We’ve all read some of the discussions about differences in men’s and women’s brains, but the case of throwing overhand offers a cautionary tale about thinking we’ve found something inherent in being male or female. The danger is that we accept too quickly observed differences without digging a bit deeper into their variation and potential causes. In the United States, most of our readers will have run across the idea that women throw like, well, … girls.
In fact, the empirical gulf between average throwing ability in men and women is huge (just as it is symbolically important), dwarfing virtually any other measurable difference between the sexes, even things like aggression, frequency of masturbation, attitudes towards casual sex, and spatial abilities on paper-and-pencil tests.
Janet Shibley Hyde, one of the leading proponents of the ‘gender similarity hypothesis,’ concedes that there are some marked differences between men and women, singling out throwing ability as the most pronounced among them (2007: 260; see also 2005).
Thomas and French (1985: 266 & 276), in a meta-analysis reviewing all available research on sex differences in throwing, found that the gap stood at 1.5 standard deviations at three years of age, and increased over time, widening to between three and five standard deviations by puberty. By contrast, the much discussed ‘math gap’ between boys and girls, in Hyde’s meta-analysis of 48 studies, was a +0.08 on problem solving and +0.16 on national math tests (Hyde 2005; 2007: 260). In other words, if you’re impressed by the gap in math scores (I’m not), you should be awestruck at the gap in throwing ability.
I just finished writing the draft of a potential book chapter on throwing ability for a volume Prof. Robert Sands is putting together on biocultural approaches to sports. The chapter steps off from my observations that most of my colleagues in Brazil, men included, ‘threw like girls’ even though they were incredibly talented athletes, some of the most astounding capoeira practitioners I have ever seen. The book chapter is linked to some other work I’ve been doing, so I’ve got notes enough for several chapters – I thought I might put some up on Neuroanthropology.net because they were especially related to some of the things we focus on here.
This is probably going to wind up being at least two or three posts, so in this one, I’m only going to discuss the neurological issues surrounding throwing and the likely mechanical or technical issues that make (some) women (and Brazilian men and others) ‘throw like girls.’ At least one more post is going to deal with physiological plasticity beyond the nervous system, such as the way throwing remodels the shoulder, to explore anatomical plasticity more broadly, but you’re going to have to come back later for that one…
Do all women throw like girls?
The book chapter I just submitted explores the ineptness of Brazilian men at throwing in light of the late phenomenologist and philosopher Iris Marion Young’s (1990) remarkable paper on ‘throwing like a girl.’ Young suggests that the inept throwing motion of girls arises from three signature feminine motor traits: self-consciousness, inhibition, and kinetic dis-unity of the body (although she uses more sophisticated terminology to describe each). If you’re interested in Young’s discussion and related pieces, you may want to look at a book review here and her obituary here.
I have a number of issues with Young’s analysis, although I think her work is incredibly important, a landmark piece for anyone interested in phenomenological approaches to motor learning or embodiment. When I teach about phenomenology in anthropology, it’s one of the first pieces I turn to for its clarity and persuasiveness. I may come back to some of my other objections at a later date, but here I want to specifically focus on the neural and technical dimensions of skill acquisition in throwing to offer a more neuroanthropological perspective on ‘throwing like a girl,’ one that doesn’t argue this throwing style arises from existential or essential traits of being feminine.
The reason for this is simple: since the passage of the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act (commonly known as ‘Title IX’) – and even before, for that matter – many women have learned how to throw very hard, most without significantly jeopardizing their femininity (that’s sarcastic understatement, in case it doesn’t come through in print). (Young also wrote about Title IX in Young , but she came to different conclusions than I do.)
For example, Olympic softball pitcher Jennie Finch regularly struck out any Major League Baseball batter brave (or fool) enough to take the ‘Jennie Challenge’ on This Week in Baseball (here’s a You Tube video from FSN Sport Science testing whether it’s harder to hit a baseball or a Jennie Finch pitch; Finch broke the force plate with her pitching before she dusted some poor prospect from the Arizona Diamondbacks.). And although they do not reach the highest velocities found in men’s throwing, elite female athletes reach velocities far in excess of average men, especially when we take into account their smaller size, shorter arms, and lighter musculature.
(For more on softball pitching see, Why Is It So Hard to Hit a Softball? Rob Neyer in Slate Magazine.)
An ironic footnote to the question of whether or not women can throw is the case of Virne Beatrice ‘Jackie’ Mitchell Gilbert (see the entry for Ms. Mitchell at the Baseball Hall of Fame) who pitched for the Chattanooga Lookouts Class AA minor league baseball team. In a 1931 exhibition game against the New York Yankees, she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back (although the Lookouts went on to lose 14-4), only to have the commissioner of baseball nullify her contract the next day because baseball was ‘too strenuous’ for women. Just this past year, a 16-year-old Japanese knuckleballer, Eri Yoshida, was signed by the Kobe 9 Cruise professional team.
If women can acquire the skill to throw overhand (witness Olympic softball fielders), then the question should be, instead of why do girls ‘throw like girls,’ why do some girls throw so poorly if they are capable of throwing well? Most students of the biomechanics of throwing would argue that it’s a technical problem: women don’t throw properly and the technique that they put together is hampered by a number of kinaesthetic problems, some of which obscure avenues of further skill development.
Learning to throw
In a series of research papers, Mary Ann Roberton explored how children learned to throw. Roberton broke with the influential model of developmental stages in learning to throw that had been proposed first by Monica Wild (1938), and later refined by other researchers. These stage models posited the existence of predictable levels of development from one type of technique to the next.
Wild had used photographs to distinguish among four different stages in the unfolding of skilful throwing. The model of stages, like Piaget’s or Freud’s more general models of cognitive and psychological stages of development, helped to illuminate the progressive nature of skill acquisition; in fact, virtually all novice throwers ‘throw like girls,’ but the more skilful ones go on to develop more sophisticated techniques. (When I say ‘virtually all,’ I simply mean that there are other ways to be incompetent; for example, the novice ‘wild pitcher’ may be overly uninhibited, flailing explosively and launching the ball in an almost random direction.)
The downside of a ‘stage’ model like Wild’s, however, is that it tends to artificially homogenize development and, at the same time, suggest that a contingent process was much more orderly than it might actually be (which was an empirical question concealed by theoretical assumption). If a person did not progress beyond a particular stage, they suffered from arrested development (my phrase, in this case)
Developmental systems theorists like Esther Thelen (see Thelen 1995; Thelen and Smith 1996) have pointed out this general problem with staged developmental models, like those proposed by Piaget; in fact, children often take very different developmental trajectories even in the emergence of basic skills like reaching or walking. Children must experiment with their own bodies and develop different facets of a whole body skill.
The fact that we eventually all learn how to walk leads some theorists to assume that the ability to walk, which emerges from almost all children’s motor learning but not in the same way, is instead pre-programmed into the person. Without a more exacting analysis, it simply appeared that women who ‘threw like girls’ had a kind of derailleur of kinaesthetic development that hampered them or that they were simply evidencing an innate feminine style of movement which could develop no further.
Roberton suggested, based on more elaborate analysis of kinematic data, that throwing ability didn’t demonstrate the clear succession of developmental stages, but rather advanced unevenly in different parts of the body (1977, 1978; Roberton and Halverson 1984; Roberton and Konczak 2001). Roberton recognized that a throw was assembled from different kinaesthetic elements, and that one part could grow more sophisticated while another part lagged behind.
For example, a child might improve his or her arm motion without necessarily developing contralateral (opposite foot) stepping. Even though the physical experimentation was likely not fully conscious (although it might be subject to coaching or self examination), children were in fact experimenting at the envelope of their kinaesthetic ability, which often produced unstable techniques, liable to vary without much control.
Roberton’s approach to throwing ability does not contradict Young’s perspective directly, but it does open up a much more subtle way of approaching the nature and origins of ineptness. Specifically, we can ask where in the throwing motion does female inferiority arise: do women actually do the same motion with less force, or do they do a different motion, as the idea ‘throwing like a girl’ suggests? (I’m not going to deal here with the question of accuracy, but will instead focus on force; if you’re interested in the ‘spatial accuracy’ issue, see especially Duffy, Ericsson and Baluch’s  analysis of dart throwing, where biomechanical ability to generate force is less of an issue.)
The brain assembling the motion
Throwing is a physically demanding task, placing enormous strains on the body at elite levels, as I will discuss in a later post, but it is also a neurologically difficult task in several respects. The first, and most basic challenge is simply the complex motor management of all the muscles and joints in the body that contribute to the throw.
An expert throw is a kinaesthetic cascade that begins with a windup in which the body, counter-intuitively, swivels in the opposite direction from the eventual throw, turns the shoulder on the throwing arm back, and lifts the opposite foot to pivot backwards. The throw progresses to a forward step on the contralateral foot while the arm actually cocks in the opposite direction. Finally, during the acceleration phase, the momentum generated successively by the step, rotation of the pelvis, rotation of the torso, twisting of the shoulder, elbow straightening and wrist extending, must be transferred between body parts, stabilized, and then, suddenly, once the ball is released, decelerated and dissipated in the follow-through.
In summary, the brain and nervous system have to orchestrate a complex sequence of movements in a very short period of time; the whole movement is only around 2 seconds in a major league pitcher, and 1.5 seconds of this is the preparation, before the ball is accelerated to release.
Some recent research highlights how other primates also throw food, for example (see Westergaard et al. 2000), but humans significantly out-perform other primates in overhand throwing. There’s lots of nice things to say about chimpanzee brains, but don’t expect a chimp to be bowling yorkers in cricket or pitching knuckle-balls unless they make some remarkable leaps in control of their limbs.
We tend to think of our neurological difference from other primates as being primarily cognitive; we expect to be better than chimps at chess, math problems, and self-analysis. But we also have significant motor differences from our hairy brethren; the fact that we can train up our nervous system, and have the behavioural and social supports to channel our extended neuroplasticity, makes it possible to develop specialized motor abilities that other apes cannot challenge. Only a human has the brain, as well as the society and technology, to devote hours of adolescence to perfecting skateboard tricks that have no bearing on our survival chances.
When a child – boy or girl – first learns to throw, he or she is confronted by this terribly difficult coordination task, one that requires counter-intuitive motions and precise sequencing of high-speed motions fused into an integrated motor synthesis. Expert technique is quite simply impossible for a beginner to accomplish because the novice has to explore the movements, as it were, from the inside, learning about the capacities of the body and the dynamic links one can make between its parts through experience. Although this process is largely non-conscious, it can be affected by conscious processes such as coaching, self-coaching, and conceptually motivated training techniques (see Downey 2008).
Degrees of freedom as a problem
Russian anatomist Nicholai Bernstein (1996) referred to this coordination problem as an overabundance of ‘degrees of freedom.’ The human body has so many joints that it’s difficult to reliably coordinate their movement; not only do they have too much freedom, but we now know that muscle fibres themselves don’t even respond identically each time to a uniform nerve impulse.
Kari M. Newell (1996:413), drawing on Bernstein, argues that all novices contend with the ‘degrees of freedom’ problem by ‘freezing’ most of the body:
Because the basic problem of coordination is the harnessing of the extreme abundance of degrees of freedom of the system, the first stage in learning is characterized by coordination solutions that reduce the number of degrees of freedom at the periphery to a minimum. The freezing strategy effectively reduces the number of biomechanical degrees that need to be coordinated and controlled.
‘Throwing like a girl’ is not so much a defective technique as it is a normal and even effective strategy for dealing with body management when a person is not experienced coordinating certain sorts of complex whole-body movements. Even experts often engage in ‘girl-like’ throwing when asked to throw for accuracy, at short range, in an activity like darts or many classic carnival games. That is, a person’s strategy for throwing can shift depending upon the demands made of the activity.
As Roberton’s work has suggested, novice technique itself can be unstable, coming together in different kinaesthetic configurations depending upon the task environment. In other words, get a Little Leaguer trying to throw quickly in an unfamiliar position, and he (or she) is liable to lose control of parts of the motion or revert to a less sophisticated technique.
While the brain has to learn how to assemble the kinetic chain of expert overhand throwing, the experience of throwing has to reorganize, recruit, and even generate the neural resources it needs for the task. Improvement in the neurological control over muscles, for example, can lead to strength gain, even in the absence of changes in the cross-section of the muscles, as Yue and Cole (1992) showed by having subjects visualize doing hand exercises.
Research on skill acquisition suggests that training, over time, leads to reorganization of the primary motor cortex, changing its functional organization and excitability (see, for example, Adkins et al. 2006; Karni et al. 1996; Kelly and Garavan 2005; Rosenkranz, Kacar, and Rothwell 2007). Klein and colleagues (2004), for example, found in rats that the late stages of skill learning involved motor map reorganization and the generation of new synapses. They conclude that the brain changes involved in skilful action take significant time and repetition to occur.
As they write: “The results demonstrate the temporally dynamic nature of learning-dependent plasticity that occurs within a single brain region during training on a single task and show how different phases of learning may be supported by different forms of plasticity” (ibid.: 632).
Learning to throw overhand remodels neural resources to make certain forms of coordination possible; from this perspective, the ineptness of some women (and men) at throwing overhand needs less study and explanation than the transformation of bodies and brains that leads to elite athletes’ performance. Ineptness is the normal outcome of not allocating neural resources to a task.
So why do they throw differently?
For a more complete discussion of that question, you’re going to have to come back for another post. This is getting a bit long, but I want to wrap this part up. I’ll give you a bit of the punch line right now, but there will be more on this by the end of the week.
In a forthcoming article in Behavioural Brain Research, Shoshi Dorfberger, Esther Adi-Japha, and Avi Karni (forthcoming) suggest one possible answer to the question of why women throw differently: that male-female differences in performance on motor tasks may arise, not from innate ability, but from a more efficient learning process in men after puberty. They found that male subjects, post-adolescence, benefited more from training, especially after having some time to consolidate learning. Their discussion reports:
Taken together, our results therefore suggest that given a similar amount of motor training, males benefited more than females in the performance of the trained movement sequences. This effect was age dependent with the male advantage becoming significant in the post-puberty group, the 17-year-old participants. Moreover, males from all three age-groups were found to evolve significantly larger delayed (consolidation phase/between session) gains, and these were well retained for 6 weeks. Thus, the male advantage was most significant in the post-training motor consolidation and retention phase; the current results suggest therefore that males, especially after adolescence, may have an advantage, over females, in procedural memory consolidation.
There are some caveats to this research, which I’ll discuss in the later postings, but in general, I like their explanatory approach. Rather than just looking at the tail end of what might be a complex causal chain and saying, ‘Girls throw like girls because of girl-ness,’ they try to sort out more specifically what the differences might be.
To me, the failure to demand this specificity of causation is at the heart of essentialist approaches to answering problems, whether they be genetic essentialist or endocrine essentialist or phenomenological essentialist. Take a complex causal change and just ignore it with some simplistic gloss that fits the categories you already believe.
For example, an essentialist perspective might argue that men and women throw definitely because of ‘hormones,’ and then just drop the question, without explaining which endocrine processes affect what part of the throw or how. Before some commenter writes — ‘you believe there’s no difference between men and women!’ (I don’t) — I’m not against acknowledging differences between men and women; in fact, I think we should be exploring them more carefully. But the resulting story is likely to be a bit more intricate than an essentialist explanations that ‘boyness’ or ‘girlness’ causes something.
To me ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are squishy, culturally-specific gender descriptors applied indiscriminately to biological, ideological, behavioural, cultural, and other traits. To treat either descriptor of a pattern as the cause of that pattern begs all the crucial questions.
For example, in the case of throwing, we know that some of the gap between men’ and women’s average throwing velocity likely arises from limb length and muscle mass. Jennie Finch has a leverage advantage because she’s around six feet tall, and you will often find that baseball pitchers are taller than average. The averages of size and limb length clearly differ between men and women, although there’s a fair bit of overlap, and we have a pretty good understanding of some of the endocrine causes of these overall size differences between the sexes. If you control for size and muscle mass, according to researchers like van den Tillaar and Ettema (2004), you have no residual effect of a person’s sex on throwing velocity. That’s intriguing, but we still have this yawning gap in technique, not just velocity, to study and explain.
If the difference in motor learning described by Dorfberger, Adi-Japha, and Karni were the only significant cause of male-female differences in throwing, we would also expect to see it across all skilled motor activity, not just throwing. As a sometime dance instructor, I can definitively say that men do not always have an obvious advantage over women when it comes to learning motor techniques, even whole-body motor techniques.
Clearly, men and women are different, but how they are distinct, and the developmental processes that actually lead to the manifest divergences, are what I find more interesting. The error of essentialism is not saying that there are differences between men and women, but in being content with flimsy non-explanations, offering stereotypes rather than compelling accounts of the origins of patterns.
Don’t worry, this is just the intro. I want to get into the details more, including research on throwing techniques in other cultures and some of the evolutionary arguments. More soon, and I’ll post links to the successive chapters here in updates as I go…
Adkins, DeAnna L., Jeffery Boychuk, Michael S. Remple, and Jeffrey A. Kleim. 2006. “Motor training induces experience-specific patterns of plasticity across motor cortex and spinal cord.” Journal of Applied Physiology 101(6): 1776-1782. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00515.2006. (pdf available here)
Bernstein, Nicholai A. 1996. “On Dexterity and Development.” Translated by Mark L. Latash. In Dexterity and Its Development. Edited by Mark L. Latash and Michael T. Turvey. Pp. 1-244. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Calvin, William H. 1983. “A stone’s throw and its launch window: timing and precision and its implications for language and hominid brains.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 104:121-135. (online version at Calvin’s homepage)
_____. 1991. “Did Throwing Stones Lead to Bigger Brains?” In The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain. Bantam. (Chapter online here)
Dorfberger, Shoshi, Esther Adi-Japha, and Avi Karni. Forthcoming. “Sex differences in motor performance and motor learning in children and adolescents: An increasing male advantage in motor learning and consolidation phase gains.” Behavioural Brain Research. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2008.10.033. (abstract)
Downey, Greg. 2008. “Scaffolding Imitation in Capoeira: Physical Education and Enculturation in an Afro-Brazilian Art.” American Anthropologist 110(2): 204-213. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00026.x (abstract)
Duffy, Linda J., K. Anders Ericsson, and Bahman Baluch. 2007. “In Search of the Loci for Sex Differences in Throwing: The Effects of Physical Size and Differential Recruitment Rates on High Level Dart Performance.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 78(1): 71-78. (abstract)
Hyde, Janet Shibley. 2005. “The Gender Similarity Hypothesis.” American Psychologist 60(6): 581-592. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581 (pdf of article)
_____. 2007. “New Directions in the Study of Gender Similarities and Differences.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 16(5): 259-263. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00516.x (abstract)
Karni, Avi, Gundela Meyer, Christine Rey-Hipolito, Peter Jezzard, Michelle M. Adams, Robert Turner, and Leslie G. Ungerleider. 1998. “The acquisition of skilled motor performance: fast and slow experience-driven changes in primary motor cortex.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 95(3): 861–868, 1998. (abstract with link to pdf)
Kelly, A. M. Clare, and Hugh Garavan. 2005. “Human Functional Neuroimaging of Brain Changes Associated with Practice.” Cerebral Cortex 15(8): 1089-1102. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhi005. (abstract, pdf of article)
Kleim, Jeffrey A., Theresa M. Hogg, Penny M. VandenBerg, Natalie R. Cooper, Rochelle Bruneau, and Michael Remple. 2004. “Cortical synaptogenesis and motor map reorganization occur during late, but not early, phase of motor skill learning.” Journal of Neuroscience 24(3): 628–633. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3440-03.2004 (abstract, pdf of article)
Newell, Kari M. 1996. “Change in Movement and Skill: Learning, Retention and Transfer.” In Dexterity and Its Development. Edited by Mark L. Latash and Michael T. Turvey. Pp. 393-430. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Roberton, Mary Ann. 1977. “Stability of stage categorizations across trials: Implications for the ‘stage theory’ of overarm throw development.” Journal of Human Movement Studies 3: 49-59.
_____. 1978. “Longitudinal evidence for developmental stages in the forceful overarm throw.” Journal of Human Movement Studies 4: 167-175.
Roberton, Mary Ann, and Lolas E. Halverson. 1984. Developing Children: Their Changing Movement. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.
Roberton, Mary Ann, and Jürgen Konczak. 2001. “Predicting Children’s Overarm Throw Ball Velocities from Their Developmental Levels in Throwing.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 72(2): 91-103.
Rosenkranz, Karin, Aleksandra Kacar, and John C. Rothwell. 2007. “Differential Modulation of Motor Cortical Plasticity and Excitability in Early and Late Phases of Human Motor Learning.” Journal of Neuroscience 27(44): 12058 –12066. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2663-07.2007 (abstract, pdf of article)
Thelen, Esther. 1995. “Motor Development: A New Synthesis.” American Psychologist 50 (2): 79-95. (abstract)
Thelen, Esther, and Linda B. Smith. 1996. A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.
Thomas, Jerry R., and Karen E. French. 1985. “Gender differences across age in motor performance: A meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 98: 260-282.
van den Tillaar, Roland, and Gertjan Ettema. 2004. “Effect of body size and gender in overarm throwing performance.” European Journal of Applied Physiology 91(4): 413-418. doi:10.1007/s00421-003-1019-8 (abstract)
Westergaard, G. C., C. Liv, M. K. Haynie and S. J. Suomi. 2000. “A comparative study of aimed throwing by monkeys and humans.” Neuropsychologia 38: 1511–1517. (available here as pdf download)
Wild, Monica. 1938. “The behavior pattern of throwing and some observations concerning its course of development in children.” Research Quarterly 9: 20-24.
Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. (Google book link)
_____. 1998. “‘Throwing Like a Girl’: Twenty Years Later.” In Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader. Donn Welton, ed. Pp. 286-290. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Yue, Guang, and Kelly J. Cole. 1992. “Strength Increases from the Motor Program: Comparison of Training with Maximal Voluntary and Imagined Muscle Contractions.” Journal of Neuropsychology 67(5): 1114-1123. (abstract, pdf behind subscription wall — sad, it’s a great piece.)
29 thoughts on “Throwing like a girl(‘s brain)”
Wow. An amazing post.
Will attempt to read your blog whenever possible.
Interesting. As someone researching injuries amongst girl and women football (soccer) players. I wonder if there is also “kicking like and girl’s brain”??? Iris Marion Yong was arguing something very sophisticated, ie interactions between physiology, psychology and the social/cultural. I would add to this technology, given the injury potential in artificial pitches and soccer boots that are designed for boys/men and not for girls/women.
Very interesting and informative. In observing my son, it seems that “throwing like a girl” involves flicking one’s wrist as opposed to throwing with a full follow-through (I apologize if these descriptions are specific enough). In any event, is there any way to teach him to throw “like a boy”?
Hi Larry W —
I think if you look closely at Roberton’s data, you probably would come to the following bits of practical advice: 1) if your son (or daughter) throws ‘like a girl,’ don’t worry. It’s normal at an early stage and to get better, the most important thing is to keep throwing, so too much angst might be a detriment.
2) Although it can be coached, some of the development is also organic and needs time to build up; in other words, don’t try to teach too much at once as the parts of the throw will come together over time.
3) Looking at Roberton’s different trajectories, it looks to me like you might want to focus first at getting more of the arm involved and rotating the torso at the same time. That is, see if you can show, through modeling and talking to them, how to pull the arm back further and rotate the torso so that the child throws with the upper body. It looks to me like stepping tends to come later, and even if the child gets it wrong, stepping with the same-side rather than the contra-lateral foot, that’s a possible stage moving toward expertise.
4) And this has nothing to do with Roberton. You probably want to practice by playing around with something softer than a baseball. I can just imagine how de-motivating it would be to get beaned in the face in the backyard when Dad throws it back.
Just go kind of easy with your son. One thing we find with young people who throw too much, principally Little League pitchers, is that they can get ‘Little Leaguer shoulder,’ a painful condition in which the growth plate actually tears away from the shoulder. For the future major leaguer, throwing early matters, and throwing a lot, but it’s a delicate balancing act as the shoulder grows. The bottom line of Roberton’s work is that most kids, exposed to the right influences and motivated to learn, eventually sort it out. In contrast, without the right environment (motivation to learn like wanting to be on the team, backyard practice, older kids who throw well to watch, a dad who knows how), it’s not a ‘natural’ motion.
Thank you, Greg – or should I say Professor Downey,
After “googling” you, I must say that I sincerely appreciate the time and effort you have given to this subject and to my reply in particular.
My son is 15 and I admit that I have spent little time playing ball with him as his primary interests are music and theater. As such, I have not tried to “teach” him how to throw, while this has been a concern of mine for some time. When he and his cousin were playing ball yesterday, it prompted me to try to have him model my throwing style to see if I could change his approach – with little success. I will see if I can have him rotate his body, but I’m trying to see how I can have him “not” flick his wrist, which, to me, is the most obvious movement that distinguishes the difference between “throwing like a girl” or a boy.
This brings me to another, perhaps more controversial, question. The statement “throwing like a girl” is generally used when making fun of boys, and often used mockingly about gay men. First of all, does the research indicate that there is a something that can be described as “throwing like a girl” so that statistically one can conclude that there is indeed such a phenomenon? If so, and to the extent that some ascribe a hormonal element, is it possible that gay men would be more likely to “throw like a girl” than heterosexuals? I apologize if my lack of knowledge in this area seems to suggest a sexist conclusion. In fact, I’m a life-long “lefty” and have fought in political campaigns on behalf of liberal causes since 1970, but I know that you, too, acknowledge that there are differences between males and females. On the other hand, if “practice” makes a difference, gays or others (like my son) who may have less interest in playing ball, may merely have not “practiced” throwing enough to develop whatever motor skills necessary to change their throwing habits. For what it’s worth, my son has been diagnosed as a “high functioning autistic” child and has deficiencies in fine and gross motor skills resulting in very poor handwriting and an irregular running pattern.
Again Greg, I appreciate any time you have to devote to this issue, and welcome any and all feedback which could only serve to educate me further.
Hi Larry W.
Fascinating to hear about your experience. I suspect that your experience with your son’s relative inability to throw — albeit more extreme due to his issues with fine and gross motor skills — is probably replicated around the US. In some demographics and regions, young boys are playing much less baseball, either engaging in virtually no organized sport or playing soccer or other non-throwing sports. We know that activity rates have dropped, so we could logically conclude that there is likely some effect on tests of basic fitness and physical skills.
I haven’t taken the time to check on the results of things like the President’s Physical Fitness Test in the US, but it would not surprise me at all if some of the ‘manual dexterity’ tests, many based on sports and ball games like baseball, are showing decreasing scores because kids simply aren’t getting the same experience. Quite simply, some generations can recall innumerable hours of basic practice in physical activities, playing pick-up baseball or football or soccer outdoors.
If your son has a degree of autism, learning through modeling could be difficult for him as one characteristic of autism is problems with imitation. Some neurological theorists have even suggested that an abnormal mirror system in autistic individuals may be part of the more global difference in the way their brains handle social interaction. I wish I knew more about autism to tell you specifically — I worked as a volunteer aide in high school — but I can’t tell you more about any motor issues for high functioning autistic individuals. If there’s a mirror system problem, this could make skill acquisition tricky, but so would a problem with shared attention, social interaction, motivation, or a host of other factors that might make learning to throw proficiently really hard.
But the bigger question you ask is about the possible links between hormones, sex, or sexuality, and throwing technique. The simple answer to your question is ‘no, not a link, and you’ll have to read my next post on throwing to get the full story.’ The short answer is that you can’t tell whether a man is gay by how he throws a baseball (as some former MLB players who have come out after leaving the sport suggest). Yes, if a gay man has less interest in throwing sports (or if a straight man has little interest in sport, or if a girl has little interest in these sports), he will likely not get the practice to learn to coordinate the complex movements involved in throwing. But there’s no plausible argument that links homosexuality through innate biological mechanisms to a signature lack in throwing ability; there’s plenty of social, psychological and gender-related explanations, but they don’t involve an innate mechanism linking sexual desire for other men with poor throwing technique, as if sexual desire was linked to shoulder anatomy or some sort of hormonal regulation of the arm’s biomechanics.
But you’re going to have to check back for the next post because is more interesting than just ‘no, not a link,’ because parts of the ‘throwing like a girl’ story that seem to hold out in ways that might undermine easy explanations, from either innatist or social constructionist perspectives on male-female differences. For example, boys throw better than girls in Germany, just as they do in the US. BUT German boys throw like American girls when you actually look at the biomechanical techniques; the disparity between boys and girls is preserved even though German youth doesn’t include apprenticeship in throwing techniques.
I don’t think I’d accuse you of ‘sexism.’ Rather, there’s a tendency in the West to see male-female differences, and gay-straight differences, as either ‘born that way’ innate or ‘complete social fabrication’ constructions when they’re likely a lot trickier to explain. That is, there may in fact be some male-female differences that, compounding with social factors, help to produce a pattern of throwing skill. But there’s no innate ability to throw that comes with a Y chromosome and sexual desire for women.
In the book chapter I wrote on the subject, I point out the case of my Brazilian colleagues who were extraordinary athletes (and, at least publicly, quite assertively heterosexual) but threw worse than any woman I have ever encountered in company softball games in the US. In your son’s case, irregular running and poor handwriting suggest that the throwing technique is probably part of this motor pattern.
You describe the wrist flick as the most obvious part of “throwing like a girl”, but obviousness is in the mind of the beholder.
Speaking as someone who’s been studying Tai Chi for a while, it takes time to learn to see that the coordination in the torso is crucial to the quality of movement for the arms and legs.
I don’t have specific advice for teaching throwing, but his wrist flick might be the movement which makes sense considering what your son is doing with the rest of his body.
I recommend experimenting with throwing the way he does, and seeing whether that gives you some information.
I am a woman, a dancer and mover who spent all her life throwing ‘like a girl’ (and running like one, too). I am currently doing research on the role of movement in the construction of identity (although rooted in actor/performance training rather than sport, but then human movement is human movement). Anyway, my point was: I learnt to throw last week. Taught by one of my fellow MA Movement students I learnt, in about 30 minutes, to throw with ease, accuracy and power. It was one of the most liberating moments of my life, and I could not get the grin off my face. At the same time I felt exasperated that noone had shown me this before.
I am in the depths of Young and co, and discussions of how body image/sense of self and movement may affect one another. I will be following your thoughts with interest.
Thanks for your post. I am interested in the follow up, particularly cross-cultural info. Is there any forthcoming?
I have an older sister (17 month difference). She was bigger and stronger than me until I was about 10 years old. Because of the fact that I “had” to learn how to throw a baseball, she did too. I cannot remember a time when there was ANYTHING that I could do physically that she couldn’t. She played tackle football with the boys all the way through high school and she was FEARED for how hard she could hit. Granted, she is much taller than most women (6′) and has made efforts to become stronger, but I think its evidence of exactly what this article was driving at. It is far more about external gender conditioning than actual ability.
Girls are supposed to be skinny and weak. Pick up any fashion magazine and look at our value set concerning that. Girls who are strong are considered “butch” and often ostracized for even competing with boys. My sister was constantly ridiculed because of her superiority, something that has no positive place in “development.” She was better, and was punished for it.
Look up “Ball girl makes amazing grab” on Youtube if you think girls can’t jump (another misconception).
Excellent article, I would buy any book you write on the topic.
actually, that video is fake, sorry about that.
Hi – I am a human movement student looking at getting girls involved in cricket – this is great stuff and supports supporting involvement for girls in sport. But I need part 2?!!!!!
This is amazing work; I’m a coach who teaches girls (high school) Ultimate — throwing a flying disc. Any further readings on this topic would be helpful here — as would links to the rest of the series.
Greg, that’s a great article. Please let me know where to find part 2. You created so much anticipation in this first part and it seems it’s not complete without the promised 2nd part. Is it on http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology? Thanks anyway!
Reblogged this on iheariseeilearn.
It’s evolution. Men had to hunt and throw spears in order for them to survive. Men evolved to have a powerful overhand throw.
This is not rocket science, if all good throwing ball players could start girls out proper this discussion would not be happening, everyone is making this so difficult when it’s simple really