Throwing Is Not Automatic

I’m a fan of Tom Naughton, and his movie Fathead helped me out a lot. But recently he had something of a headscratcher of a blog post. Mostly he just mistake coaching cues that happen to work for him with the One True Way to swing a golf club—which is a very understandable mistake when in the grips of the euphoria of finally figuring out a physical skill one has been working on for years—but there was this really odd bit that I thought worth of commenting on:

If you ask someone to throw a rock or a spear or a frisbee towards a target, he’ll always do the same thing, without fail: take the arm back, cock the wrist, plant the lead foot, rotate the hips, sling the arm toward the target, then release. Ask him exactly when he cocked his wrist, or planted his foot, or turned his hips, he’ll have no idea – but he’ll do it correctly every time. That’s because humans have been throwing things at predators and prey forever, and the kinematic sequence to make that happen is hard-coded into our DNA. We don’t have to learn it. Our bodies and brains already know it.

The basic problem is: throwing is not automatic. It’s learned.

I can say this with certainty because I’ve spent time, recently, trying to teach children to throw a frisbee. They do not, in fact, instinctively do it correctly. Humans have very few actual instincts, at least when it comes to voluntary activities. We instinctively breath, and we will instinctively withdraw our hand from pain, but that’s about it. Oh, and we can instinctively nurse from our mother, though even their we need to learn better technique than we come equipped with pretty quickly or Mom will not be happy.

Now, what we do, in fact, come with naturally is the predisposition to learn activities like throwing. This is like walking: we aren’t born knowing how to walk, but we are born with a predisposition to learn to walk. We’re good at learning how to walk and we want to do the sorts of things that make us learn how to walk. Language is the same way—we’re not born speaking or understanding language, but we are predisposed to learn it.

Another odd thing is the “he’ll do it correctly every time”—no he won’t. Even people who know how to throw things pretty well occasionally just screw up and do it wrong. When teaching my boys to throw a frisbee, occasionally I just make a garbage throw. It’s not just when my conscious thoughts get in the way of my muscle memory—muscle memory needs to be correctly activated, and not paying sufficient attention is a great way to do that wrong.

Finally, the evolutionary biology part is just odd: “That’s because humans have been throwing things at predators and prey forever, and the kinematic sequence to make that happen is hard-coded into our DNA.”

There’s an element of truth to this, in that we can find evidence of spear use in humans going back hundreds of thousands of years. The problem is that the kinematic sequence to throw a spear and the kinematic sequence to hit a golf ball is not the same thing at all.

Here’s a golf swing:

By contrast, here’s someone throwing a javelin:

And just for fun, here are some Masai warriors throwing spears:

Something you’ll notice about the Masai, who throw actual weapons meant to kill, is that the thing is heavy, and they throw it very close. Alignment is incredibly important, since a weak throw that hits point-on is vastly more effective than a strong throw that hits side-on. The other thing is that the ability to actually throw quickly without a big wind-up matters, since they’re practicing to hit moving targets. They don’t have time for a huge wind-up. Also, they tend to face their target, rather than be at a 90 degree angle to it—when your target has teeth and claws, you need to be able to protect yourself if the target starts coming for you.

Anyway, if you look at these three activities, they’re just very kinematically different. Being good at one of those things will not transfer to being good at the others. The Masai warrior needs accuracy, timing, and power on a heavy projectile. The javelin thrower needs to whip his arm over his body as fast as possible, from a sprint. His arm is straight and his shoulder hyper-extended. The golfer needs to whip the head of a long stick as fast as possible, below his body, from a standing position. His arms are bent and his elbows are kept in to generate more force than arm-velocity, since the greater force translates to greater velocity on the end of the stick. The golf swing probably has more in common with low sword-strikes using a two-handed sword than it does with swinging a spear.

Anyway, I don’t have a major point. I just think it’s interesting what we will tell ourselves in order to try to figure out motion patterns.

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