How We Practice: Throwing Like A Girl

Scandal's Octavia Payne winds up for a throw.

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This is the third post in our series, ‘How We Practice,’ which gives insight into the larger dynamics of practicing and teaching Ultimate.

What does learning to throw a disc mean to a girl or woman who takes up Ultimate? Understanding this can help coaches and our governing organizations grow the pipeline of women players at the grassroots level. Everything you need to know is in the title of this post. But making sense of it requires a little history, a little social science, and some reflection.

The social facts of “throwing like a girl”

“You throw like a girl” is a phrase that will skyrocket the blood pressure of any female athlete who grew up in North America since 1950. This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. This phrase is shorthand for the idea that women generally throw differently and less well than men. The pervasiveness of this phrase as a casual slur against clumsiness in general constantly reminds female athletes of the un-level field we play on. Social scientists call such casual but ubiquitous derogations “micro-inequities,” a seminal concept coined by the labor economist Mary P. Rowe in the late 1970s for

[quote]apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be different.[/quote]

If it seems like a leap from a casual slur to actual discrimination, ask yourself when (outside a girls’ school or women’s college) you last saw a top quality athletic field where the default team that practiced there in prime time was a women’s team. Ultimate players can rightly object that our sport never gets the choice fields in prime time. But we still regularly mirror the larger culture’s inequity of field allocation in our tournaments and we still have far fewer women entering the sport than men. These phenomena are linked, of course. When your tournament has more men’s teams than women’s teams, it makes sense to put the former on the central (generally also the best) field site.

Which leads us back to where this post started: we will recruit more girls and women when we better understand the social factors that surround their entrance into a throwing-intensive sport. Those factors can make Ultimate very attractive to female athletes in a way we rarely recognize or take advantage of.

The kinesthetic facts of “throwing like a girl”

Biologically, there is no significant sexual variation in throwing mechanics. As I explained last month, there’s a solid and tremendously interesting body of research on throwing, particularly overhand ball-throwing, that shows that throwing style and skill are learned phenomena and that style follows skill level, not biology. In an enjoyable article on the topic published in The Atlantic, James Fallows offers this simple test: if you want to prove for yourself that anyone will throw like a girl who hasn’t had years of practice learning to throw like an athlete, just try doing it with your non-dominant hand. The experiment is even more effective if you try it with an audience. In a study of elite Brazilian athletes with little overhand throwing experience, Greg Downey makes the same case with more scholarly rigor. All bodies inexperienced in throwing overhand use the same clumsy sequence of motions that we call “throwing like a girl.”

Young women learning to throw in North America thus face a quadruple whammy of obstacles. We are girls, therefore we throw like ourselves. We are learners, therefore our bodies naturally perform the early throwing mechanics that have been culturally labeled in a negative way. Even post-Title IX, many of us come to this experience later and have fewer opportunities to practice overhand throwing. So our early-learning phase lasts longer and looks more acute by contrast with age-cohort boys, who have moved through those early learner phases more quickly. All this is a powerful disincentive to keep picking up the ball. Because throwing is such a complex, learned activity, as Downey has shown, this vicious cycle can have a disproportionately large effect.

Throwing a forehand like a pro

For girls and women players in North America, it’s thrilling to master a forehand. The social truths and biological falsehoods of the phrase “throwing like a girl” explain why. A competent forehand is a new throwing motion for all beginning Ultimate players, regardless of sex. Everyone does it awkwardly at first. Moreover, as the thoughtful comments on my earlier post made clear, prior experience with overhand throwing can be an obstacle to acquiring the correct mechanics of a fluent forehand. Relatively few female Ultimate players start with that disadvantage; at the high school and college level, softball is a spring sport, competing directly for players with Ultimate. Thus, at the beginner’s level, girl athletes regularly acquire a solid forehand as soon as (and sometimes more quickly than) the boys in their age-cohort.

This means that in Ultimate, girl athletes learning to throw a forehand may have an experience that they never have in any other team sport: they can be as good at throwing as the boys. The phenomena will pass quickly as a cohort’s throws mature. For athletes at a comparable experience level, larger muscle mass translates into longer and faster throws. So few coaches who are not alert to this phenomenon will notice it. Yet, at a key period of early skill acquisition, even this brief phase of equal mastery can be an intoxicating experience for a female athlete.

Here’s an example of just how intoxicating. I can vividly conjure the memory of the first score I threw in an Ultimate game. A forehand in late September 1980, on the Bald Spot at Carleton College. It was the end of a give-and-go with my freshman hall RA, who had dragged a bunch of us out for a coed pickup game three weeks earlier. When he cut for the forehand, I knew he knew I could throw it. I was irrevocably hooked on Ultimate.

That same year, the feminist philosopher Iris Young published a landmark essay on learned body experience that blasted my brain open. In “Throwing Like a Girl,” Young asserts that “body comportment and movement” defines “the structure and meaning of human lived experience” (1980, 138). She goes on to argue that because the scope of physical mobility for women in our society is limited, our experience of being in a body is one of inhibition, “undirectedness and wasted motion” (1980, 147). The effects of Title IX helped change what Young observed. Revisiting her essay twenty years later, she struggled to accommodate her vision of the essential, existential constraints of female motor experience to the physical gifts of a new generation of girls with access to formal athletic training. But Young’s core insight remains illuminating.

Physical fluency is a whole person experience: social, cognitive, emotional, as well as kinesthetic. That this experience has important gendered dynamics – that for a girl athlete these may still be inhibiting socially, still script how her undirected or wasted motions are viewed by herself and others – helps explain the jolt of adrenaline I still feel now when I describe a pass I threw more than thirty years ago.

Micro-affirmations on the practice field

In 1980 I did not have the self-awareness to understand these dynamics. Nor do most young athletes who pick up a disc for the first time. But recognizing what this larger context can mean for a young woman who discovers Ultimate can help us more effectively recruit and retain women players.

How can we implement such insights at the grassroots level? In the workplace, as the current research tells us, what effective mentors do to redress micro-inequities is to foster a culture of “micro-affirmations:”

[quote]apparently small acts, often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.[/quote]

Observe any Ultimate program that has built a reputation for its pipeline of women players and what you will see is a culture of micro-affirmations. On the practice field, coaches verbally acknowledge small improvements in throwing and catching for the new women players. Singling out experienced players to demonstrate a new skill, the coach selects both boys and girls. In early-season practices, you’ll see experienced players (both male and female) occasionally mix it up with the rookies (male and female) for 10 minutes of throwing (to have an elite player throw with you intensively is a kind of public respect school sports rarely confer on rookies). In coed scrimmages, you’ll see a coach set up game situations where it benefits a team to throw to their girls. (Ask any woman Ultimate player to name the micro-inequity that she has experienced most often in our sport, and I’ll bet she says this: being looked off for an open pass by a guy – often one with less skill than she has.) In summer league play, you’ll see captains come up with strategies to deliver the disc to a new woman player at a key moment when she can be publicly successful.

Once you recognize the concept, micro-affirmations are no-brainers: small acts that benefit the whole team, that are easy to implement, and that establish habits players will carry with them to other Ultimate teams. Yet they are very effective. And they will have a disproportionately positive impact on new players discovering the adrenaline rush of throwing like a girl.


Works Cited

Greg Downey. “Throwing Like a Girl(‘s Brain).” 2009. Neuroanthropology Blog.  Posted February 1, 2009.

Greg Downey. “Throwing Like a Brazilian: On Ineptness and a Skill-shaped Body.” In Anthropology of Sport and Human Movement. Robert Sands, ed. Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield), 2010, 297-326.

James Fallows. “Throwing Like a Girl.” The Atlantic, August, 1996.

Mary P. Rowe. “Barriers to Equality: The Power of Subtle Discrimination to Maintain Unequal Opportunity.” Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1990, 153-163. Revised and extended from a long series of papers called “Saturn’s Rings,” written 1973-1989.

Mary P. Rowe. Micro-affirmations & Micro-inequities. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008.

Iris Marion Young. “Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” Human Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), 137-156. Republished in On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Iris Marion Young, “‘Throwing Like a Girl’: Twenty Years Later.” In Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Donn Welton, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1998, 286-290.

  1. Katherine Rowe

    Katherine Rowe teaches media history at Bryn Mawr College and coaches the Lower Merion, PA High School girls Ultimate team, the 2009 and 2010 state champions. She began her Ultimate career at Carleton College, in 1982, where she co-founded the first intercollegiate women's team. She played internationally with Smithereens (Boston) in the late 80s, capturing finalist titles at the World Games (1989) and at women's club nationals. She helped found BUDA and has played in PADA since moving to the Philly area more than a decade ago. She has a longstanding interest in fostering the growth of young athletes.

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