How to throw the perfect spiral: an investigation

On Oct. 25, I attempted to learn how to throw a spiral by playing catch with Chapman senior Nathan Parkin. I discovered, however, that there were difficulties I hadn’t considered. Photo by Kento Komatsu

Quarterbacks make it look easy. But the art of throwing a spiral is in reality an advanced technique – something I had never attempted and certainly have yet to master.

On Friday, Oct. 25, I braved an empty Wilson Field with Chapman senior defensive back Nathan Parkin in an attempt to learn how to properly throw a football. On a 100-degree day, the two of us found the microscopic part of the field covered by shade and began going through the steps and mechanics to fire a perfect spiral.

“It’s a myth that your fingers have to be placed on the laces of the football,” Parkin said. “The motion your throwing arm makes is like an oval that never finishes.”

He took me through all the basics: point to your target, don’t let your throwing arm travel above your head, rotate your torso. It all sounded pretty simple to me. It was not. I tossed the football ten yards, without a tight spiral and with poor execution. For perspective, Parkin has chucked it 53 yards – in a perfect spin.

So clearly I was doing something wrong. But what? What exactly was it that I wasn’t understanding? If I throw it in a certain way, would the ball travel farther, faster, with more grace and speed?

I found answers in a combination of Parkin’s teaching and research conducted with the help of my wonderful sports editor. Parkin explained that part of a spiral’s execution is influenced by wind or weather conditions. As achieving the spiral depends heavily on aerodynamics, even a puff of wind can push the ball off course. An analysis of a throw from Forbes Magazine writer Chad Orzel revealed just how influential these forces can be.

“In the thick atmosphere of Earth, there are air resistance forces to contend with, forces that depend on the speed of the ball through the air and the shape that it presents to the air in front of it,” Orzel wrote. “A non-spiral pass will appear to ‘flutter’ in the air, changing direction slightly due to air resistance and can end up a significant distance from where the quarterback intended or the receiver expected.”

In throwing the ball in a spiral, its original trajectory will be maintained – something I didn’t understand the first time I threw a pass to Parkin. Thus, it would be easier for the quarterback (in this case, me) to predict the “flight” of the ball and the distance the throw will travel.

Ultimately, despite what I’d learned, I was never able to truly fire off a ball with perfect spin. I was clearly facing a few disadvantages. Firstly, my hands are way too small to fit entirely around the ball. Secondly, throwing a spiral requires a flick of the flingers that I couldn’t seem to pull off. Finally, simply accomplishing this feat takes time and effort I certainly haven’t dedicated. I was merely trying to find a sliver of success in passing the ball to Parkin.

I wasn’t at the center of a game; there was no crowd in the stadium, no adrenaline to motivate me, no mass of angry linebackers rushing at me. And yet, I still couldn’t achieve any throw that resembled a spiral. I’ll give it to the men on Chapman’s football team, to any football player who’s managed to achieve this effortless lofting of the ball: it truly is not easy.