accuracy (control) suffers with speed (effort). Keeping that in mind we might understand excess effort as being any more effort than is required to make the intended movement (cast). That means we need to drill down much deeper than the over powering fault diagnosis teachers often make when their students are casting like windscreen wipers. As suggested above we might take this to its logical limit and consider that any excess effort is a technical impairment.

All that happens to be the path I’ve chosen. Consider an alternative and aesthetic perspective. My partner is a graduate of the Royal Ballet School and she long ago shared with me the idea that grace is economy of movement. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up nicely when he wrote that, “The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy”. If you have ever watched a superlative caster you will have noticed, instinctively, the effortlessness with which they cast. They cast with economy of effort and it is beautiful to watch.

One last thought before I set out how my practice regime has been supplemented. A vast amount has been written and spoken about being in a state of flow. In sports we hear a lot about being “in the zone”. Recently I watched a TV doco which looked at performance and brain wave patterns among archers – both an elite archer and then some students. What struck and stuck with me was the definition of “the zone” as a state of both intense focus and complete relaxation. You might prefer something less pointy and if so “mindfulness” could have more appeal. This is the state I try to maintain when practicing. I get more from 45 minutes of mindful practice than from two hours of determined practice. Both are purposeful.

My recent practice sessions have been adapted to:

  • Maximise efficiency by minimising effort 
  • Modify my casting stroke to protect my casting shoulder –  more shoulder flexion and extension instead of horizontal and vertical rotation. (See here for what that means if unsure.)
  • Restore accuracy after these changes and at distances out to normal fishing limits -ie 80’  – 90’ .

To do this I’ve evolved a combination of existing drills.

  • Use minimal effort for full and accurate extension of the line with tight loops
  • Start short – c.5m – casting to targets smoothly
  • Ensure loops are neat, narrow and aligned in both casting directions (tracking, tracing and SLP) and watch the dangly bits at the fly end – smooth casting means less dangly bits.
  • Preserve the effort profile of that stroke as it lengthens and casts are extended in 5’-10’ increments as far as possible
  • As soon as it gets out of shape – loops and/or effort profile – retreat as far as necessary to restore effortless delivery
  • Repeat the process of gradually increasing casting distance rather than keep banging away at or near the point where form starts to deteriorate

Two things help me to regain form – 1) switching to dynamic rolls which accentuate late rotation and 2) switching to side casts which allow a full view of the stroke and fly line in both directions. Also for longer casts I sometimes just concentrate on carry and getting everything in order there without concern for accuracy and total distance on delivery.

Signs that form needs adjustment include casts that didn’t go as far they should have or failed to extend the leader. Crucially, any sense of undue effort (breaking out of the desired effort profile) to remove slack or compensate for inadequate extension are sure signs of technique shortcomings. Time to retreat and restore technique before recommencing slow increases of distance.

When I started 65′ – 70’ was about where the “problems” started. Now it’s more like 80’-85’. I aim and expect to get out to at least 90’ and, maybe, beyond. NB I’m not talking about maximum casting distance but the range within which effortless (graceful) form can be maintained.

Hero casts for maximum distance are absolutely forbidden because they guarantee the exertion of unnecessary and therefore unwanted effort.

I will update my page on Fly Casting Practice with the exercises listed above.

Fly Casting Movement: Effort as an Organising Idea for Control

Introduction

As a curious person I want to build my understanding of fly casting on solid ground. It remains a work in progress. As a metaphor I was recently attracted to the means by which a railway viaduct designed by Brunel was constructed over marshy ground. To support the structure they dug down through the soft mud until the bedrock was revealed and on that the stone piers were built. The body of popular knowledge about fly casting features a lot of wobbly and unscientific structures built on unfounded belief.

This site tracks my journey of knowledge construction down to the bedrock of mechanics then onwards and upwards to biomechanics, followed by sensorimotor learning Deviating from the construction metaphor, my journey was one of exploration which did not follow a planned route or blueprint but rather evolved simply as one thing leading to another. Mechanics equations don’t make casts. Biomechanical sequences are not self executing. Understanding sensorimotor learning is useful but not sufficient guidance for optimising how we acquire and refine casting movements. Teaching and Practice are likewise helpful in getting the movements right. My journey has been powered by inputs both from people I’ve talked with and from my own research which favours peer reviewed publications.

Still, however, I felt a need to better understand the personal, subjective experience of performing fly casting movements as opposed to observing those movements being performed by others or by me (on video) and trying to get better at doing them and teaching others to do them better. Learning is always a subjective experience.

Before I get into Effort as an organising idea here’s a very brief summary of the journey highlights so far.

  • Newton’s second law of motion describes net Force applied to a fly line (mass) propelled (accelerated) in the intended direction of the cast. F=ma. Force is most efficiently applied in and with straight lines. Force applied in any direction other than the one intended is effectively opposed to and deducted from what we want to achieve. The essence of efficiently applying force to a fly line via a fly rod is to optimise net Force in the intended direction of the cast.
  • A throwing action like fly casting essentially involves a biomechanical sequence of body bits from those close to our core (proximal) to those further away from it (distal). The bigger and more powerful muscles (proximal) are for good for gross motor skill and the smaller (distal) muscles are less powerful and better suited to fine motor skill.
  • As our sensorimotor system acquires new movements we progress from the slow channel of cognitive control, through associative control and on to the fast channel of autonomous control. In other words we lay down new patterns of movement and as we repeat them the central nervous system relocates them from the slow and somewhat clunky channel of conscious thought to the faster and more fluid channel of unconscious performance. This is not a simple linear process as changes and refinements will require frequent returns to the slow channel before conscious thought becomes unnecessary. We crawl before we can walk before we can run. Repeat as necessary.

Neural Patterns of Familiar Movements

Evolution has taught our brains to save time (good for survival) in perceiving, thinking and acting by building and using patterns. For good reason, reflex actions like flinching, ducking or lifting a hand off a hot stove don’t require conscious thought. That’s the fast channel of sensorimotor control and reflexes unconsciously trigger the execution of established movement patterns.

At the conscious, cognitive level, we likewise build and use neural patterns. For example we recognise objects that fit established patterns. We know the difference between a cup and a beaker, a wine glass and a tumbler without thinking too long or deeply about it. That’s because we use patterns in perception as well as object recognition. Magicians use our patterns of perception to fool us with “slight of hand”. Actually, it’s slight of vision patterns and managed attention.

We also use patterns when we move voluntarily and for the same reason; it saves time. For example, imagine there is a bar in front of you (shouldn’t be too difficult) and on it is a glass milk shake beaker. We pick it up off the bar and raise it and draw it towards our face stopping at eye level. Then we put it back where it was. I’m guessing that if we see that it is empty our grip strength and how much force we use to move it as described will be assessed and executed without conscious thought. If we see that the beaker is brim full of milk we will slow down to avoid spillage and we will unconsciously use more force to grip, lift and move it. Now, imagine there is a trick added and the beaker looks to be full of milk but actually it’s full of polystyrene cleverly disguised as milk. What will happen? We will lift “too fast” and have to slow the movement down. The opposite would happen if we were tricked into underestimating the weight. We would then have to compensate for the unexpected heaviness of the beaker. We would adjust by speeding up our movement to reach the chosen rate of movement and we would do that by increasing the force applied.

Still with me? What I’m trying to demonstrate is that everyday movements are very familiar and we execute them somewhat unconsciously with pre-determined choices of which bits to move when, how fast, how far and with what force. Secondly when the movement feeds back something unexpected we are able to compensate. What is it that we subjectively experience when we make those adjustments? A change of effort. Too much effort and we reduce it to slow the movement down. Too little effort and we increase it to speed up the movement. Feedback facilitates effort adjustment which changes how we move.

Existing known patterns of movement feedforward to our body bits the commands to move. If feedback says “Whoops, too much or too little effort is being applied” we feedforward again to adjust the amount of effort to achieve the desired movement outcome. In my view and personal experience the expectation and apprehension of effort required organises how we execute a voluntary movement. Effort is applied force which effects the speed and often the range, of a familiar movement.

To illustrate this let’s take another example. (Humour me, ok?) Imagine you are sitting at a dinner table and the friend on your dominant side has left their plate unprotected. A fly enters the scene and you decide to shoo it away from your friend’s meal. Your movement, at your choice, can be slow and gentle or fast and aggressive. It can be somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Try pantomiming that shooing movement at all three different tempos.

Next, pay attention to your hand movement at the end of both a gentle and an aggressive shooing action. If you are like me the hand will hardly move at the wrist with a gentle movement and with an aggressive movement it will extend vigorously. In between the hand movement is in between. For me and probably for both of us, we can now see how the chosen speed of the movement (driven by effort) unconsciously changes the range of hand movement at the end of the movement sequence.

As we executed a familiar movement at varying rates we demonstrated that we are moving according to established neural patterns. To emphasise the point try finishing a slow shooing wave with the hand movement of a fast wave. Do the opposite – fast wave with slow wave hand movement (even harder to do was it not). You will probably notice that it requires conscious change which makes the movement feel a bit strange – because, of course, you are deviating from an established movement pattern otherwise executed without thinking about it.

What has this got to do with fly casting? Ok, fly casting is supposed to be a tricky new set of movements we have to learn from scratch. Say we change the milk shake movement to finish it by throwing the contents of the beaker back over our shoulder. No real problem eh? So for my money that action is a lot like the backcast of the basic or foundation stroke. Fly shooing off your friend’s plate is actually a lot like making the backcast of a side cast. We have all heard and used other movement analogies like painting the ceiling or flicking water off the brush. These work and resonate because they are familiar and we can do them without much trepidation. Why not fly casting, at least at the basic level?

Overpowering – Cause, Consequence or Both?

What are the most common casting “faults” I see when I’m out and about? Over powering and over rotation with, in my revised view, the latter being largely an effect of the former. I’d be surprised if most casting teachers didn’t say these were the most common problems their students present with. Not talking about absolute beginners here but more about folks who can cast at least well enough to catch a fish or two.

Most casters use too much force and I note in passing that using just enough force is still part of my learning journey. How much is too much? More than is required to complete the cast as intended. So, why do we do it? Let’s be a bit more specific. What is/are the cause or causes of over powering and over rotation? My suggestion is that we over power very often in an attempt to compensate for “technique issues” connected with or even caused by, over powering. If there is major slack in the line after a back cast we weren’t watching then we will probably speed up the forward cast in an attempt to get in touch with (get feedback from) the line. Maybe the poor backcast was due at least in part to the poor forward cast that preceded it, one that didn’t extend properly. The caster is thus caught in a vicious cycle. Over rotation might well be part of that cycle as we rotate sooner, further and faster to try and cure the inefficiency thereby adding to the inefficiency. A fast movement pattern is being used when a slow to medium movement pattern would be a much better choice in terms of control and therefore efficiency. Effort is the subjective experience of applying net Force in the intended direction of the cast.

Faced with such problems teachers could start giving instructions (to ourselves or others) to reduce the stroke speed and change the movement sequence by delaying rotation or telling the caster to use less wrist and more of something else and so on ad finitum. Alternatively, we could pay more attention to causation and less to effects. We could, for example, use the triangle method in conjunction with PUALDs in both directions. The pause between backcast and forward cast gives us time to think and consciously adjust things. We could get the caster to lay out their line out straight so that when they started to move the fly line started to move. The caster will then be able to see what is happening with the line as well to feel the line as a weight/resistance. They will notice the difference between a slack line and a straight line from a more successful cast that fully extended. Feedback will be received from two sources, sight and resistance. This would constitute a major advance on virtually no useful feedback at all. By “useful” I mean feedback which facilitates adjustment of movement to meet the desired acceleration of the fly line – subjectively, an adjustment in effort.

Learning and Change

The caster at this point, aided by a lot more sensory feedback, might be able to start moving more slowly and (therefore) smoothly. This would be learning by discovery instead of by direct instruction. We could facilitate the process, if required, by making suggestions like “Maybe try starting a bit slower” or even “See if you can keep the hand/wrist action until later in your stroke and you might make your loops a bit narrower”.

Slower movement is easier to control. Smoother movement is a demonstration of increased control. Casting more efficiently means achieving more distance and better accuracy from less effort – ie applied force. We increase stroke length with cast length to lessen the force and speed required for execution of the movement. Line speed is produced by force applied over a distance (or for a time). A shorter faster stroke demands more effort for the cast distance than when we cast for the same distance using a longer slower/easier stroke.

In varying amounts of time casters will probably start to notice the benefits of using less effort. As their neural patterns change and a different planned effort is matched to a changed expectation of effort and then by results it will, you know, start to “feel better”. Change is, indeed, the hard part and change requires commitment and persistence but, for me, more understanding of and attention to, cause and effect in casting inefficiently (“poor technique”) will work better than just relentlessly picking at “faults” one after another.

But, I hear you say, what about other faults like tracking or tailing loops? Well I’m not saying over powering is the only issue but I will offer that it is a lot easier to cast in straight lines, back and forward, if you aren’t heaving – using unnecessary force. Tails come from lumpy force application which, I might suggest, is likely to be caused by over powering at some point in the stroke; effort profile needs a tweak. Creep (starting too soon) is said to be a cause of tails. Why, I would ask, do you think casters feel they need to hurry?

Conclusion

An organising idea is like the hub of a wheel with spokes connecting to other related ideas laid out around the circumference. I like organising ideas – a lot. When we cast we apply force to accelerate a mass – of our body parts, the rod and the line. We need to do that with optimal efficiency which will come from maximising net Force in the intended direction of the cast.

Casting is a throwing movement and that is done most efficiently from using the biomechanical sequence that time, evolution, and anatomy have bequeathed to us. It’s a movement we learn and as it becomes more familiar neural patterns are formed, refined, entrenched and moved to different parts of our brains so the movement is performed without thinking about it. For familiar movements we develop patterns which include instructions for what to move in what order, how far and how fast. That’s how come we can pick up a milk shake or shoo off flies without a lot of thought and with a range of choices in the tempo of the movement about to be made. Further, we can use sensory feedback and even conscious thought to adjust our movements.

Using the triangle method, with PUALDs in both directions we can get more and better feedback. This is one example of something we can use to enhance feedback and facilitate change to the neural patterns we have developed. They are, for each and all of us, our patterns and using them to perform our movements is necessarily a subjective experience.

Got a problem with over powered casting and over rotation? Consider the chain of causation. Is it something like this? Too much slack negatively affects feedback which leads to going too fast which leads to over rotation. You could try slowing down or using less wrist or translating more and rotating later etc etc. This is the objective instructional approach. Alternately you could obtain visual feedback, see what it going wrong and adjust your movements until there is less slack and better turnover with less effort. This approach considers the subjective experience and encourages self discovery which will probably result in better and more lasting learning.

Converting a mechanics equation into a subjective movement experience via biomechanical sequences performed with sensorimotor control applies theoretically to all voluntary movements. To make any voluntary movement we have to consciously and/or unconsciously chose which bits to move in what order, how far and how fast. Familiar voluntary movements, like shooing flies or fly casting, are regulated, essentially or at least significantly, by the allowance for effort which forms a component of our neural patterns for making those movements. I suggest that managing effort so as to alter those patterns, together with adjustment as required by feedback, is pretty central to learning how to cast more efficiently. Focussed, purposeful practice informed, shaped and directed by this knowledge is the key to improved efficiency.

Distance: Lost, Found and Why

Introduction

Going back a few years now I decided to expand the zone within which I could cover and catch fish effectively and reliably from about 60′ to about 80′. At 90′ I would still be very much in the game but for my fishing 90′ covers are (still) unusual events. Pursuing this objective, for several years I tried to cast further as a means of casting better. The idea was that the longer I could cast the easier it would be to cast shorter, well within maximum distance.

Then my quest changed and became about accuracy at progressively greater distance; same objective but different strategy. For that I would need to be smoother, minimise effort, cast more consistently and have greater all round efficiency. By “efficiency” I mean more mechanical, biomechanical and sensorimotor efficiency in both learning and performing the required movements.

Missing Distance

Fast forward to earlier this month and I began to discover that, when I occasionally went looking for it, a lot of my distance had gone missing – say 15’. Vain and curious creature that I am I started looking for (some of) those lost feet assisted by my standard bag of tricks – loop/line shape, dynamic roll casting, side casting (triangle thingy) PUALDs back and forward etc.

Stroke Change

Complicating the picture was the fact that I decided to take out some shoulder injury disability insurance by changing how I cast. Abducting your elbow on forward and back cast puts a lot of extra strain on the shoulder joint (rotator cuff) and my elbow was typically further from my body than was good for my shoulder.

If you want to look this up then in anatomical terms shoulder joint movement with the elbow out (abducted) and upper arm horizontal is internal rotation if the forearm moves forward/down and external rotation when it moves back/up. With the elbow in (adducted) the movement is shoulder flexion (upper arm moving up) and extension (upper arm moving down). Flexion and extension are a lot easier on the shoulder joint.

For short to medium casts my stroke is now far more like the basic or foundation stroke – elbow lead and elbow in. For longer casts we need a longer stroke so I went for more upper body rotation and after that the usual casting action of forearm and hand extension. In other words I moved towards a “170” distance casting stroke.

It’s reasonable to expect an initial loss of distance when we change our casting stroke significantly but my distance loss was not just a result of the changes I made.

Still on fast forward I decided that some of the missing yards weren’t there because of how I was finishing each cast. There was no longer anything like wrist snap, In fact there was little noticeable extra muscle effort in the final phase of rotation. (Dynamic roll casting gave me the clue as it requires late and slightly punchy rotation from the hand. It’s where the Peter Hayes \\\\\ / thing comes from.)

Biomechanically it makes sense to push a bit harder as the sequence moves to smaller muscle groups. From a Straight Line Path perspective, if the force applied lessens during rotation the rod will straighten (upwards) and, failing compensatory movement of the rod hand downwards, the loops are likely to start opening up as a sign of lost mechanical efficiency. Force is applied more efficiently in a straight line and less efficiently when some of it isn’t going in the intended direction of the cast.

From a practical perspective none of that is of much consequence for me during the first 60′-70’ of casting distance. After that the costs mount up ever more steeply.

The chosen solution for my missing yards was later and more positive rotation, especially wrist/hand movement for both back and forward casts. Results? Despite recently changing my short-medium and distance strokes a good bit of the distance has come back.

Ok, so I could have spared you the reading to this point and just said, “Make sure you rotate late and finish fully and positively.” However, the point of story is the journey from too much to too little and back to just enough contribution from the hand/wrist. I haven’t gone back to being “snappy” but rather i’ve retreated from not being crisp enough with my final hand movement. This brings me to the question that only curious people like me are wont to ask…..

Why Did That Happen?

Fluid movement such as we desire in fly casting does not come from a simple series of body bits moving and then stopping one after another. It’s not upper arm on and then off, forearm on and then off followed by hand on and then off. There is and has to be some overlap between the initiation and termination of the bits in the series of body parts moved – in the biomechanical sequence of a casting stroke. So it’s more that as the upper arm is stopping the forearm begins to move and as the forearm is stopping the hand movement begins. That pattern gives fluid movement and it is also both mechanically and biomechanically necessary. Body bits (and flexible levers like fly rods) don’t start or stop moving instantaneously and they are moved in overlapping sequence for biomechanical efficiency.

Initial attempts to find relevant scientific research on this has not yielded much. At this point, however, it was and is my supposition that to create fluid movement we will need sensorimotor control that allows complex activation and restraint processes and it would therefore make sense if it also allowed bits to be primed to move sequentially and to then move with a planned amount of effort before the relevant muscles actually begin contracting. So, if I start going very easy on the stroke (smooth gentle tempo) it may well have unconscious and unintended effects on the stop or rather on the hand/wrist finish. The tempo is applied to the whole sequence and thus extends through proximal to distal body bits recruited to perform the movement.  Crucially, in my mind, the movement tempo will be set by the intended/expected effort to be exerted and all that will in turn influence the range and timing of movement of the body parts performing the movement sequence. Grace, remember, is economy of movement; just enough and no more. That economy would apply to all the body parts being moved and for each and all there would be economy of range, speed and effort of movement.

This is my tentative intuitively appealing explanation for the introduction into my casting of a finish which was softer than is desirable, most particularly at distance. If we focus on smooth stroke movements then we are likely to power down the finish to match the beginning and middle. Going the other way if we work towards a power snap at the finish we will probably encourage spikey/jerky movements leading up to the snap.

We humans are adept at making movements with varying degrees of effort – minimal, maximal or anywhere in between. The intended effort level, in throwing for example, affects the whole of the movement rather than just one part of the movement. Compare a casual lob of a ball to a team member close by with a long outfield return. Like I said, this is just my supposition but to see what science says I need studies that focus on or incidentally consider the co-operation (pun intended) of body bits and sensorimotor control via the central nervous system. So far I haven’t found exactly what I’m after but I’ll keep looking and report back.

Coaching a Friend: Teaching Principles Applied

Not very long ago I spent an hour or two with a friend who wants to improve his casting. I’ve  fished with him and worked with him before so I knew what I would like him to tackle – overpowered forward cast, underdeveloped back cast and lastly an effective double haul. Sound familiar? Anyone who has taught fly casting will recognise all these as common problems.

My friend and I discussed what he wanted to work on and because he is a friend and trusts me he was open to my suggestions.

First thing I wanted to leave him with was the triangle method as something he can use whenever he chooses so we got some rope and set that up. It works for all levels of casting skill from beginner to advanced and everywhere in between. It’s one of the things I use for tuning up my casting, though I no longer need the rope. The visual cues provided by side casting over a set of lines is the key to its effectiveness. You can see exactly what you are doing…or not doing.

Second thing was to introduce a minimum power exercise using the triangle as a visual structure and cue that would allow him to control his stroke length while working to reduce applied force.

Thirdly, once the first couple of things were working well enough for him to benefit from them, I got him to start doing PUALDs in both directions. Again this is something I often use to tune up something(s) in my technique. One of the things it demonstrates is the great advantage of casting with a straight fly line. Slack is not our friend and conspires with instinct to encourage overpowering. Eliminate slack and find the minimum power needed to complete the cast and a new day dawns. PUALDs give us time to see what just happened, think about the next stroke and how to change what needs to be changed.

There was a bit of wind blowing so I got him to move to different corners of the triangle in order cast downwind  as an aid to minimising power and, by reversing directions, the upwind cast then becomes a test of both technique and power restraint. Works the same for forward and back casts.

Within a fairly short time he was really getting the hang of it as was obvious from the tighter loops and smoother acceleration. My input at this stage was mostly to compliment the better casts. No need to say anything about the not-so-good ones because that would have been stating the obvious to him.

Because he gets physics and asked, I explained that the SLP is essentially shorthand for maximising force applied in the intended direction of the cast. To put it in a nutshell, it’s about vectorial purity. Counterintuitively, we get better results from less force applied more efficiently. Intuitively, we attempt to compensate for inefficient force application by using yet more force which will invariably be applied even less efficiently.

My other input was to encourage him to memorise the feel of the good casts and how it differed from the not-so-good ones. I suggested he give it a name.

So, within two hours his casting stroke, in both directions, had become much smoother and more efficient – no more spiky power application. Instead of punching the delivery out to 50 odd feet he was stroking it smoothly out to nearly 60’. What he achieved was very satisfying for both of us and the feedback after a couple fishing session was that the improvements had “stuck”.

If you compare this post with my Teaching Fly Casting: Interim Research Report you will be able to see the principles I was attempting to apply. More emphasis on “production” and facilitating student discovery and less emphasis on “reproduction” and direct instruction. Use of the overall “feel” of getting it right as a means of capturing and entrenching improved performance of movements.

I also learned something else too. I really enjoy teaching fly casting, especially when it succeeds beyond my expectations. :^))

 

Fly Casting Practice: My Bag of Tricks

As many of you know by now I practice regularly to maintain and improve my casting technique. Some of what I learn finds its way into this blog and I’ve written extensively on how I structure practice sessions to optimise my sensory motor learning.

This post is not so much about the things I’m trying to improve as about the exercises I often use to make improvements. I make no claim to originality for any of them. How I use them individually or in series suits me and might be useful to others.  When using them I often morph back and forth from one to another once the groove or “feel” of the cast elements get established fairly well.

This variation provides a test of how solid the gains are because it forces me to adapt the learned movement change or “feel” from one movement sequence to another and, often, back again. When fishing, things like gear setups and weather conditions mean one size very rarely fits all.  We have to adapt technique to meet the requirements of the casting task – standard, non-standard or even unique requirements to make the desired presentation.

Good casters adapt easily and readily, meaning they can maintain control, composure and task focus. If we want to “see the shot, make the shot” there’s not much room for conscious thinking or dry runs.  We need to size up the situation, pick our target and make the desired presentation, adapting our technique as required.  Practice can help with that but only if we practice adaptation intentionally.

Here are some of the exercises and some of the things I use them for and neither list exhausts all the possibilities. 

Triangle Method

Lee Cummings developed this method and you can watch his video of it here. The genius of this exercise is that you have a full view of every movement you, the rod and the line make. Secondly, the reference lines create a defined path and maximum stroke length. It’s the first part that I use extensively because sight is our dominant sense and so the ability to see everything expedites sensory motor learning.

I don’t bother with the ropes and markers and just switch to side casting. In that mode I can take in all the sight cues from my body bits, the rod and loop shapes. 

  • It tells me about tracking and power application. 
  • It’s good for examining stroke and haul timing and making tweaks to them.
  • You can add or subtract hauls and shoots.
  • You can use it with Pick Up And Lay Down (PUALD) casting.
  • You can tidy things up and then graduate from sideways to canted to overhead and back again if you think the feel or groove needs to be re-established or simply to exercise your ability to vary and adapt the stroke.

It may have been developed to get beginners going but I’d suggest it is very useful at whatever level of casting ability you have attained.

Dynamic Rolls

Making tidy dynamic roll casts with tight loops, fly leg nearly vertical to the rod leg and complete turnover gets harder as we cast longer, not least because it is inherently less mechanically efficient than a standard overhead cast.  A medium overhead distance quickly becomes a medium-long or long dynamic roll cast. 

The principal answer to the “problem” is to rotate late in the cast. As ever, we also need smooth acceleration and a full finish. For this cast the full finish can be combined with a high finish to optimise line tension. Simply put, in longer dynamic roll casts there is less margin for efficiency error.

I use dynamic rolls as a means of testing and improving my general casting efficiency. For example, if my overhead loops on longer casts aren’t tight enough for my liking I may switch to dynamic rolls. When they are going out nicely I might switch back to overhead casting and then switch back and forth. Pick up into a dynamic roll, turning that into a false forward overhead cast. If I can get both types of cast travelling sweetly at will, individually or as a mixture, I expect the feel to be similar in both – similar, but not exactly the same.

During accuracy practice I will often aim for the same target(s) but switch back and forth between overhead and dynamic roll casts.

Simple Overhead Casts

By “simple” I mean standard overhead casting stripped back to the essentials – no hauling and, often, no shooting. What’s left will be the bare bones of rod hand technique for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health. We are thus confronted by technical weakness and given the chance to turn them into strengths. 

By starting with a short to medium distance and extending it as far as we can rod hand essentials can all be tested – tracking, timing, smoothness of power application, minimisation of slack and the straight line path.  The quality of our five essentials is now there in plain sight. 

We can add to the bare bones by feeding line into the forward or back casts and by shooting line into the delivery to examine the strength of our technique.  It’s very satisfying when a decent carry can be turned into a surprisingly long delivery.

Pick Up And Lay Downs

PUALDs are another very useful testing, diagnostic and treatment exercise. I start with a medium length cast and extend as far as my technique will permit. I pick up from a forward delivery and make a back cast delivery or a single false cast to the rear and then a forward delivery or any combination of pick up, single false cast and delivery.

Pick ups naturally lengthen and therefore slow down the ensuing casting stroke in whatever direction we choose. Slowing down helps smooth out acceleration. Laying down provides an instant check of our tracking – in both directions. The loop shape and completeness of the turnover tell the story of casting efficiency.

I often throw PUALDs into the mix with simple overheads and triangle method. A dynamic roll is essentially a PUALD cast unless the delivery is turned into a false forward cast. I make them with and without hauls and shoots and I often keep extending the line out until my technique falters. As with simple overheads it is both surprising and satisfying to see just how far we can cast when we cast with optimal efficiency.

One Thing at a Time

Probably the most obvious aid to improving technique but it needs to be said and observed. We have a finite capacity to learn and improve our movements via the “thinking about it” channel, especially when the movements being altered are deeply ingrained. That’s why it helps to slow things down as we can do, for example, with PUALDS. 

It also helps to avoid gumming up the cognitive (slow channel) attention buffer by trying to work on multiple “problems” simultaneously. It’s why, for example, my practice regime provides for attention to back casts and forward casts separately.  Likewise doing the fine tuning/improvement work is easier when we operate at medium distance where mostly our movements are controlled unconsciously (fast channel).

Recently I was working on even smoother power application essentially by starting slower. You will find the story in my previous blog post. I also wanted to experiment with snappier hauling because my line shot to line carried ratio was less than gold standard (c.50%).  What I quickly discovered was that speeding up the line hand movement and slowing down the rod hand movement was a marriage made in hell. Work on one or the other was fine. Both at the same time was a mess. Two different rhythm/cadence changes by two different sides of my body was too much for the slow lane of the sensory motor system to handle. It was fun to try though.

Practice, Learning and Happenstance

I’ve been busy researching and writing about the teaching of fly casting but recently I had a pleasant reminder of what it’s like to be on the other end of the process – as a learner.

There I was down at the park only to discover that the summer grass had been growing considerably faster than it was being mowed. My intention to was complete a usual practice session with an emphasis on tracking and tracing – tidy fly leg vertical to a tidy rod leg.  Straight lines rule.   My usual practice area was more of a field than a lawn with several inches of grass topped by a carpet of flowering clover. Knew it was going to be a pain but decided to press ahead.

Clover flowers are particularly adept at catching the fluff which makes pickups much more difficult and ticking far more hazardous. It is hard to execute a smooth pickup when the fly catches, twangs loose and causes chaotic interference with keeping a straight fly line.  The occasional and slight ticking one often experiences with long carries goes from barely noticeable to a worst case of killing the cast completely. There isn’t much tension in a long line (between rod tip and fly) at the best of times but fly hungry vegetation can produce a go, stop, go like crazy sequence that can sometimes be recovered from and sometimes not.

After the trials of frequent error I discovered that being extra smooth worked at least as well if not better than simply trying to keep the fly higher off the deck by increasing the elevation/trajectory of both back and forward casts. 

Being smooth reduces the extent of dangly bits, especially the leader and tippet where tension is least. It is somewhat counterintuitive because you might, like me, imagine that waiting too long for turnover to be completed would cause bigger problems as the line fell further thus increasing the chances of ticking or worse.  Intuitive answer? Hurry things along a bit more and add a bit of punch. Tried all that, plus increasing elevation and creeping a bit more than usual, without success. The ticking and fwusterwation continued. Smoothness was the answer.

Smoothness made the pickups easier, cleaner and more reliable.  In fact that’s what I discovered first and then applied a similar acceleration profile to my false casting.  What mattered, in both cases was starting significantly slower than “normal”. 

Today I went to a different park with closely cut grass. My intention was to groove my latest version of smooth acceleration based on a (even) slower start. Wait a tiny bit longer and move into the commencement of the stroke more gradually. That tempo is set by the slow start.  There was no leader/fly grabbing to provide feedback but I had the Feel from the previous session to guide me. It took a while to gather it all up again but eventually I “got it” and was able to build from a minimal power drill to medium/long casts, then different types of cast (eg dynamic rolls and side casts) and finally long casts. Feeling cocky I put out a decently long cast of 100’+ with very little effort and decided it was time to reel in and go home.

So what? Superficially I learned nothing new. It’s hardly headline news that smooth power application is highly desirable – essential even, if you aspire to casting at an advanced level and want the onlooker to notice how effortlessly you move. However, the quantitatively small changes I made in those two sessions produced a huge qualitative change in the experience of performing the movements – to the Feel of my casting. For the same felt effort it probably added 5-10’ in distance and it also improved my accuracy at long distances. In a sense, though, the improved performance was a footnote to the pleasure of moving more efficiently. Technique drives performance and a positively different sensory experience in executing the movements is a pretty reliable indicator of improved technique. 

All this from the happenstance of long grass!  Learning doesn’t come exclusively from following standard operating procedures. It (also) comes from discovery.  Opportunity knocked. I heard it and opened the door to a delightful guest.

Teaching Fly Casting: Interim Research Report

Have just added the above as a new page. As explained in its introduction section, “I have spent a lot of time trying to get fly casting teachers to talk about their work – not about what they teach but rather how they teach. With some notable exceptions it turned out to be a difficult row to hoe. Accordingly, I decided to redirect my energies to researching teaching/coaching in other sports, particularly those with the numbers, the organisational structures and most importantly the money to push the envelope, to look outside the box of traditional practices and get some serious sports science done.”

My research and discussion of it with friends has turned up enough of value to publish this interim report. I have to decided to publish further reports as and when that seems useful. I have learned a lot already and know I have a much longer journey in front of me.

Going outside the fly casting box to other sports will doubtless raise some eyebrows and prompt some scepticism – to put it mildly. Some teachers of fly casting will probably wonder what I’ve been smoking. To all my readers I say simply this. Please keep an open mind and please remember I’m not trying to trash the good work that many of you have done as teachers over a long time as evidenced by the greatly improved casting skills of your students. Instead of finding fault my intention to introduce new ideas from other places where movement and motor skills are being taught. Even in sports where the numbers are huge compared with fly casting history shows that teachers tend to teach what they learned and how they were taught – a history that resonates strongly with me and hopefully you too.