Do Men Throw Better Than Women?
Do Men Throw Better Than Women?
Societally, there seems to be a general conception that men have some in-built ability, some natural, instinctual edge over women when it comes to throwing. Something in their genes that gives them the upper hand, perhaps. In terms of an overhand throw, women are seen to throw with a more vertical approach, similar to how you would throw a dart. Men, however, are seen to throw with a more professional technique which involves a more horizontal movement – the kind you see softballers, cricketers and baseballers use – which involves:
- Stepping with the opposite foot to the throwing hand.
- Rotating the hips, then shoulders.
- Using a whipping motion of the hand and arm to release the ball.
It is certainly true that men can generally throw faster, more powerfully, and with a better technique than women. A faster and more powerful throw has an underlying physical component that favours men because of their larger average body size and muscle mass. Professional males can often throw with a greater speed than females. However, whether or not males are more predisposed to throw with a better technique than females is the topic I am focusing on here, or in other words, whether the "You throw like a girl!" insult has any scientific basis. I propose, that instead of the disparity in technique existing because of an inherent physical or structural difference that favours men, it is instead due to societal conditioning, expectations of gender roles and ensuing self-fulfilling prophecies.
How well can you throw a ball?
Are you a good thrower?
Why Did Humans Develop the Ability to Throw in the First Place?
Humans are from the Order ‘Primates’, a group that differs from other mammals due to our plantigrade feet (stepping on the entire foot to the heel, in contrast with digitigrades like cats who walk on their toes), binocular vision, and increased brain size, but also the following characteristics that are specific adaptions to an arboreal (tree-living) existence:
- Grasping digits (including the opposable thumbs adaption).
- A well-developed clavicle with a flexible rotating shoulder joint.
- Somewhat upright posture.
While primates do not generally walk around on their hind legs, most can sit upright and even walk short distances on them. Humans are also part of a more exclusive genus called ‘Homo’, which also includes our close relatives such as Homo neanderthalensis who are now extinct. An important difference between organisms within this genus and other primates is that we habitually walk upright, freeing our hands to perform other tasks. When you consider the development of a flexible shoulder joint, the ability to grasp things, and an upright posture that frees our arms, you can perhaps understand how humans were able to evolve the ability to throw. The ability to throw greatly increases survival chances: it aids in hunting and even foraging (knocking things out of trees etc), and also as a defensive strategy. Thus, the ability to throw provides an important survival advantage for our ancestors. Intuitively, then, you can see that a combination of speed and accuracy would determine how effective a throw is – whether or not you hit your target would have determined whether you ate dinner or wounded your attacker and escaped.
A popular theory is that our male ancestors were the primary hunter-gatherers. Surely, then, it would make sense that they would have evolved a more effective throwing technique than females…
However, the problem with this theory is that there is no conclusive evidence to state that men were in fact the primary hunter-gatherers. Such is a mere speculative suggestion that can only be proven by actually going back in time and viewing our ancestors’ actions. While our male ancestors did tend to be larger than females, this does not prove outright that males hunted more than females.
Think of lions. Male lions are much larger than their female counterparts, but lionesses are the primary hunters of each pride. Clearly, size isn't always a reliable indication of species behaviour.
Another hole in this theory is in the question of whether or not a throwing technique can be inherited in the first place. I will go into this in further detail below, but the consensus on the heritability of throwing techniques seems to indicate that it is in fact not inherited. Instead, it is taught.
A concept intrinsic to the idea of evolution is that a factor which improves survival will only evolve in the species if it can be inherited. If I become a weight-lifter and become a muscly female Arnold-Schwarzenegger, this will in no way affect my children’s muscle mass. This is because my hypothetically muscular physique only affects my body, but not the DNA in my egg cells, and thus I cannot pass it on. It is therefore unlikely that a throwing technique – something that is developed individually – could be passed on. You may be wondering why then we can inherit the ability to throw in the first place – surely that’s a learned technique too?
Well, the underlying ability to throw is heritable because our ancestors evolved certain physical adaptions which made this possible (grasping digits, a flexible shoulder joint, and an upright posture). It isn’t as correct to say that we inherited the throwing action as it is to say that we inherited the ability, the physical structure, that allowed us to do so. To say that males inherited a particular, superior throwing technique to women requires a difference in physical structure that explains this difference.
Do Men Have a Different Physical Structure That Enables a Better Throwing Technique?
It has been suggested that men actually do have a different physical structure to women that accounts for the supposed difference in throwing techniques.
Amongst humans, men tend to be stronger than women, and larger. There are obvious exceptions as human size exists on a spectrum, however, these general differences in physique definitely seem to contribute to the undeniable differences in power and speed of the throws of men and women on average. However, whether men also have some in-built structural difference that makes them more likely to use a more effective throwing technique (i.e. a horizontal movement versus a vertical one) is another question altogether.
Supposedly, when trying to move your body horizontally to perform an overhand throw, women tend to move their hips and shoulders at the same time, called a ‘one-piece rotation’, whereas a professional will move their hips first and then snap their shoulders around to give the throw more power. Researcher Jerry Thomas from the University of North Texas states that there doesn’t appear to be a structural or muscular reason for the difference, but that he’d “…bet [his] bottom dollar there’s something neurological. It’s the nervous system.”. Now, I’m not sure what such an arbitrary reference to the nervous system could refer to, especially since he goes on to offer an explanation that has nothing to do with neurology but instead with evolution: “Men threw rocks, and, if you could throw well, you got the women… Women did the gathering, and often brought a baby with them. People have speculated that [one-piece] rotation came from women having to throw while holding a baby.”.
Unfortunately, Thomas is basing his explanations on conceptions I mentioned earlier – ie that men were the hunters and women were their foraging, child-rearing counterparts. These conceptions, while being common explanations, have not actually been definitively proven. They arose because these gender expectations fit in with present day’s society, but the bottom line is that; we do not know whether men were the greater hunters or not. Thus such an explanation as the one Thomas used is, at present, baseless and therefore useless.
As for the idea that women tend to use one-piece rotation because we used to hold babies: such an idea is quite absurd once you think about it. Even if we accept that women definitely reared the children and had to hold them up all the time which caused them to have to alter the way they rotated their body, such a change in movement would not have been inherited because it would have only been a temporary behaviour. They were not holding babies for their entire lives, and if they were really hunting, they would have developed their technique before they had children. And why would they have brought their babies along? Furthermore, the change in behaviour is an individual act, and just like the bodybuilding, is thus unlikely to have been inherited.
If there are no clear muscular or structural differences that could account for the differences in technique, why then, do women tend to throw differently to men?
Society's Impact and Self Fulfilling Prophecies
Imagine growing up in a world where people tell you that you’re probably not going to be good at something and that it’s out of your control. Do you think you’d still try to do it?
From an early age, girls and boys learn that they are in distinct genders, with distinct roles and traits. This is learned from parents, family, and most importantly; the media. Whether you want this to happen or not, it is quite inescapable. If girls are being fed imagery of dolls, makeup and clothes, while boys are fed imagery of cars, blocks and sports, it would make sense that this would impact their likes and dislikes, their hobbies and interests, and thus; their abilities.
Maybe one day when a little girl tries to throw a ball, it goes way off target, but their aunt reassures them, “Don’t worry, sweety. It’s not your fault. Boys are just naturally better at it than girls". Maybe this little girl gives up on learning how to throw a ball properly because it’s out of her hands – she’ll never be good at it, it’s a boy thing, so why bother? This girl is now so disinterested in learning this skill that she never practices it apart from occasionally being made to throw in gym class, and this lack of practice means she never improves. Today, she probably couldn’t hit a target to save her life. Obviously this doesn’t happen to every single girl, but it definitely happened to me.
You might have lucked out and had a very supportive upbringing, or maybe you were one of the diligent ones who learned it anyway. But if most girls are told that they’re probably not going to be good at throwing a ball, it’s unsurprising that so many girls are disinterested in learning the skill. This lack of enthusiasm and interest means that they’re going to get less practice, and this means that they can’t improve. This lack of experience makes you even less likely to be good at it anyway, and the idea that you’re going to be bad at it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because now you actually are bad at it.
Thomas states that the disparity in throwing ability starts at age four. Funnily enough, this also reflects an impressionable age where boys and girls have the cognitive capacity to start taking in stereotypes and gender expectations.
This social and psychological explanation is in my opinion a much more compelling explanation for the differences in throwing technique between men and women. Boys grow up playing more sports than girls, while girls are told that they’ll probably never be as good at throwing, so they don’t try. It’s really quite unsurprising, then, that boys have an, on-average, better throwing technique then girls.
But how do we prove this explanation? Well, you’d need to grab a bunch of infants and raise them completely away from public influence and the media, so that any of these expectations and prejudices cannot affect them. Unfortunately we cannot do this, as it would be quite unethical.
However, researchers have found that amongst Aboriginal Australian children, who supposedly grow up in a culture where both men and women learn to throw and hunt from a young age, the gap between throwing technique is significantly smaller (though not equal). This remaining difference might exist because gender expectations are still not completely equal, however.
The "Throw Like a Girl" Myth | MythBusters
Busting a Myth
Mythbusters did a wonderful segment on this very topic which I strongly encourage you to watch. In their study, they got a bunch of men and women of all ages to throw a ball with their least favoured hand. The differences in throwing ability between men and women disintegrated. Any techniques they had learned could not be transferred to their other hand, and both the men and women threw with very similar techniques, and also, surprisingly, speed.
Now, a larger sample size and a repeated study is necessary to gain more conclusive results, however, as I have, Mythbusters conclude that the disparity in throwing technique is most probably due to a social and psychological component, rather than an underlying biological or structural difference.
© 2013 Michaela