Teaching general and specific throwing skills

Somehow the way we learned basic movements became reversed over the last few decades. Kids used to learn movement through play, then apply it to sport. Now, more often than not, kids learn movement through sports clubs. We’re not going to turn back time, but understanding the evolution of youth physical education and activity (or lack thereof) can help us improve our teaching skills going forward.

The times are a changin’

I’m not old, but I’m old enough I can start to use statements like “back in my day.” Back in my day I learned to throw in the schoolyard. One of the many games that we played in our lunch breaks involved throwing tennis balls to each other over the portable classrooms behind the school. We arranged ourselves into two teams and the idea was to try and get the ball past the other team. If they caught it they threw it back. This involved a lot of maximal effort throws with a high trajectory and some catching practice too. When winter came, we had mass snowball fights against the other class, the only rule was not to put stones inside the snowballs. I took my springer spaniel for walks and threw him old cricket balls to fetch.

When it came to physical education in school we had cricket and athletics in the summer term, where our teacher could teach us the basic sport-specific techniques of throwing within the sport. He did not have to explain how to throw. I never heard of a rotator cuff or labrum in my youth.

Today, parents in the UK send their children to clubs to learn how to play sport. They often do this without having played with the children outdoors themselves. Athletics, cricket and basketball all require throwing of some description. The coaches try to teach the children the technical requirements of the sport but the children have never thrown a ball, a stone or a frisbee outside of organized activities. Even dog-walkers avoid throwing a ball to their pets nowadays: they use a dog-ball launcher that requires a flick of the wrist rather than a full-bodied heave of a tennis ball. The only thing the children have thrown in anger is a tantrum.

Physical education, to the extent it still exists in some schools, doesn’t fill the gap either. Primary school PE is often done inside where throwing and catching are paired together. The children practice throwing short distances and for accuracy. They become darts throwers rather than chuckers. They never learn to step into a throw and rotate their torso because they don’t have to. Accuracy is required in cricket and basketball but not in athletics. And even in cricket, bowlers need an underpinning ‘strong arm’ to bowl properly. I watched a local women’s team play a match where the fielders were throwing back to the wicket keeper underarm and two of the bowlers couldn’t deliver the ball to the batter without the ball bouncing twice (once is normal for those readers unfamiliar with cricket).

Children practice the technical skill repeatedly at the sports club with little or no variation. They are then asked to try maximum effort throws in competition with a heavy implement: cricket ball, javelin, shot put or discus. Rotator cuffs and labrums tear and children are put into an strength and conditioning program to remedy the issues.

From general to specific throwing

‘General to specific’ is a principle of coaching. If the children have not done general on their own, then how can we teach specific? Have they got 10,000 throws in their arms before trying a specific implement, or are sports coaches trying to teach them to throw using their one implement only? The sports coaches often still teach a technical model that assumes the children can already throw. They start with the specific work for that sport, worrying about the position of the little finger when throwing the javelin, rather than asking, “Can the children throw?”

Very detailed technical knowledge may be important for international throwers but if the adolescents all have different body shapes and athletic profiles the technical ‘model’ may be less useful. Steve Backley said that his dad used to put a stick in the ground and say “throw it past this.” This may be a good place to start with beginners. Too many details can lead to movement paralysis.

How else can we create variety and creativity within a single action sport like javelin? One that allows children to enjoy and experiment whilst being safe. As sport coaches it is still possible to implement general to specific principles, but we have to be more creative in order to adapt to the athletes in front of us.

Most of the children joining my athletics club have not developed a full throwing action before they join. I only take them at 9-years-old and yet they have not learned to throw (or skip, run and jump but that’s for another article). I spend time in every session doing general throwing work before thinking about specific techniques. Here are a few of the steps that I take to enable them to develop throwing:

  1. Throw and fetch, to the hedge and back. The hedge is 100 meters away. They throw a tennis ball as far as they can, run to it and repeat. The further they throw the less they do. No other instructions. The tennis balls allow small hands to grip.
  2. Throw over the goal posts/swings. This replicates the portable classroom game from my youth, but I get them to stand close to the obstacle to ensure that they have a high release point. Most beginners seem to throw into the ground a lot.
  3. Two handed throws of footballs/ netballs. These lighter but larger implements require two hands to throw. My instruction is, ‘Throw it as far as you can with two hands in as many different ways as you can.’ This leads to overhead, backward, sideways, scoops, tosses and chest throws. I then ask them to pick the one that they think will work best and have them compete. This provides an opportunity to talk about rotation, using the back and torso and the length of acceleration with longer levers (not all those points at once). They can then practice their favorite method for another 10 throws to try and perfect it.
  4. Back to tennis balls (lots of them for each thrower). Taking the lessons learned from the two handed throws, get them to stand behind a line and throw for distance. Here they might try a run-up, a turn, or start rotating and/or arching to throw further. They throw 3-5 times each before going to collect the balls.

I have yet to offer any technical points but have got them thinking about how to throw further in different ways. As the weeks progress and I set up different tasks that help them with stepping, rotating, spinning and speed. We use nerf balls, light medicine balls and frisbees before introducing them to javelins, discus and shot. I am not in a hurry to get them to compete in organised competitions, nor are they, but they do compete in the training.

Final thoughts

This approach essentially tries to make up for lost time by taking a step back, rather than skipping ahead a few chapters. But does it work? When it comes to school athletics and the teachers just start with the javelin, all of our club athletes throw it the farthest in their class: boys and girls. It’s definitely not because they are “talented.” It’s because they have learned how to throw hard.