Throwing Like an American, Throwing Like T-Rex

By James Fallows
Thumbnail image for trex.jpg

In response to this recent item, plus this, and my original Atlantic article on "Throwing Like a Girl," many readers have weighed in.

As a reminder, the original contention was that throwing a ball, like riding a bicycle, is a skill that nearly anyone (male or female) can learn, but that everyone has to learn or be taught, since the movements and coordination involved are not innate. Gender differences tell us why the strongest male can throw faster than the strongest female. But the male-female gap in average throwing skill really has to do with the fact that little boys are more likely to spend their time throwing rocks and balls. Now, let's go to the readers. The illustration is explained in due course.

Maybe it's one more chapter in the long saga of American exceptionalism.

It's some support, I think, of the idea that throwing is learned, and culturally determined, that many European men -- or anyone, really, who grows up playing soccer -- throw like girls.  In fact, cricket bowlers throw with a different motion than baseball players (or, say, Americans tossing a tennis ball off a court).  The fastest bowlers are a little slower than the fastest pitchers, but not by much.  Moreover, cricket fielders throw slightly different than bowlers, but not quite like American fielders, either.

What's odd is that you would think the act of throwing was something so basic that we were built for it; in this way it's not quite like riding a bicycle.  It's more like, say, running, even kicking (there's no such thing, I don't think, as "kicking like a girl", or if there is it's not as noticeable).  That is, you would think that the motion was more or less natural -- capable of being improved upon, certainly, but roughly inherent.

Curious problem.

More on the curse of the soccer-playing cultures.

This is a topic I'm interested in because my daughter is a high school softball player who throws very well, and because I spent some time teaching her and other girls on her little league softball teams how to throw.  I have also spent time teaching her younger brother and his baseball teammates.  Based on my experience, I would say that throwing is a skill that can be learned equally well by either sex, and that even boys who have picked it up through trial and error (as I did) can improve through repetition of drills that isolate various parts of the kinetic chain and then put it back together. 

Also, fathers aren't throwing in the back yard with their kids enough, at least in my town.  I've seen boys as old as 12 who throw a baseball like they are shot putting an ostrich egg.  At some point, I'm going to start revoking man cards.
 
Watching the Argentine video of men throwing with their off hands was very interesting. [It is here, and if you missed it the first time, be sure to check it out.] They don't throw like girls as much as they throw like people who've never tried to throw anything at all before.  I've often wondered how well boys or men who grow up in soccer dominated countries throw compared to Americans.  We take it for granted that boys will grow up throwing balls as well as rocks, but in most of the world they grow up kicking them instead (I once read an article by a Frenchman extolling the wonders of soccer who asserted that if you give an infant a ball, the first thing it will try to do is kick it - not over here, Pierre, I thought - an American baby will pick it up and throw it).  You are much better travelled than I - how do you think these guys would have done with their dominant hands compared to the average American male?  How well do men throw in China? Have you seen any comparative studies?

I have not seen such studies. But come to think of it, I have not seen that many people in mainland China throwing, as opposed to kicking, balls. Japan and Taiwan, on the other hand, have big baseball traditions and lots of accomplished throwers.

Now, from a Westerner in China here is more on the ever-popular US-China angle.

I wrote a short poem after seeing the Dodgers and Padres play on March 16, 2008, two days after the Lhasa Uprising, in Wukesong. [JF note: this was in the buildup in to the Olympics, at the baseball stadium where the Olympic baseball games were played.] The teams had played on Saturday, the15th, though the PSB [Public Security Bureau] was in a full flutter and had turned the pre-game activities into a disaster; they were worried sick that a gathering of Americans and other international expats would turn the event into a pro-Tibet rally, not understanding that this was baseball. The 16th was a bit more relaxed. And Jet Li was on the mound to throw out the first pitch. I wrote a short poem on his toss.
"The Second Major League
Baseball Game in China

When I saw Jet Li
throw out the first pitch
I thought, man, he throws
just like my sister
threw
the night she hurled
the rock at my head
and took out
the living room clock.
I was lucky.

Then
I kept my mouth shut
too.
Jet Li.jpgI happened to snap a photo of Mr Li's pitch: . His form is not bad, though his left arm isn't fully extended, and his release timing was off    - an "inside the elbow" as you explain in your piece - producing a low velocity arc that barely made it to the catcher. With his natural athletic abilities, I expect that with a few quick lessons Mr. Li would have been throwing quite well. But it drove home the fact that throwing a baseball is a learned skill, one that often pre-dates our memory to recall the actual process. I suspect that my father had the greatest influence on how I ended up learning to throw a ball.

Another soccer casualty.

I read your latest post and agree completely that throwing and most other things can be taught and it often takes a long time to develop the skill that we tend to take for granted because as boys we started very early. When I was in the service in the 60s and still able to associate with guys that has been in WWII and Korea, I was told that the German Potato Masher grenade was designed that way because European sports didn't involve a lot of throwing, and that made sense to me.

The T. Rex angle, from a reader in Florida.

I don't know if this is a localized euphemism, but among various baseball teams on which my 9-year-old boy has played, the term for low-elbow, no-body-rotation throwing has become "throw like T-rex." I've taken to using it myself now that I'm coaching. And I spend a lot of time trying to teach kids to throw. I think you'll agree that's a much better phrase -- more accurately descriptive, harmlessly funny for the kids, and even educational in its way.

I love this woman's point [from this post] about feeling the joy of a body in motion. That's why the hell we do this for our kids/ and to our kids. I have a stutter, and one of the ways I developed confidence as a kid (actually the main way) was I got to be quite good at catching, throwing, and shooting. And I love to this day shooting, catching, throwing -- with anyone. By myself. Went out and took a bunch of jump shots today all alone. I've met more friends through pickup hoops than almost anything else. Athletic confidence, which my parents didn't really have, almost certainly altered my life for the better. If they had not pushed into sports at a young age, who knows how my life would have suffered?

And one the great byproducts of coaching I've found is how much just a little bit of attention can help an awkward kid. A lot. And what incredible fun that is to see happen. You see an awkward kid that you've worked with make a shot or catch a rebound when they could hardly hold the ball when they first started, and it's fantastic. And then getting those kids to compete (and I am pretty competitive) with the bigger, stronger, more coordinated kids and believe in themselves a little is just as gratifying. Forget the score; it's the competing on honest terms that matters. Self-respect.

So you're right and she's right. Anybody can be taught to do these things well enough to enjoy them, well enough to feel themselves getting better. If more coaches cared about competing with the kids they have and helping them get better rather than team-stacking so they can be elite at 9, we'd all be happier.

Coaching has showed me why people still teach despite all the crap that comes with it.

From a mother of a daughter.

I didn't think twice about marrying a guy who throws like a girl because I threw very well and would be the go-to athletic coach parent.

I didn't count on coming down w/ inherited autoimmune arthritis.  I gotta pop some tylenol and teach my girl how to throw.

Thanks for giving me the motivation. She throws even worse than my husband, and I didn't think it was possible for anyone to be worse.  ;-)

From a father of a daughter.

I've been paying attention to the throwing issue. Girls with no brothers tend to throw better than girls who have brothers. Dads with boys spend most of their coaching time with the boys. Dads with only girls spend their coaching time with girls. Very few moms teach kids of either gender how to throw. The big exception: willful girls in mixed-gender families that are madly obsessed with participant sports.

My observations aren't scientific, but I'm near certain anyone who carefully measured would come to the same conclusion.

From another father of a daughter.

I read today's blog entry with great pleasure, as almost nothing raises my hackles as quickly as that loaded phrase. My daughter, you see, plays baseball. Not, as she frequently has to assert, softball. Both spring and fall, she has been the only girl in a 150-player Little League division. She started playing at six because she wanted to follow her brother. At her first practice, she simply refused to throw overhand. It wasn't comfortable, it wasn't natural, and she knew perfectly well she could throw the ball the 15 feet to the coach by tossing it underhand. She also wouldn't even try to catch a gentle return toss, just letting it drop and then retrieving it. Two years later, she throws like a gunslinger and delights in egging me on to throw it ever harder when I send it back at her. So what happened?

The same thing that happens to every other Little League kid. Many of the boys I've coached over the past three years didn't have a lot of baseball exposure at home. Their models, if they have any, are big league players they've seen on TV. When they start, most of them throw "like a girl" (the ones not trying to throw sidearm like a 3B barehanding a groundball).

We don't call it that, of course; we tend to call it "the shotput motion," with the elbow tucked under the throwing hand, the step with the throwing-side foot, and a predictable high arc to the throw. Getting proper mechanics to stick takes roughly two seasons, on average, with wide variability sourced in both athletic and listening ability. The same, I'd imagine, applies to throwing a football, another sport from which girls are typically excluded. Small wonder that many women have horrible throwing mechanics.

The gender essentialism assumption -- that girls just can't throw properly -- does raise its head in Little League at times, sometimes with gratifying results. In one game this past spring, an opposing player hit a clean single to my daughter in right field. As the runner approached first, she had already scooped up the ball, but the first base coach sent the runner to second. Rebekah had plenty of time for a mystified double-take before throwing a rope to second base that easily beat the poor runner, who didn't even bother to slide. Sometimes it's a good thing to be underestimated.

However long she keeps playing baseball, she'll spend the rest of her life occasionally smirking at some poor sap whose assumptions got the better of him. Hopefully enough young men will read your piece that there'll be fewer saps around to be caught out.

That's a limited sampling of what's come in; more after a while. Thanks to all.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/throwing-like-an-american-throwing-like-t-rex/262713/