I've always been fascinated by the mechanics of throwing a baseball.
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 men are more predisposed to throw with a better technique than women 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 a combination of three factors:
- Societal conditioning
- Gender role expectations
- Ensuing self-fulfilling prophecies
How well can you throw a ball?
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 – i.e., 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 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 are 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
13 on October 20, 2016:
u r very smart
BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on February 02, 2014:
Just thinking. To my knowledge when the Romans invaded Britain at least two British tribes were led by women. Boudica who you may have heard of led a rebellion .
The biggest tribe was the Brigantes led by their warrior queen Cartimandua.
These were warriors in every sense. The Ancient Britains would not have been led by a figurehead.
Danida from London on February 02, 2014:
@michaelajayne: Sure, you can email me some articles, I'd be interested in them. I do believe that men have evolved to be stronger (they can build more muscle and grow to be taller and stronger) but I would like to see what other people think about this.
Michaela (author) from Australia on February 01, 2014:
@BigBlue54: YAY TO YOUR UNIVERSITY :)
BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on February 01, 2014:
When I did my degree at university one of the first things mentioned was not to follow the old idea of man the hunter and woman the gatherer.
Michaela (author) from Australia on February 01, 2014:
@Danida: You say that 'that's just how nature created humans', that 'men went out to hunt and women cooked and cared for the children' but that is actually a common misconception that is being challenged now. There is no conclusive evidence to state with absolute conviction, that there was a gender-based division of labour in prehistoric times. I can email you some articles about it if you like? It's quite fascinating! But until palaeontologists find some conclusive evidence, it is meaningless to base current theories of gender on an uncertain concept.
Danida from London on February 01, 2014:
This is very interesting! I personally think that men are predisposed to being generally faster, stronger and more efficient in sports than women. That's just how nature created humans. Men went out to hunt and women cooked and cared for the children.
However, we are the same species after all, so women can train and train to be just as good as men.
Michaela (author) from Australia on January 30, 2014:
@BigBlue54: Exactly, a correct throwing technique can be learned through practice! Men generally have a better throwing technique, but this is only because they have, generally, experienced more practice with throwing than women.
BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on January 29, 2014:
I have notice that men tend to throw by extending their arm and using it like they are throwing a spear. Whereas women tend to push throw. Watching the women's cricket on the TV news they throw the same way a man does. So yes it is a learnt technique.
Michaela (author) from Australia on January 29, 2014:
@DreamerMeg: The link you provided did not give access to the full study so I could only read the abstract, but from the available information, it can be surmised that (as you say) men and women have some anatomical shoulder differences such as a differently shaped glenoid gland. But, there is no evidence to indicate that this would lead to a difference in throwing technique, and such information is certainly not provided in that abstract.
@Sandcastles: I'm glad! Good luck with your story :)!
@BigBlue: Thank you for that article! It was a fascinating read. I enjoyed the discussion about how ambiguous and open-ended the study of fossils and anatomy is. Evidently it's important to be objective and not let biases influence your theories. What a wonderful approach to scientific study to promote!
@Word55: Though it is true that men generally have more muscle mass than women, having more muscle would only increase the speed of the throw, not improve the technique, which is what my article focuses on. Furthermore, I don't actually think men have been found to be more NATURALLY agile than women?
@William15: I think I have fooled you all into thinking that I am a baseball fan when in actuality I barely know anything about it. I'm not going to lie; I had to look up who Aroldis Chapman is...
@WiccanSage: Thank you! And I know how you feel, I am a terrible throw myself. I sort of felt like a fraud writing an article about throwing, in fact.
@Jason Matthews: Thank you, and thanks for reading :)!
@DzyMsLizzy: Thanks! Yeah, I agree - I absolutely detest the use of gendered insults.
@BigBlue54: Exactly! The consensus among professionals seems to be that throwing ability is a learnt technique that anyone can master with practice!
@Bruce: Interesting analysis! Though I do love that mythbusters segment, it isn't a completely perfect experiment. There were still potential extraneous variables that could have affected the participants' throwing, and yeah, I'm unsurprised that the comparison doesn't show a totally similar technique. Unfortunately, experiments like these have very uncontrollable variables. I agree, I think professionals can exploit throwing techniques to give them incredible speed despite their physique/stature - which lends further credence to the dissolution of the false idea that men have a naturally superior throwing technique.
@TheSydneyWriter: Thank you very much !
TheSydneyWriter on January 27, 2014:
Very well written, interesting and to the point
Bruce on January 27, 2014:
The last comparison in terms of "form" (called mechanics in baseball) is not as similar as the Mythbusters lead us to believe. If you look closely, Jordan short-arms the ball and uses her shoulder in a whip action whereas; the guy drops his throwing arm down, scapula loads and then rotates. Jordan also steps to the first side with her plant foot and opens up her shoulders. Wouldn't surprise me if she hurts her arm. You don't have to be big to throw hard; you need good mechanics. Pedro Martinez threw 97 MPH and he was 5'10" and 175lbs although, he had freakishly long fingers. ;)
BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on January 27, 2014:
As the England women's cricket team is performing better then the men's cricket team I would say there are some women can definitely throw better then men. The can also bowl and bat better then them.
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on January 27, 2014:
Congrats on HOTD.
This is a very interesting topic, and I have always disagreed with that stereotype and insult. I tend to throw the same way as guys...and I can throw a football correctly.
However, my downfall is eye-hand coordination and aim. While my technique matches the guys (yes, I was/am a tomboy), my aim is not so hot. LOL
Voted up, interesting and useful.
Jason Matthews from North Carolina on January 27, 2014:
Nice hub! There is no doubt you have done your research. Thanks for sharing and congrats on earning HotD!
Mackenzie Sage Wright on January 27, 2014:
Very thoroughly covered and interesting topic. I didn't know about men vs. women before, but I do know one thing for sure. Anyone can throw better than me, lol. My dog bouncing his ball off his nose has better aim than I do. Great hub, contrats on hub of the day!
William from America on January 27, 2014:
There are men, there are women and then there is Aroldis Chapman. That guy can THROW.
Al Wordlaw from Chicago on January 27, 2014:
Men's physique allows them to throw more accurately. They have more muscle mass and agility.
BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on January 27, 2014:
Hi Thanks for the Hub, I found it very interesting. I am including a link which I hope you will find interesting.
It explains how our ancestors bodies changed about two million years ago so that they could throw rather then just fling and object as a chimp would.
SandCastles on January 27, 2014:
Wow, what an interesting hub and helpful. I'm writing a story and a character is supposed to be able to play baseball. This will help me! Thanks!
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on January 27, 2014:
There ARE anatomical differences between male and female shoulders. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18936873 I agree that a lot of the difference is in upbringing. Boys are expected to play more throwing games than girls but there may be some anatomical differences that account for HOW a male or female throws.
Michaela (author) from Australia on January 06, 2014:
@ Nicky & sparucusjones: thank you very much!! I'm glad to hear the mythbusters video was enjoyed - i've always been a huge fan of their show because they investigate things so objectively! :)
CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on January 06, 2014:
Very informative hub which makes some convincing arguments against preconceived gender stereotypes. Also it was a nice touch including the Mythbusters video. Congrats on the well deserved rising star nom!
Nicky on January 05, 2014:
This is a great hub, really very interesting and I loved the Mythbusters segment recommended.