Sport

Posture and power pitching

Why chimps don’t pitch in Major, Minor, or Little Leagues

Baseball season is well underway and the 2014 All Star Game will soon be upon us. As always, power and precision pitching will be key, which is one reason why not a single chimpanzee will find himself in either of the All Star Team rotations. Given that adult chimps are overall stronger than even the most powerful baseball players, how can it be that a chimp’s “fast” ball clocks in at only about 20 miles per hour, whereas today’s Major League pitchers routinely throw balls at 90-100 mph.

Major League pitchers routinely throw baseballs 100 miles per hour

Major League pitchers routinely throw baseballs 100 miles per hour

Why chimp strength doesn’t translate into throwing a fastball–and why relatively weak human beings are so much better at powerfully and accurately throwing–is a line of questioning anthropologist Neil T. Roach and a team of researchers set out to explore. Their findings–reported in Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo,” a study published last year in Nature, is what inspires today’s post. For a wonderfully engaging overview, take a look at this 2-minute video.

The ability to throw was necessary for our survival

Baseball pitching is akin to how our hominid ancestors threw weapons and, as noted in the video, because Homo erectus  was relatively weak and defenseless, the ability to throw with speed and accuracy was really key. Think about it: Without the clawed paws and fangs of saber-toothed cats and other fierce predators who shared our ancestors’ Pleistocene world, the ability to hurl objects with force and precision was necessary to their very survival.

If this Homo erectus couple in Daka, Africa felt compelled to throw the stones at their feet, they could

If this Homo erectus couple in Daka, Africa felt compelled to throw the stones at their feet, they could

 

The throwing ability of our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, is  limited by the chimp's high, forward-sloping shoulders, and arms that are less able to rotate and forward-extend

Stymied by high and forward-sloping shoulders and limited range of motion in shoulder and arm, our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, is anatomically ill-equipped to throw accurately and powerfully

While most humans today don't need to throw well in order to survive, this evolutionary advantage serves us well in many sports; note this Little Leaguer's externally rotated right shoulder

While most humans today don’t need to throw well in order to survive, this evolutionary advantage serves us well in many sports; note this Little Leaguer’s externally rotated right shoulder

Hurling weapons and running fast

John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University who was not involved in the “elastic energy” study, but who conducts tool-use experiments in an attempt to reconstruct human behavior through the analysis of stone tools, believes that spears date back 400,000 years.

Externally rotated shoulders is one reason this aboriginal Kwat Kwat hunter in 1890s Australia was likely to spear his emu prey

Externally rotated shoulders is one reason this aboriginal Kwat Kwat hunter in 1890s Australia was likely to spear his emu prey

The ability to hurl a harpoon has helped Inuit hunters survive, although many now hunt with guns

The ability to hurl a harpoon has helped Inuit hunters survive, although many now hunt with guns

Shea also points out that Homo erectus was a good runner. “You put these things together and you have the primate equivalent of a fighter jet — something that can run for a long time, and has projectile weapons on board.” He also observes that while archaeologists have frequently found “hand-grenade-sized stones” along with skeletons from that era, new findings suggest that those stones may have been used by ancient humans as weapons to hunt and chase away other predators from their kill.

Throwing stones and balls may hold some primal attraction for 21st-century humans

Throwing stones and balls may hold some primal attraction for 21st-century humans

Adaptations that enable humans to pitch Major League ball

As you saw in the “Why chimps don’t play baseball” Nature video, above, Neil Roach and his team applied reflective markers to the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and waists of 20 college athletes, then used 3-D cameras to film the young men throwing baseballs at a target. Subsequent analysis of the footage showed that the sling-shot action of the shoulder, where criss-crossed ligaments and tendons store elastic energy as the athletes cock their throwing arms and prepare to pitch, is really crucial. Also really key is the subsequent release of this energy in the arm’s follow-through forward motion.

His shoulders well-positioned, his throwing arm fully extended, legendary pitcher Cy Young shows great range of motion as he prepares to release the ball

His shoulders well-positioned, his throwing arm fully extended, legendary pitcher Cy Young shows great range of motion as he prepares to release the ball

The researchers also highlighted anatomical adaptations that enable human beings to throw more powerfully than their chimp cousins:

  • Lateral organization of the scapula, or shoulder blades
  • Relatively long, mobile waists that permit greater rotation in the torso
  • Humeral torsion, a twist in the humerus, the bone of the upper arm

Of these adaptations, the organization of the shoulder blades is the most sensitive to posture shifts and Gokhale Method techniques. The front- and back-view composite illustrations below illustrate the differences between chimpanzee and human shoulders.

The human shoulder is on the left, the much higher and hunched-forward chimp shoulder is on the right

The human shoulder is on the left, the much higher and hunched-forward chimp shoulder is on the right

The flat-against-the-back human scapula is on the left; the upward-angling chimp scapula is on the right

The flat-against-the-back human scapula is on the left; the upward-angling chimp scapula is on the right

 

Poor posture undermines evolutionary advantages and predisposes us to injury

A lot of our postural distortions take us backward in time and undermine some of the anatomical and physiological advantages we have accrued over millennia. It’s also true that some of these advantages, if not supported by healthy usage, can expose us to injury. We can’t take these advantages for granted; human beings require cultural tending–healthy modeling and molding behaviors that are so fundamental to healthy posture. (Molding includes the material world–holding a child well, choosing a good office chair; modeling is visual.)

We need to support our evolutionary advantages with good posture, in part because cultural tending has degraded

We need to support our evolutionary advantages with good posture, in part because cultural tending has degraded

Bottom line: When we compromise our posture, we lose some of our evolutionary edge.

The shoulder roll

To zero in on just one example of “posture degradation” as it relates to the Gokhale Method, too many people today internally rotate their shoulders. This modern deterioration of posture results in the forward hunching that gives rise to the additional handicaps of contracted pectoral muscles and stiffness in the muscles between the ribs. Worst of all, internal rotation reduces healthy circulation through our arms, as well as our capacity to breathe!

As modeled in the video, the shoulder roll helps position shoulders back and down. This helps position the scapula flat against the back.

 

In humans, the shoulder blades lie flat against the back, rather than angling up, like a chimp's

In humans, the shoulder blades lie flat against the back, rather than angling up, like a chimp’s

 

Image and Video Credits:
Screen grab of Google image search for ‘MLB pitchers’; Homo erectus couple, Wikipedia;  Baby chimp in six consecutive stages of general excitement, Wikimedia Commons; Little League pitcher, Winesburg, Ohio, Wikimedia Commons, Kwat Kwat hunting emu from Tommy McCrae’s ‘Sketchbook of Aboriginal Activities,’ Wikimedia Commons; Inuit hunter, Wikipedia; Girl throwing stone, Wikimedia commons; Cy Young pitching, Wikipedia; screen grabs of human versus chimp shoulders and scapula, Neil Roach study; Gokhale Moment Shoulder Roll video, Gokhale Method Institute; Human scapula, Wikipedia

Posture focus and ping pong is a win-win combination

An explosive sport with everyday applications

Many people in the US think of ping-pong as a somewhat lackadaisical sport, but it’s actually a very active game that requires a great deal of fine motor control, hand-eye coordination, and athleticism. It takes explosive power, in addition to strength and flexibility, to get to the ball in time. In fact, one of the benefits of playing table tennis is that it allows you to develop an explosive power that is helpful for building bones and strengthening muscles.

Professional table-tennis player Timo Boll, below left, illustrates these truths. His form is superb. Not only are his legs externally rotated, but he’s doing a perfect hip-hinge, his shoulders are back and low, and his left wrist is in good alignment. The pivot of his head on his neck, which enables him to look up without scrunching cervical vertebrae, also serves him well.

German table tennis players Timo Boll and Christian Suss are laser-focused on the ball

German table tennis players Timo Boll and Christian Suss are laser-focused on the ball

If, after studying this photo, you still have any doubts about ping pong being an exciting and athletic sport, take a look at at this video billed as “one of the best table tennis points ever.”

Clearly, table tennis isn’t just about standing close to the table and hitting one kind of shot. The game is all about swiftness, power, balance, coordination, precision, and stamina–and healthy posture is a driver for all of these things.

Posture and sustained use of healthy limbs

While our focus here is table-tennis readiness and using posture to improve play, ping-pong posture pointers can be extrapolated to everyday uses of the shoulders and arms—for example, when driving, typing, or washing dishes.

Woman_Pauses_At_Laptop_Kirill Kedrinski_Flickr_PhotoPSharing

While the precision and explosive power required to play table tennis are less relevant to most routine activities, underlying posture fundamentals apply, especially those pertaining to the healthy positioning of the shoulders and arms. This is because when the shoulders aren’t drawn into a hunch, when the nerves that arise in the thoracic spine are not impinged, when there’s no tightening of the pectoral muscles, and when natural movement in the opened-up chest is free to provide a natural massage, breathing and circulation are improved.

Washing_Dishes_ChristianDeVries_Heifer_International_Brazil_Flickr_PhotoSharing

Ping pong and posture is not just a sports story. It’s a story about the sustained use and continued health of the limbs–enabling the limbs to  do their everyday thing long-term.

Table tennis is my game

Childhood play

When I was about eight, my Indian father taught me to play table tennis at one of the two tables at the Breach Candy swimming pool in Bombay. Ping pong was popular in India when I was growing up, and I played quite a lot, mostly at school. Over time, I developed what was thought to be a mean backhand, but I did this without developing any sort of forehand. While the standards for play weren’t as high as they were in East Asia or Sweden, I participated in tournaments of middling quality, and had some success.

Ping pong paddle with badminton shuttlecock in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I learned to play table tennis

Ping pong paddle with badminton shuttlecock in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I learned to play table tennis

Later, as a high-school-senior exchange-student in New Jersey, I won a local table tennis tournament in what, again, may have been a tournament of questionable competitive caliber.

Still, by local standards of that time, I had a pretty wicked backhand, together with a winning record. All this without having yet developed a good forehand.

A ping-pong courtship

I was a freshman at Harvard when I met my husband Brian over a ping pong table in Princeton’s “Debasement,” now called the D-Bar. I was visiting my then-boyfriend, a very discerning person, who shared my view that Brian was a very likable fellow.

What first struck Brian about me was that I was an authentic person. And what struck me about Brian was that he was beatable at table tennis! Actually, what struck me even more was that my handily beating him at ping pong didn’t bother him. Whereas some guys’ enthusiasm for playing would be dampened by regularly losing to a woman, Brian remained engaged, alert, and dedicated to improving his game. Accepting of pulling up from behind, he worked his way to the point where he handily beats me now, as he has for some time.

My husband and I met playing table tennis

My husband and I met playing table tennis

Stories abound about how Hillary met Bill

Stories abound about how Hillary met Bill

Ping pong courtships are dynamic!

Ping pong courtships are dynamic!

Table tennis hiatus, then a family of players

After Brian and I married and had kids, there was quite a long stretch where table tennis was no longer a part of our lives. Then, about 10 years ago, we purchased a table and ping pong became a family game.

The kids are mostly out of the house now, but Brian and I play frequently, sometimes as often as several times a day. This is in part because the table is usually parked right in the center of our living room. While this is somewhat unusual decor, it aligns with our priorities. And when the living room is required for other activities we either move the folded table to the side, or outside on the patio (it’s an outdoor table).

Plucking up paddles and playing a quick game of ping pong is one of the ways Brian and I take pick-me-up breaks. Because we talk when we play, it’s also an opportunity for us to visit together.

Voila!–a forehand!

When Brian and I first met and began to play in 1977 I was not yet focused on posture. But when, after about 20 years, we resumed play, I was very surprised to discover that in the complete absence of playing I had developed an effective forehand! I attribute this “gift” to my (at that time) 5-year commitment to healthy posture. My body may have been older, but its essential architecture was much healthier, which meant that more than ever I was poised to play a more complete game.

The posture-sport connection

Improving at ping pong in the absence of playing really interests me, in part because it prompts the impulse to connect the dots between posture improvement and improvement in sports–not just table tennis, but any number of athletic activities, whether this be fly fishing, cycling, tennis, or golf.

Poised to play

Because healthy posture provides mechanical, physiological, and even psychological advantage, focusing on posture while engaged in sport makes good sense. After all, the body is an intricate system involving not only the bones, the joints, and the muscles of the mechanical system–the “pulleys and levers”–but the complex physiology of circulation and innervation, together with sports psychology and sports performance anxiety. In table tennis–as with every sport–anatomy, physiology, psychology–and posture–are intricately entwined.

Anchoring strokes to posture points

When I play table tennis I put my “body-as-human-machine” at mechanical advantage by focusing on key elements of my posture. Doing so helps all aspects of my physical game, including my oft-used backhand, my ever-improving forehand, and my ability to rally. (Posture-focus also serves me psychologically and emotionally, but more about these aspects of play in just a bit.)

A ready position and a posture-focused state of mind

Before any game and between rallies (but not between strokes), I focus my attention on:
  • Lengthening my neck
  • Depressing and pulling back my shoulders
  • Anchoring my ribs
  • Hinging at my hip joints
  • Keeping my behind behind me
  • Externally rotating my legs and “kidney-bean”-shaping my feet
While visualizing and executing these posture points once required a conscious effort, focusing on them now has become a natural part of my game.
Neck and shoulders. The ping-pong posture habits most helpful to me may be super-correcting when pulling back and lowering my shoulders, and lengthening my neck with extra muscular force. I exaggerate simply because doing so makes my swings more effective. Optimally positioning my shoulders helps with my range of motion, my power, and precision. It also helps prevent injury of my shoulder joints, joints that have craggy, complex interfaces, and are vulnerable to inflammation and wear and tear.

Ribs and hips. When playing table tennis, I’m also aware of rib-anchoring and hip-hinging. Keep in mind that most of the posture-tracking I do happens between games, or between rallies. It’s too much to consciously focus on posture points during active play.

Buttocks, legs, and feet. Pouncing in ping pong is essential and fun. In order to do this well, I remind myself to keep my behind behind me. Neglect this posture point, and my ability to speedily reach the ball on less than a moment’s notice will be compromised. And, although the leg and buttock muscles do the bulk of the work in table tennis, having the feet turned out and shaped like kidney-beans also helps with speed and power.

Backhand, forehand, and rally

Backhand

It is in the nature of the game to get more backhand than forehand practice, and this is especially true when I stay in one spot. When preparing for backhand strokes, I think about my shoulders staying down and and my neck going tall in a slightly exaggerated way.

Forehand

Despite marked and continuing improvement, I still feel a bit disconnected from my forehand and am sometimes surprised when a shot that comes off my paddle actually lands on the table! But, because of the posture work I’ve done and because my shoulders are now “closer to home,” I now have a bigger range of motion and a more precise stroke. I suspect that shoulder positioning was at least part of the missing piece that prevented me from predictably hitting smooth forehand shots in days gone by.

Posture focus as an antidote to performance anxiety

If there’s any kind of emotional flutter when I play table tennis, focusing on posture takes the worries out of my head and places them into the act of play. A posture-point review offers sufficient material to displace anxiety; there is no longer any room for it.

Similarly, because table tennis is so quick and labile, so sensitive to little fluctuations in the psyche, it’s counterproductive to think, “Oh I’m really going to smash that ball!” To do so is to pretty much ensure that the ball goes flying off the table.

Bottom line? Focusing on posture is an instrument for greater mindfulness. By making myself fully available to the physical reality of a ball coming at me, sports-performance anxiety–all anxiety–is displaced. Anchoring posture habits to particular aspects of play helps both the physical and emotional components of my game.

Forrest Gump rallies

In the following video clip, Forrest Gump faces the (un)reality of an approaching ping pong ball…the “movie magic” that underlies actor Tom Hanks’ game is enlightening, but not so much his style of play. While it’s obvious Tom is a limber and athletic fellow, his ping-pong posture could be improved. Because he raises and pulls forward his shoulders with almost every stroke, his “pecs,” “traps,” and shoulder joints take a heavy toll.

Of course Forrest Gump is a character who would never complain of pain. But he does point to his shoulder and observe that play was exhausting. Here’s a suggestion, Forrest: One shoulder at a time – a little forward, a little up, and a lot back!

Brian and I rally

Finally, without the benefit of “movie magic,” my husband and I briefly rally to close out this post.

Of course our game is a work in progress–as are we! This is part of what makes applying posture points to a sport like table tennis so much fun.

Image Credits:
Timo Boll and Christian Suss, Creative Commons
Woman with Laptop, Kirill Kedrinkski, Flickr PhotoSharing
Brazilian Woman Washing Dishes, Christian De Vries, Flickr PhotoSharing
Mumbai Street Ping Pong, Roshan Pajwani, Flickr PhotoSharing
A Game At Which Both Win, 痞客邦 PIXNET 留言(0) 引用(0) 人氣
Bill and Hillary Clinton Play Ping Pong, Blazing Paddles, Larry Hodges
Ping Pong Courtships, JCC Youth Conference, 1947, Flickr PhotoSharing
Ping Pong Videos, Gokhale Method Institute