Jim Fallows on Throwing Like a Girl

Two things:

1. Natural movements aren’t always innate.

2. We need to stop with the ‘throwing like a girl’ talk.

Jim Fallows:

A surprising number of people think that there is a structural difference between male and female arms or shoulders—in the famous “rotator cuff,” perhaps—that dictates different throwing motions. “It’s in the shoulder joint,” a well-educated woman told me recently. “They’re hinged differently.” Someday researchers may find evidence to support a biological theory of throwing actions. For now, what you’ll hear if you ask an orthopedist, an anatomist, or (especially) the coach of a women’s softball team is that there is no structural reason why men and women should throw in different ways. This point will be obvious to any male who grew up around girls who liked to play baseball and became good at it. It should be obvious on a larger scale this summer, in broadcasts of the Olympic Games. This year, for the first time, women’s fast-pitch softball teams will compete in the Olympics. Although the pitchers in these games will deliver the ball underhand, viewers will see female shortstops, center fielders, catchers, and so on pegging the ball to one another at speeds few male viewers could match.

Even women’s tennis is a constant if indirect reminder that men’s and women’s shoulders are “hinged” the same way. The serving motion in tennis is like a throw—but more difficult, because it must be coordinated with the toss of the tennis ball. The men in professional tennis serve harder than the women, because they are bigger and stronger. But women pros serve harder than most male amateurs have ever done, and the service motion for good players is the same for men and women alike. There is no expectation in college or pro tennis that because of their anatomy female players must “serve like a girl.” “I know many women who can throw a lot harder and better than the normal male,” says Linda Wells, the coach of the highly successful women’s softball team at Arizona State University. “It’s not gender that makes the difference in how they throw.”

Unfortunately, as Linda Wells later describes, young girls are often frozen out of the oral tradition of learning how to throw and there aren’t any good technical manuals to pick up the slack.

The challenge, I suppose, is like that of writing a manual on how to ride a bike, or how to kiss. Indeed, the most useful description I’ve found of the mechanics of throwing comes from a man whose specialty is another sport: Vic Braden made his name as a tennis coach, but he has attempted to analyze the physics of a wide variety of sports so that they all will be easier to teach.Braden says that an effective throw involves connecting a series of links in a “kinetic chain.” The kinetic chain, which is Braden’s tool for analyzing most sporting activity, operates on a principle like that of crack-the-whip. Momentum builds up in one part of the body. When that part is suddenly stopped, as the end of the “whip” is stopped in crack-the-whip, the momentum is transferred to and concentrated in the next link in the chain. A good throw uses six links of chain, Braden says. The first two links involve the lower body, from feet to waist. The first motion of a throw (after the body has been rotated away from the target) is to rotate the legs and hips back in the direction of the throw, building up momentum as large muscles move body mass. Then those links stop—a pitcher stops turning his hips once they face the plate—and the momentum is transferred to the next link. This is the torso, from waist to shoulders, and since its mass is less than that of the legs, momentum makes it rotate faster than the hips and legs did. The torso stops when it is facing the plate, and the momentum is transferred to the next link—the upper arm. As the upper arm comes past the head, it stops moving forward, and the momentum goes into the final links—the forearm and wrist, which snap forward at tremendous speed.

So why don’t girls learn how to do this?

The crucial factor is not that males and females are put together differently but that they typically spend their early years in different ways. Little boys often learn to throw without noticing that they are throwing. Little girls are more rarely in environments that encourage them in the same way. A boy who wonders why a girl throws the way she does is like a Frenchman who wonders why so many Americans speak French “with an accent.””For young boys it is culturally acceptable and politically correct to develop these skills,” says Linda Wells, of the Arizona State softball team. “They are mentored and networked. Usually girls are not coached at all, or are coached by Mom—or if it’s by Dad, he may not be much of an athlete. Girls are often stuck with the bottom of the male talent pool as examples. I would argue that rather than learning to ‘throw like a girl,’ they learn to throw like poor male athletes. I say that a bad throw is ‘throwing like an old man.’ This is not gender, it’s acculturation.”

[Jim Fallows @ the Atlantic via Angela Vasquez-Giroux @ the Idler]

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