Back to 'Throwing Like a Girl'

By James Fallows
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I was traveling so didn't get on the much- commented-upon Washington Post feature about "throwing like a girl" when it first appeared. I am reminded by Andrew Sullivan that the topic is still bouncing around, so here goes:

1) I am weirdly heartened to have other people treat this as a "real" subject. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the article I've most enjoyed doing in my Atlantic career was one called "Throwing Like a Girl," from some 15 years ago.

2) As you'll see if you compare my piece and the Post's, we come to somewhat different conclusions. We both agree that there is a such a thing as the throwing-like-a-girl motion. We disagree on its fundamental cause.

3) The Post piece talks about a variety of differences between the genders. Eg, "[a professor of psychology and women's studies] found what she defined as a 'very large' difference in only two skills: throwing velocity and throwing distance." I ended up being convinced that, apart from obvious gaps in size and strength, the only difference that mattered between men and women is that more males than females have spent time learning how to throw.

4) Learning how is the crucial concept, because throwing a ball "correctly" is like riding a bike, in this way. Virtually anyone can learn to do it, but virtually no one starts out knowing how. Once people learn, gender differences in strength take over. The average male bike rider will be stronger than the average female; the strongest male ball-thrower, like Randy Johnson, above, will throw faster than the strongest female. But they all can ride bikes the same way, or throw balls the same way, once they learn how.

5) Check my article for details (and this follow up), but here's the simplest try-it-right-now proof that throwing motion is a learned rather than an innate skill. Pick up a ball with your "off" hand -- for me, the south paw, since I am right-handed. Throw the ball with that hand. You will throw it "like a girl." And it will take you hundreds, probably thousands, of throws before you feel as if you can do it naturally. As part of my article research, I threw left-handed with my sons and my wife. It was revealing and character-building.  UPDATE! Here is a fabulous Vimeo clip of men throwing with their "off" hands. Every one of them throws like -- well, see for yourself. [Thanks to reader ER.]

6) Now we get to the other realm of gender differences. For whatever reason, most little boys spend more of their early years learning how to throw than most little girls do. They get better at it -- as they would be at bike riding, if only boys rather than girls were taken through the inevitable shakiness and falls of those first few rides. But that's where the boy/girl difference emerges -- from the thousands of instances of a boy picking up a rock to skip it across a pond and learning how the "kinetic chain" of a throw feels, while a girl, for whatever reason, is doing something else.

Below, as discussed in another item, is a great super slo-mo video with the Giants' Tim Lincecum, showing the "kinetic chain" of an effective throw. And after that, continued after the jump, is a note that came in just now on the very topic of learned rather than innate skills.



Now, below and after the jump, a touching letter that has just arrived, on this very topic. It is long but to me very interesting:

I loved your article, "Throwing Like a Girl." it.  I loved that you even dared to point out this stinging little "euphemism"  and all that it implies.   I am personally guilty of using the expression (along with "you scream like a girl") and I AM a girl.
 
I think the part of this article that interested me most, however, was not that  you pointed this out, but that  you pointed out that throwing properly is something that can be learned by adults - and more importantly to me, by children. 

I'm sure the reason my husband brought this article to my attention was to sooth my worried and inherently UN-athletic soul.  I have managed to pass this inherent lack of athleticism down to my oldest son, despite ALL of the opposite genetic material encoded in my husband and his side of the family.  It runs deep and strong on his side, but apparently not deep and strong enough. 

When I realized that my tall and naturally strong boy, a boy who even looks graceful in repose, was not actually gifted with any grace when it came to running, throwing or hitting, I got very sad about it.
All I could remember was being picked last for every team that was ever put together in grade school phys ed.  I watched him reach the age when boys start to really be interested in balls and then watched his interest fade as he realized in his just-past-toddler way that he couldn't do it like they could and that they quickly dismissed him when they realized he wasn't at their level.   He wasn't so much wounded by it (as I was watching it unfold) as he was resigned.  He realized he had a much greater talent for train track building and Legos and soon lost interest in things that involved balls or bats.
 
But I didn't want him to be resigned.  I wanted him to try because I always wished I had tried harder and because I wanted him to enjoy his body in motion.  I kept thinking something would just "kick in." So we put him in community basketball organizations and tried soccer too.  Both things were utter failures.  In two years of basketball he never once made a basket during a game and often we'd look up to see all the boys down at one end of the court under a basket fighting to score and him in the middle of the court either staring at the little 5 year old "cheerleaders" or looking up at the backside of the retractable backboards trying to figure out the mechanics.
 
At school, recess became a "Lord of the Flies" scenario where only the strongest and best were are allowed to play and the rest were kicked to the curb.  On several occasions he was flatly told that "he couldn't play because  he wasn't good enough."  I was heartbroken watching him be rejected like this for something he seemingly had no control over.  And then I got pissed about it because I realized that our education system would never accept children in the classroom telling other children that they didn't read well enough or that they were crappy spellers.   Teachers and parents don't generally just throw in the towel and say, "well, my kid just wasn't given the gift of reading or spelling."  NO!  We TEACH them! 

And I realized too that I myself had learned athletic skills as I got older.  When I got to college I played intramural soccer with girls in my dorm the whole time I was there.  I wasn't a star, but I did okay.  [Later] I played beer league softball for years.  Again - nothing to brag about, but the fact that I was comfortable enough to do it every year, around men I was probably interested in dating, without being embarrassed is telling of my confidence in my own ability to connect a bat to a ball with regularity.
 
Anyway - my whole long laborious point is that I think you should write a follow up article that investigates why we dismiss kids who aren't gifted with innate athletic talent, instead of trying to teach them and/or why we don't realize that this stuff can, in fact, be taught!  There is such a hierarchy surrounding athleticism - even in our supposedly enlightened, diverse, and compassionate society.  It truly separates men from boys (to use another euphemism that stings) and at an age when, as I can apparently attest, the wounds may penetrate deeper than we realize until we're older.  And then, of course, there is the whole issue of just getting up and getting moving. If you tell a kid he can't play because he doesn't know how to then he'll quite trying and he might sit on the couch, watch TV, eat and get fat.  (Also, something I went through.)
 
For us and our outsized 9 year old, what made the difference was figuring out what sports were best suited to him physically, mentally and emotionally.  By emotionally, I mean we found a sport that was less demeaning to a kid who struggled athletically because it didn't depend on children making all the decisions about where the ball was going to go during a game - or it didn't depend on a ball at all.  He takes taekwondo which he loves despite his awkwardness and where they teach, teach, teach and encourage practice so that he gets better; and we put him in Optimist football, a sport where each kid has a predetermined position that they don't break out of during plays and where coaches decide who is going to get the ball.  
 
Our kiddo is doing so well at these things - he's not scoring touchdowns yet, but he makes good plays regularly and he is enjoying himself, he's learning skills, he's out moving and breaking a sweat on a regular basis, and he's accepted as an integral part of a team.  For me, it is like a salve on my own wounds.
 
Please write an article about how you CAN in fact be taught athletic skills!  Every man, woman and child should be comfortable playing a pick up game of basketball or having a catch on a Sunday afternoon!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/back-to-throwing-like-a-girl/262611/