I have two main psychomotor skills: I can touch-type, and I can drive a stick.
That’s about it. I was never much at sports, though in high school I learned how to play soccer at an intramural level best known as “not entirely horrible if the year is 1964.”
Sometime after that, I learned about the PIP, Tom Gilbert’s shorthand for the potential to improve performance. I wrote about that some time back, but the quick summary is this:
The greater the gap between the exemplary performer and the average performer, the easier it is to improve performance.
What does the PIP have to do with sports? I came across an article in the health and science section to today’s Washington Post: “You throw like a girl.” Tamar Haspel began by exploring her inability to throw a ball far or accurately. She learned that the gap begins around the age of 4, long before the bodies of boys are all that different from the bodies of girls. Yet around the world, the differences are significant–pre-pubescent girls throwing at 51% to 69% of the distance that boys do, at 51% to 78% of he velocity.
I liked the examination of what “throwing like a girl” means — and it seems to have to do with how much of the total body is involved, as shown by this great graphic from the Post article (image links to the source):
The short answer: “women tend to rotate their shoulders and hips together, and even if they don’t, they don’t rotate the two areas as fast as men.”
There could be genuine biological differences. One expert Haspel consulted. Jerry Thomas of the University of North Texas, wonders if there might not be an explanation in the nervous system.
Even so, he says, “People don’t like to talk about it [the biological difference] because girls will give up, but perhaps if we talk about it, girls can learn. And they can learn.”
And that’s where the PIP comes in. Overall, the average woman isn’t going to learn to throw a baseball as well as a major league pitcher does. But neither is the average man. And as Tom Gilbert was arguing, looking at a gap between average performance and exemplary performance is a good way to cure yourself of the over-optimistic notion that if you’d only chosen the right people, you wouldn’t have to help them learn and provide them support.
Haspel worked with Jenny Allart, who coaches Harvard’s softball team. What I liked about the consultation:
- After warmups, Allard tested Haspel’s throw, to establish a baseline. (55 feet was about the best she could do.)
- Allard broke the throwing actions into 3 pieces, and coached them in reverse order:
- Practice whipping arm and hand.
- Practice extending arm and rotating forward.
- Practice stepping back before that extension.
After a half-hour lesson, Haspel was able to get the ball to first base (60 feet) and even a bit beyond–a 10% improvement in 30 minutes.
I told Allard that I’d been cautioned that instruction without practice doesn’t help much.
“Neither does practice without instruction,” she said.
This reminded me of something Jim Fuller said once: practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes permanent. Fuller was talking about the need for useful feedback, feedback that you can use to modify and improve your performance.
Clearly, most people don’t do a lot of ball-throwing in their lives, and many of them don’t feel the need to improve their ball-throwing skill. In this article, though, I see a balanced, non-deterministic approach to investigating differences and then working on ways to improve the results that an average performer can produce.
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(In a comment on this post, Kathy Sierra mentioned The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. This is a link to its listing on Amazon.)