A search for answers: Why do we throw?

Before Jeff Gorski became an influential coach in North Carolina he was a javelin thrower, shown here competing in the early 1980s. Jeff Gorski collection

Editor's Note: Jeff Gorski has a passion for throwing things and once he picked up the javelin he had a hard time putting it down. Gorski moved from athlete to coach and has worked within the framework of the USATF and on his own to promote and develop American throwers. He runs Klub Keihas in North Carolina and last summer he began an experiment with NSSF called The Kultan Keihas Project, which aims to provide six promising high school throwers with an extra layer of resources through development clinics, networking and a trip next summer to Finland. (Kultan keihas means 'javelin gold' in Finnish).

Gorski has agreed to become a regular contributor to Dyestat's Throwers Corner (see Homepage, bottom right).

To kick things off, we asked Jeff a simple question.

What is a thrower?

Throwers … what to make of us? Opinions range from “the best athletes on the team” to “fat, lazy slobs” and everything in between. And those opinions could be right on, depending on the time and place. Throwers are the perhaps the most individual in a sport of individuals and the most difficult to pin down with generalizations. Maybe this is why we’re so hard for “normal people” to figure out.

Personally, I think we’re further along the evolutionary path. Think about that for a moment. Humans are on top because we have bigger brains and walk on two feet. But the reason humans walk on two feet is so that “we” could throw things to defend ourselves and hunt.

In fact, some studies show that humans are hard wired to throw things (especially spears). Throwing things has also been shown to improve frontal and parietal lobe brain development, which helps with visualization skills, predictive ability and problem solving. (See example # 3 here).

Throwing could be the reason why humans developed bigger brains! Until technology (slings, bows & arrows) made spear or rock throwing less effective, throwing ability led to higher social status. The ability to kill enemies or prey from a safe distance was valuable and those who could do it were taken care of.

In preparation for writing this post I did an informal survey of the throwing world via web sites and Facebook. I asked my throwing friends: Why do you throw? What is a thrower?

Here are the most common responses:

A way to express yourself

Response to a challenge

Self reliance

Personal satisfaction

A way to express yourself: This covers a lot of ground, from the performance art of Roald Bradstock and his matching uniforms and javelins to the person who is so passionate about the sport that they claim they “live to throw.” And that’s a prevalent attitude with elite professionals and national level athletes, as well as younger throwers who aspire to the Olympic Games. But it’s also something that older throwers pointed to. After giving up the training and competition, and the discipline to stay sharp, many in this group realized how important throwing was to their lives. A return to throws training helped these folks through difficulty: problems with marriages, business stresses, etc. Getting back into throwing brought their lives back into balance.

Response to a challenge: The desire to compete and be the best cannot be underestimated. In 2002, I hosted a big javelin event in Boston. Janis Lusis (world record holder and 1968 Olympic champion), Bill Schmidt (1972 Olympic bronze), Kate Schmidt (World record; 1972 & 1976 Olympic bronze), Tom Petranoff (World record, 1983 World Champs silver), Bradstock (World record, 1984 Olympic finalist) were all there. A question came up: What made you so good? All of them had been told at one time or another that they would fail, or that they weren’t good enough. They took those challenges and turned them into motivation, like John Wayne in “The Searchers” (if you’re under 45, find it and watch it). They became obsessed with proving their worth. Thousands of throwers have been motivated the same way.

Self reliance: Athletes who like to be pampered or lavished with attention do not gravitate to throwing. We take care of ourselves out of necessity. As throwers we sometimes get dissed or get second class treatment. We can’t always gain access to facilities. We get stuck with lousy rings, runways or fields. Our events get scant TV and newspaper coverage. As a thrower stays in the game, either as athlete or coach, we invariably become thick- skinned. We stand up for ourselves, individually and collectively.

Personal satisfaction: The joy that comes from your own work decides success or failure. Different throwers express this in different ways:

“It’s just you against the tape.”

“When I throw I feel God’s pleasure.”

“There are so many dimensions to the throwing events that a person's potential to throw significantly farther on the next throw is virtually limitless!”

“I throw because it is pure sport, like jumping and running. You can't blame others when you don’t achieve your goal.”

For me, getting started in throwing began by loving those cheap Italian “sword and sandal” Hercules flicks when I was a kid. I spent lots of free time playing Greek Hero games, throwing broom-stick spears at imaginary dragons and other ancient monsters. In baseball and football I could out-throw anyone for distance but accuracy was an issue. In my last baseball game I tried to throw the winning run out at home from the right field fence. The ball was still rising as it sailed over the backstop.

I was the youngest of four sons, born into an athletic family. One of my older brothers was a hurdler. I’d sit and watch big meets on TV with him as he studied Guy Drut and Rod Milburn. One day we watched the California Relays and I saw Jorma Kinnunen bound down a grass runway and launch a javelin almost 290 feet. I was hooked. By my senior year in high school I’d given up football and basketball for the javelin. Feeling the impending success or failure riding on my shoulders, and mine alone, was incredibly refreshing and exciting. It blossomed into a full blown passion. It gave me an opportunity to travel and meet like-minded athletes from all over the globe. And it affirmed, for me, something the great Olympic hammer champion, Hal Connelly, once said:

“The raw adrenaline, camaraderie and pure power that is not seen or felt anywhere else … starts inside us. We are throwers at the bone.”