Are You Gonna Throw Far? The Goals of a Collegiate Thrower
By Shane Hallengren '11
Shane’s paper was for my Ethnographic Methods class. In the class students learn about the range of methods that anthropologists use to carry out field research, from different interview techniques to participant observation. Early in the semester students chose a specific sub-culture group with whom they conduct participant observation during the rest of the semester. In their final field research paper they write up their ethnographic findings. I chose Shane’s paper as a submission, not just because he was able to document some interesting aspects of this specific sport’s subculture, but because of its elegant writing style.
Over the course of one competition season, I spent time with the throwers from the Middle College (a pseudonym) track and field team. Specifically, I observed ten male athletes competing in the discus throw, shot put, hammer and weight throws, as well as the javelin throw. Middle College is a private Midwestern institution affiliated with the NCAA’s Division III. To initiate my study, I approached the team’s head coach. I explained the nature of my proposed research and asked his permission to spend time with his athletes during competitions. After receiving consent, I contacted Nathan (another pseudonym), a junior and one of the team’s captains. He found the idea comical but old me he would be fine with me observing them. After this, I informed the rest of the throwers of the nature of my study and began observing them during meets. For any formal interviews or other time-consuming research, I arranged time outside of their organized team functions as to not interfere with their participation. For the sake of anonymity, I have changed the names of all of all of my informants as well as all collegiate institutions. I had initially anticipated encountering difficulties immersing myself into the group. I imagined that, as a group who spends a lot of time together, the throwers would be very tight-knit and might resist me trying to integrate myself into their micro-culture. While I did find them to be very close, I did not encounter any trouble completing in-depth observations. In fact, during my first observation, as I was watching the throwers rough house with one another, Will grabbed me and put me in an arm lock. From this encounter, it was clear that integration would not be a problem. I found that the throwers were very willing to talk with me, and they seemed to enjoy answering questions I had.
My observations entailed attending their weekly meets, generally on Saturday, and watching the athletes throw. Throwing competitions are separated into flights of approximately ten to fifteen throwers. Athletes with a better seed, which is determined by their best throw of the season, throw in the later flights. Most competitions allow three throws in the prelims, or preliminary flights, and then the nine athletes with the best throws are taken to the finals. During the finals, athletes are allowed three additional throws. The top eight athletes then receive points which contribute to their team scores. The first place athlete receives 10 points for his team and then 8-6-5-4-3-2-1 points for each respective athlete. With the exception of the javelin, all the throws are competed in a ring, a circle of concrete or plywood. The athlete must complete the throw without stepping outside of the ring; otherwise, the throw is a foul and is not measured. In the case of the javelin, the throw is contested on a runway, and the athlete is unable to cross a foul line in order to have their throw measured. Additionally, the implement must land within a marked sector, or it is a foul. During any given flight, there are athletes who are observing their teammates, as their flight is over or yet to start. I spent my observation time sitting with these athletes, asking questions and observing their behavior.
During my observations, I noticed that the throwers talked about setting and accomplishing their goals. During nearly every meet, as I watched their warm-ups I would hear one thrower ask another, “Are you gonna throw far today?” Although they were expressing it implicitly, I realized that this was a way for the athletes to set get a clear statement of a goal from their teammates. As I reexamined my field notes, I was able to see the theme of goals tracing throughout my research. I then noticed several attributes attached to this theme; there are several traits that shape the way in which the throwers at Middle College both define and attempt to accomplish their goals. The various types of throws lead to different goals being set. The group identity and relationships also shape the ability of a thrower to be able to meet the goals they have set. Additionally, differing ability levels means that, while some goals are communal, many are applicable only to one individual. All of these factors come together to determine the ways in which a thrower understands and accomplishes their goals.
The Throwing Events Through my field research and interviews within this micro-culture, I have identified several different types of throws which the throwers compete in. Based on a formal interview, I discovered that throws can be initially separated into the events that are contested during indoor season, and those during the outdoor season. Because of the limited room in an indoor track and field facility, the indoor competition is limited to just two throws: the shot put and the weight throw. The outdoor season, on the other hand, does not have this limitation. Therefore, the hammer throw, shot put, discus throw, and javelin throw are all contested outdoors.
My initial observations within my micro-culture took place during the indoor season, which begins in late January and ends for most athletes after the conference championships a month later. However, for any athletes qualifying for indoor nationals – the NCAA national championships – the season runs through mid-March. During my observations, I noticed two distinct types of techniques in the shot put. All athletes start with their backs facing the direction of the throw; however, from this point two different styles emerge. Some athletes spread their feet to about shoulder width, spin themselves around one and a half times and then push the shot away from their bodies. Others do not perform this spin, instead they place one foot behind the other and lean forward slightly. From this position, they kick their back leg out in order to create momentum, slide across the throwing ring, and in one motion turn and push the shot away from their body. Upon noticing these differences I asked some of the athletes about the two styles and discovered that the first technique is simply called the spin while the latter is called the glide.
In an interview, Bruce, a sophomore thrower, discussed that the shot put is the only throwing event contested during both seasons, and that there is no difference between the event when it is contested indoors or outdoors. Nathan, the teams most accomplished shot putter explained to me that “shot is exactly the same indoors and outdoors.” While this is the only throw that is exactly the same, I also learned that others are seen as being very closely related. Interviewing revealed a relationship between the indoor weight throw and the outdoor hammer throw. My own field observation has taught me that the implement thrown in the weight throw is a 35 pound ball attached to a handle. The athlete holds the handle, begins to swing the weight and then spins while holding the implement at full arms length before releasing it. According to my interviewee, the technique used in this event is directly relatable to the hammer throw. The only difference is that the hammer is much lighter, and the handle and ball are separated by nearly four feet of cable. Thrower Bruce explained that “the weight is just like the hammer, except for the hammer is 16 pounds where the weight is 35. But the footwork is identical. It’s just a lot easier on the body, the hammer is.”
My interviewee also expressed a distinct favoritism for the outdoor throws. Some of these reasons were perhaps personal but others seem to be widely shared by other throwers. Based on my formal interview and informal questions during field observation, I have noted that the athletes generally prefer outdoor throws. They have expressed the fact that there are more events to compete in, it is refreshing to be outdoors, and the outdoor events are less punishing on the body than the indoor events. This is evidenced by Bruce’s statement. He went on to explain that since the weight is so much heavier than the hammer, any flaw in technique puts strain on the body.
As discussions of throwing identities will show, the javelin is an oddity in the world of throwing, as it is seen as mostly unrelated to the rest of the throwing events. The group who are widely recognized as the throwers compete in the shot put, discus, and hammer/ weight. In this respect, the discus is more closely related to the shot put and hammer. However, the discus and the javelin share a characteristic that the other throws do not. In these two events, I observed athletes talking about the effects of wind on their performance. According to my informants, aerodynamics comes into effect during these events. In the case of the javelin, the athletes would get excited to throw into a slight headwind. A third year javelin thrower, Rueben, explained to me that when throwing in these conditions, “the wind keeps the jav from turning over, and holds it in the air longer.” The lift created by the wind causes the javelin to carry further.
The other throwers also talk about the effects of the wind on the discus, and the event shares this characteristic only with the javelin. Bruce, who considers himself as “primarily [a] discus thrower,” often talked with his coaches and teammates about having a ‘good wind’ to throw with. Again, the direction of the wind dictates the amount of lift the implement will have, and will contribute to the length of flight. However, in the discus the athletes distinguish between a wind that is good for left handed throwers as compared to a right handed thrower. A righthanded thrower wants a wind coming in front and slightly left of the ring. For example, if the sector faces north, a righthanded discus thrower would want a south-southeast wind. A left-handed thrower would want a south-southwest wind in that circumstance.
The different types of throws affect the way a throwing athlete understands their individual goals in the sport. Part of this results from the fact that athletes tend to associate more strongly with some events than others. As mentioned before, Bruce considers himself “primarily [a] discus thrower and then hammer [thrower] close second.” This is something that occurs commonly among throwers. Bruce elaborated:
Generally speaking, most people would say ‘I’m a thrower,’ and then if you talked to them about it more, normally you’ll get a ‘I throw primarily this’ or ‘My favorite event is this,’ [or] ‘I throw all three but this is the event I’m here for’… but you don’t see a ton of throwers that are very well rounded [in all of the events].
The result of focusing on primarily one or two events is that goals are shaped differently for different events.
During the indoor season, Nathan was a great example of this. During the season prior to my observation, he had been within a few inches of breaking the school shot put record and also very close to qualifying for nationals. He explained to me that his ultimate goals for the season were to do both of these things. However, his goals for the weight were more modest. When I asked him about what he expected to accomplish in that event he replied, “I think Bruce and I should be able to place high at conference.” Because his main focus is the shot, his goals for that event were higher than they were for the other weight. The relationship of the throws also affects this. An athlete with high goals in the hammer likely has similarly lofty goals in the weight throw. This is something that seems to occur throughout the micro-culture. They tend to have goals for all of the events, but the goals for a particular event are higher than the others.
Establishing Identity and Relationships
Perhaps my biggest interest when I began to study collegiate throwers was their identity in relation to the rest of their team. As a general fan of track and field, I imagine that the sport is generalized as running-based. Based on this, I hypothesized that the rest of the team might disregard the throwers. From an analytical perspective, I thought I observed this. However, I found little perception of this from the throwers themselves. When I began my study of throwers, I was curious about relationships they had with teammates, both throwers and non throwers. I wanted to learn about interactions that occurred in the context of their sport. However, after some direct observation, I quickly learned that relationships formed based on their identity as throwers could actually be divided into two broader groups. One group includes not just their teammates, but the team as a whole, because it includes coaches. The other group, which I did not expect to find, is relationships formed with athletes from other schools.
The relationships within their own team can be subdivided into three categories, the first of which is coaches. During my unstructured interview with Bruce we discussed the interactions he has with coaches. He explained how the relationship with the head coach is different from that of the throws coaches. The team employs two throws coaches, and these are the instructors who work with the athletes during practice and give them advice during the meets. I observed the head coach at times watching the throwers during meets, but his presence is based on general support and not specific technical advice, for his specialty is not the throws. Bruce also explained that if he had a specific question about throwing he would address one of his throws coaches, but if he had a more general question he would probably take that to his head coach.
The second team relationship is with teammates who do not compete in throws. My informants explained to me that they receive some support from these teammates during meets, but it is minimal. The throwers call this group the runners. Especially during the outdoor meets, I observed very few runners at the throwing venues to cheer. This is partially due to the physical layout of most track and field venues. At most colleges, for the sake of space, the throwing arenas are separated from the track. As Bruce said, this means that, “at outdoor meets you probably won’t find us near the track at all, because sometimes we throw a mile away.” In some cases, the throwing arenas are not even visible from track. At the Middle College home meets for example, the track and grandstand sit in a bowl and the throwing venues are scattered in the surrounding areas. This means that the throwing events cannot be seen directly from the track. As a result, very few runners are able to come and watch the throwers, and the throwers do not see many of the running events.
This stratification is less prevalent during the indoor season. Most indoor track and field facilities consist of a 200-meter track (half the size of a standard outdoor facility) and the throwing events take place somewhere inside the oval of the track. Because of the proximity, more runners walk by and see the throwing events. However, even during indoor season, the throwers spend most of their time among one another, though this is much more evident during the outdoor season. Although I never heard any of the throwers express resentment at this fact, Bruce did explain to me the effects a larger crowd has on his performance: “I enjoy there being more people there to cheer you on. I think I speak for most… of the throwers on the team. It just helps them build the adrenaline up… Say you get a big throw, and after it you hear everybody cheering, your next throw is just going to be that much better because of the adrenaline you build up…” Despite recognizing the benefits of having a larger group of teammates present to cheer them on, the throwers do not resent the fact that, as Bruce says “it’s not quite as loud as the running would be” while they are throwing.
The final group of team relationships are those formed amongst the throwers themselves; this is by far the richest of these relationships. The throwers are always around the throwing events cheering for each other. Even after they finish competing tend to keep themselves separated from the rest of the team. My interviewee explained that because they spend so much time together, they know how to support and assist each other during competitions, and they get used to drawing encouragement from their relatively small group: Bruce: …it’s kind of just its own little group, it’s kind of secluded. You have to draw from the four or five people that are there. You can’t draw from the whole team S.H.: I’ve noticed that when I’m around you guys. It’s pretty low key; it’s mostly you guys who are there. Bruce: Like I said, no one is going to turn down anyone coming and cheering. But you get used to having that group of people there and it’s kind of nice because they know how to help you. The throwers appreciate the support from their own group during their competition. Part of this comes from the technical advice and part of it is the result of general support, although the throwers place more emphasis on simple general support.
The most common form of support I observed was very basic. The teammates who are watching will simply yell encouragement to their teammate as they walk into the throwing ring. Something such as, “Let’s go Michael,” or “Big throw now!” is common. However, once the athlete enters the ring and is actually throwing, the spectators stop cheering. My informants explained that too much noise can be distracting during the actual throw. After they have completed the throw, the athlete will generally walk out to retrieve the implement. During this time, as the officials measure the distance, the other throwers, as well as coaches give them technical advice about their form. I observed one particular upper classman thrower, Michael, doing this very frequently. The age and experience level of the recipients of his advice seemed irrelevant. They all listened to and acknowledged his advice. While this is an important part of the support, the throwers indicated that they appreciate general support the most.
Bruce: I know that this last meet that we were at in [Earp College], that Will didn’t have a good day, I’m pretty sure it was in the weight… S.H.: How do you cope with that? Like when Will’s not doing well, do you try to encourage him or do you just try to leave him alone? Bruce: It depends on the personality. For the most part everyone on the team… is open to encouragement and a little help here and there. So you might point out on thing they’re doing wrong. Like, ‘Hey, pull a little hard here at the end,’ or like ‘Get that foot down quicker.’ But for the most part just be like, ‘Hey you can do this, just get out there you know you can do it. So just go out there and give it your best.’ S.H.: So it’s more of the general encouragement rather than ‘this is what you need to do better at.’ Bruce: Right. And for the most part, when someone [gives you technical advice] you hear them but you don’t sit there and just practice it on the side…
As Bruce relates, the throwers appreciate all of the assistance that they receive from their fellow throwers, and because of the close knit nature of their group, they know how to draw encouragement and support from one another.
I was also surprised to find that one event is a bit of an enigma among the throwers. The javelin throw is not considered by the competitors of the other events to be a true throwing event. Those who consider themselves the “throwers” compete in the weight and shot indoors, and the hammer, discus and shot put outdoors, do not throw the javelin. Only one of the throwers at Middle College, Rueben, competes in the javelin and another throwing event. When I pointed this out to him he told me quite clearly, “I am a javelin thrower.” He considers himself a javelin thrower, and he only competes in the other throws during the indoor season. The javelin throwers are a separate group. They have their own coach, work out together, and are generally not considered to be part of the group of throwers. When I questioned Bruce about this, he was unable to give a sound logical explanation for this peculiarity. He explained that there is a reciprocal joking among the two groups; they get along but they are definitely distinct groups. Bruce also readily admitted that the javelin throwers legitimately throw just as much as they do. In this case the relationships are more closely knit that with runners, but not as close as the true throwers.
The second category of relationships these athletes form as a result of their sport are those that occur with their opponents. During my direct observations I noticed that at times the throwers would be talking with a group from Margery College. At another meet, I noticed a reoccurrence of this behavior. Based on this, I began questioning my informants in order to elicit information on this category of relationships. I asked my informants about interactions with throwers from opposing schools that they see repetitively throughout the season. I asked if friendships developed, and my interviewee actually mentioned the throwers from Margery College and explained that he would not call these opponents friends. Instead, he simply explained that the groups get along and often talk. Based on this information and the fact that the throwers have not expressed any folk term for this relationship, I used an analytic term and labeled this group ‘acquaintances.’ The final group which has been elicited through my research is a group the throwers call ‘rivals.’ As an example of this, my interviewee explained that while they get along with throwers from Margery, they do not interact with throwers from Melville College. He explained that these athletes are simply viewed as rivals.
All of these aspects contribute to the ways in which the throwers form their group identity. It shapes the ways they understand themselves in relation to their team as well as their competitors. As a result of these factors, the throwers form a very close knit group and are very comfortable with one another. Banter, practical jokes, and general roughing around are all very common. One example of banter, which I would commonly hear quite commonly, was one thrower asking another before an event, “You gonna throw far today?” When I asked my informants about this they explained that it is partly to give each other a hard time and partly to get one another pumped up for competition. In other cases, banter is not for encouragement, but simply for fun. For example, reciprocal name-calling is very common, but is never done with negative intentions. Instead, the athletes try to outdo the insult that they have just received. The throwers acknowledge this aspect of their behavior as significant. When I initially approached my microculture to propose the study, they thought the idea was strange. When I explained the nature of the research would just be spending time with them during competitions, James laughed and said “All you’re going to see is a bunch of name-calling and messing around.” All of these subtleties add up to the ways in which the group identity of the Middle College throwers is formed.
However, this shaping of identity also affects the way that the throwers accomplish their goals. As my interviewee indicated earlier, having a crowd cheering for him improves his ability to throw well. Therefore, his teammates help him to accomplish his goals. His statements also indicate that the athletes become familiar with one another’s personalities, and they know the proper way to support each other. However, Bruce also indicated ways in which opponents help him to compete well, and therefore meet his goals. In the setting of the conference meet, which is a major focus of the athletes, both teammates and opponents can potentially help an athlete reach their goal.
Bruce: You don’t look at them as opponents. Because to qualify for nationals there’s a set distance and you just have to throw that far. So I mean, in that meet you’re competing against them, but overall you’re just competing for that distance… [but] it just kind of depends. Like at conference, the meet that really counts, the meet you build up for, the place is just as important as the distance, if not more important just because of the points. Because at conference you want to throw your best, but you’ve got to place ahead of other people too.
So, although much of the drive for accomplishing goals is internal, some of it comes from the competitive environment. In the conference meet, the athletes use their rivals to motivate themselves, as they want to place ahead of the other teams. Clearly, the relationships throwers form through their sport help shape their group identity, and this in turn contributes to their ability to accomplish their goals.
Differing Ability Levels
One of the interesting traits of the throwers, and one which plays a major role in shaping their goals, is the differing ability levels of the athletes. There are two athletes who, according to the sport’s standards, are the most successful throwers on the team. Nathan and Bruce are both national qualifiers in the shot put and the discus throw, respectively. In fact, during my season of observation, Nathan received an All-American award in the indoor shot put, an honor attained by placing in the top eight among competitors at nationals. From here, there are athletes who contribute points to the team at the conference meet, and then athletes who are working towards this level. Because of their differing ability levels, the athletes shape their goals differently.
For example, Bruce qualified for nationals during the season prior to my observation. He explained to me that it is his expectation to return to the national meet during the outdoor season.
S.H.: Ok, so you qualified for nationals last year. What’s that like now? Do you feel a lot of pressure to do it again, or is it just like you know you can? Bruce: It’s a confidence thing. I know I’m able to, doing it is another thing. It’s just kind of getting confident in what I do, and this year should be better it’s my second year through it… But when things don’t start off well, the pressure starts to build and it’s like, you know, I’ve got to have a good throw here sooner or later.
Before the outdoor season had even begun, Bruce fully expected himself to qualify for nationals for the second year. However, this is not Bruce’s only personal goal in regards to his sport. His PR (personal record, or best throw) is within a few feet of the school record. At the beginning of the outdoor season, when Will asked him about breaking the school record before graduating he replied, “Well I better, if I can’t improve four feet in the next three years then I’m a total joke.” Because of his ability level, Bruce’s goals are set rather high. During the first meet of the season, Bruce provo-ed in this discus. “Provo” is a folk term meaning that he met the provisional qualifying standard in the event. To qualify for nationals, the NCAA designates an automatic qualifying standard, which guarantees acceptance to the national meet, and provisional qualifying standard. The top athletes from the provo list are selected for nationals depending on how many athletes have autoed. Generally speaking, there are approximately 15 athletes selected in total.
While the goals for Bruce and Nathan included school records and national berths, many of the other throwers’ goals were more modest. They recognize, and even joke about, the differing ability levels. During the second indoor meet I observed, I was watching the first flight of shot put competitors. There were three Middle college throwers in the flight. During their warm ups they saw me taking notes and joked with me. “We’re a bad group to watch; we’re not competitive. You might want to come back in the second flight for Nathan and Will,” they told me referring to a few of the other throwers who were in a later flight. However, during all of this, they recited the distances they wanted to throw and asked each other “How far you gonna throw today?” Some of this is done jokingly, but much of it is a serious recital of goals. Rather than wanting to qualify for nationals, these athletes have a distance set in mind as their goal.
During the actual throwing, the athletes had a competition among themselves, trying to outthrow one another. After they were finished, James, the winner of the competition, jokingly mocked the others, saying, “I won the crappythrowers competition.” As they came and sat down to watch the rest of the heats, I asked him what he meant by this. He explained to me that he does not like the indoor events and so it is hard to be very excited about them. However, with the outdoor season, he wants to be able to score conference points in the discus and hammer.
This desire indicates and important group goal, one that is shared by all of the throwers. They talk very often about the winning conference meet, and as Bruce said earlier, conference is “the meet that really counts, the meet you build up for.” As a group, they expect to contribute a lot of points to the team’s score. As Nathan explained during one meet. “I think our team has the best throwers in the conference.” For the throwers, a team conference championship is perhaps the most important overall goal. During the indoor season, they won a team conference championship but were still very adamant about winning the outdoor title as well. Although the athletes share this common goal, their differing ability levels still mean their individual goals are shaped differently. Some athletes have goals of national success, while some focus on the conference meet.
Accomplishing goals is a major theme among the throwers at Middle College. They talk about everything from throwing a new PR, placing at conference, qualifying for nationals, and becoming All-Americans. However, there are several factors that contribute to an athlete’s ability to both set and accomplish their goals. First of all, the different events determine different goals. An athlete may aspire to be a national qualifier in the discus, but simply to score conference points in the shot put. The ways in which the events are similar or dissimilar affect a thrower’s ability to set these goals.
Secondly, the group identity makes a strong contribution to a thrower’s ability to accomplish their goals. Because they spend a great deal of time with each other, the athletes know how to support each other. They can provide both technical advice and encouragement that other team members are unable to do. This is partly due to their shrewd understanding of each individual’s personality. However, the relationship with the rest of the team can also be beneficial. Having these team members for support can build adrenaline and help improve throws, though these relationships are not as beneficial as those formed among the group. Relationships with throwers from opposing teams can also help accomplish goals. Although it is not always the case, competing against an athlete who is doing well can inspire an athlete to throw better. And finally, the fact that the athlete’s ability levels are different shapes their goals. Some athletes aspire to national success, while others have goals of personal improvement. Although they have a very strong common goal of winning the conference meet, their individual goals vary greatly depending on their ability levels.
Through my research I was able to elicit a lot of information from the male throwers at this small college. Unfortunately, I was unable to do very extensive study on female throwers. This was based on the simple fact that the team had only four women throwers, and two of these are javelin throwers. The result was that when I began my research during the indoor season, there were only two female throwers. The natural consequence of this was that my research began to be dominated by then men. Additionally, I saw this as too small of a population to be able illicit beneficial information. I had originally hoped to observe the behavior of female throwers compared to the men. I was also curious about the interactions between the two groups. Unfortunately this was not possible with the population’s size. Regardless, I was able to learn an incredible amount about how the male throwers on Middle College’s track and field team interact with their environment and then deal with their goals.