Throwing (better) like a girl

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.

There's always some potential

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:
    1. Practice whipping arm and hand.
    2. Practice extending arm and rotating forward.
    3. 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.

 * * *

(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.)

10 thoughts on “Throwing (better) like a girl

  1. Thanks so much for posting this, Dave. I have been working at applying this to my own “sport” for some time, and passed a major milestone this weekend: in an equestrian competition I scored higher than my former trainer — a trainer who basically told all “adult novices” that they had no hope of significant improvement let alone achieving advanced-level scores.
    Of course I took that as a challenge, and did a strong combination of deliberate practice with extensive and repeated gap analysis. My continuously increasing resolution for studying the gap, and a great coach who was able to pick out which parts of the gap I should work to close during any given month, were the keys. I moved from basically last in the US to 15th in this discipline, and with a somewhat average horse, as well :)

    I already understood the science around this (thank-you Ericsson), but had not applied it to my own “performance” before. Figured it was time to put it to the test myself.

  2. Kathy:

    I’ve never been much for (or much impressed by) what I think of as “rah-rah motivation” — positive noise without any actual support. Your trainer sounds like a strange variation on that: not much motivation whatsoever.

    I don’t know if this is what you meant, but as I read “my continuously increasing resolution for studying the gap,” it has a second meaning for me: as you continued worked on your skills, you became better able to recognize small differences and to respond to them, and those combined recognize/respond chains gradually got incorporated into your overall repertory.

    Nobody is born knowing how to touch-type. It’s an almost pure psychomotor skill. I’ve been doing it for about 50 years, which means that if you ask me which finger presses which letter, I slow down–because I don’t think of pressing letters. I think of putting words on the page (well, okay, the screen). Without meaning to flatter myself too much, that’s what a master performer does a good part of the time: execute automatically.

    Not just in the motor skills area, either. I don’t have to think much about writing declarative sentences, expressing things with active voice and parallel structure. It’s what I do, what I like doing, and what I’ve done for a long time.

    Yes, if I’ve got something longer or more complicated to express or explain, I’d do that with outlines, drafts, reworking, and so on–because not all skill is automatic. But all of us depend on a fluidity in subordinate areas in order to accomplish worthwhile things.

  3. My (former) trainer was good at DEmotivation — basically the “fixed mindset” in Dweck terms. But I suppose it was partly to prove the trainer wrong that I worked as hard as I did over the past two years, so there’s that ;)

    And yes, the ever-increasing resolution meant continuing to make finer distinctions and recognize more subtle differences in the gap analysis, which in turn means making finer distinctions in my own deliberate practice (especially in precise work, making instant corrections, etc.). And the goal was to systematically also “take things off the table” by making them automatic, so I could focus more cognitive (and physical) resources on improving something else.

    For several years, I worked WITHOUT much deliberate practice, and thus ended up constantly and forever working the same huge collection of skills, never NAILING any of them. With the gap analysis, I would just take ONE thing and work on it (to some degree of precision) until a minimum 85% consistency, and then move to the next thing. With increased resolution, I would then later re-visit that now automated skill and add something new or more refined to it.

    This is a tricky balance, of course, since you desperately NEED to keep putting things on the NOW AUTOMATED list, in order to progress, but it is also those automated things that often cause the worst problems with more advanced performance, as they are harder to address. The expert performers find strategies to continually revisit the automated skills so they can either make sure those skills have not become less sharp, but also to add a new layer of finesse.

    I happened to choose an extremely dangerous sport where automating some things is crucial, but where *some* intuitively automatic responses can get you killed. For example, when a horse takes off running out of control, the automatic, intuitive response is to pull back on the reins to try to stop him, which not only does not work (they have at least 1,000 pounds on us), but actually makes them LESS likely to stop in that situation, and you have given them something nice to lean into as well. So we have to overcome the natural response and replace it with a learned one that later must become the PRE-awareness instant response.

    It has been a fascinating and rewarding project to study Ericsson’s work in detail, and apply it to my own activity. I started with the Cambridge Handbook of Performance and Expertise (or something like that, cannot recall the exact title right now).

  4. I’ve been having a Twitter-message conversation on a related topic in between your comments, Kathy. As part of that, I dug up these two quotes from Geary Rummler and Alan Brache (from their book Improving Performance, one that I never lend to anyone who doesn’t stay in the same room as me):

    People occasionally tell us that we’ve missed a factor…that the key performance variable is motivation (or desire, or drive, or attitude, or moral). We agree. However, motivation is a symptom.


    We have found that about 80 percent of performance improvement opportunities reside in the environment. Usually, 15 to 20 percent of the opportunities are in the Skills and Knowledge area. We have found that fewer than 1 percent of performance problems result from Individual Capacity deficiencies.

    Now, we’ve been talking about clusters of skills with a strong motor-skill component (sports, horseback riding). Even so, part of what Rummler and Brache consider the environment includes goals, strategies, standards, feedback, tools, methods, processes, and technology.

    That’s a lot of stuff.

    Which says to me that if I wanted to learn to ride a horse, I’d have a hell of a PIP, since I’ve only been on one once–one of those tourist-focused, ride-in-a-train-of-horses sort of things. It’d take me a while to get comfortable around a large, powerful animal (I’m not that keen on the German shepherd next door), and I’d probably not have much hope of getting into the equestrian competition at the 2016 Olympics — but as you account bears out, and Tamar Haspel’s on a smaller scale, goals that you chose and pursue intelligently are a worthwhile pursuit.

  5. As a kid, I practised pitching baseballs. But I never received instruction, never even pitched in a baseball game, because our town only had softball. And even when I played softball, nobody ever really taught me to throw.

    The best I could pitch was 60 some miles an hour (as measured by a pitching gun in a pitching cage at a minor league baseball game in Calgary). Pretty good, but I always wonder what instruction might have done. I still study professional baseball pitchers to this day trying to understand the mechanics. I still don’t know how to throw a curve ball; I don’t know how it’s done.

    I’m not so sure instruction, properly so-called, would have made the difference. But finding out *somehow* about what I was expected to do – how to stand, how to wide-up, how to push off the pitching rubber, how to grip the ball, how to release the ball – would have helped.

    One day I’m going to watch some videos online (there were of course none when I was a kid) and find a pitching mound somewhere and throw a few and see how it feels.

  6. Stephen, I imagine I could only hit 60 miles an hour if I threw a baseball from an airplane.

    In this case, I was using “instruction” in the sense of a coach or other competent person helping someone to grasp the theory and work through the practice, as Jenny Allart did for Haspel.

    I recall learning about putting backspin on a basketball on a free throw–sort of flicking your fingers down as you release the ball, with the aim of that spin pushing the ball downward when it hits the backboard, so that if you manage to get it over the hoop, it’s likelier to fall right in. That’s kin to your standing, wind-up, and so on.

    Tangentially, I recall that Bob Mager used to set various unusual goals for himself. Around age 65, he learned to ride a unicycle, and is coauthor of a book for beginners.

  7. Two quotes I have come to appreciate more these days — both without attribution:

    1. In an NPR interview with a woman on her 100th birthday, and asked about regrets, she said something like, “wish I had taken up the violin at 60. I would have been playing for 40 years now.”

    2. The one that says “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. But practice does make PERMAMENT.”

    That speaks to the danger of practicing *wrong* or even practicing the same beginner things for too long without progressing. Alan Kay talks about this in my favorite video about learning ever, an ancient talk he gave titled something that starts with “Doing with images makes symbols” (sorry I am having copy and paste trouble so, no link, but easily google able). It is a 90 minute video, and poorly digitized, but anyone interested in any form of learning and performance for professional or personal improvement, for kids or adults, athletes to computer programmers, can get a lot from this talk. So so so worth the time. I watch parts of it over and over every year.

    * * *

    (Here’s the Alan Kay video Kathy is referring to: )

  8. Dave, thanks for picking up my story, and adding a meaningful corollary. One note — the PIP, for a girl, is going to be the difference between average and exemplary performance for girls. The size of the gap between girls and boys doesn’t factor in.

    And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I need to find a violin teacher!

  9. Tamar, I’m so pleased that you spoke up.

    Somewhere, Tom Gilbert is smiling to see you take to the PIP.

    Your comment is a keen observation: what are our criteria for “exemplar?” There’s no one answer to this. In a sense, if I compare a 25-year-old woman with a major league pitcher, the PIP will be bigger. Gilbert’s point was not that we could get her to major-league speeds, but that a large PIP means it’s relatively easy to improve her performance.

    Another way of looking at the situation, though, is: what’s a goal that the 25-year-old woman can aspire to? I suppose it’s possible she could be a major league pitcher, but it seems unlikely. But if she compared herself to, say, female college ball players, she’d have a target that women like herself have achieve with training and practice. That PIP would be lower (I’m assuming the college women aren’t at major-league-pitcher speed) but probably still substantial.

    When the average performance is very close to the exemplary performance, the PIP’s very low, and improvement is extremely hard–as someone who’s ranked, say, 22nd in world tennis standings could attest.

    * * *

    I’ve come back (something easy to do when it’s your blog) to elaborate on this a bit:

    I realized I’ve made an unconscious association of throwing with pitching, when those aren’t the same skills at all. For instance, Tamar’s example is a throw from home to first, not an attempt to fire one past a skilled batter at the plate. And the whole discussion has brought to this non-sports-fan’s mind the legendary Tiger, a star when I was growing up in Detroit, with whom I share a birthday (as does Edith Piaf): Al Kaline, who had “a wonderful throwing arm, best in the American League combining power and accuracy.”

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