The Unexpected Benefits of Getting "Handsy"

What basketball can teach us about the value of touch.

Posted May 27, 2019

Tyler Nix / Unsplash
Source: Tyler Nix / Unsplash

In Canada these days, there’s an awful lot of hugging and high-fiveing after NBA games. “I have seven million new friends!” one reveler told a CBC reporter amid the celebratory crush in downtown Toronto’s “Jurassic Park.”

Fans are giddy as the Raptors continue their inspiring playoff run. Finally, just maybe, the game that one of our countrymen invented is about to come home to roost.

On the court, things are even more touchy-feely. Basketball is a game of ritualistic “social touch.” When players are introduced, when they sub in or out, when they go to the line to shoot free throws, they slap palms: down low, not too slow. There’s also a fair bit of incidental contact across the semipermeable membrane that is the basketball sideline; players sometimes find themselves landing in the popcorn buckets of courtside fans.

But this team, right now, seems to be at Peak Touch. The tone has been set by the rapper Drake, the team’s unofficial mascot, whose handsy sideline antics provoke, in many Canadians, the kind of mixed emotions one feels toward a drunken uncle at a wedding. We’re sort of mortified, but there’s also something cathartic about it, especially for a people who aren’t exactly competing with the French in “touchability.” (Or wait, with the Finns?) 

Game in and out, Raptors players are low-fiveing each other around the twist. I’m not saying this is why they’re winning. There’s a chicken-and-egg dimension to social touching in pro sports. Winning begets touching, and touching begets winning, as social scientists led by the U Cal Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner discovered.

Keltner et al. analyzed the tapes of every team in the NBA and coded the “tactile communication.” It turned out that the more teammates touched each other at the start of a year—controlling for how much money they made, expectations for how well they would do over a season, and how well they were doing in that game—by the end of the year, “not only do they win more games, but they were playing more efficiently and cooperatively.” Touch seemed to build team cohesion that translated to success. “Touch instills trust,” as Keltner explained to a reporter. “It contagiously spreads good will. It makes players play better on behalf of each other." (Wait: Steve Nash, the best Canadian basketball player ever, was a champion low-fiver. Maybe that was his superpower all along.)

In the Bigger Game, the game beyond the hardwood, touch flexes that same affiliative muscle. The degree of social touching in a culture, studies have shown, correlates with the “strength of emotional bonds” in that culture.

This isn’t a column about touch as “medicine,” but it could be. We know that touch lowers blood pressure and boosts heart health. And when touch disappears for too long, the chilly fog of an affliction sometimes called “skin hunger” closes in. It’s like the chronic deficit of an essential nutrient, a kind of scurvy of the soul.

I’ve lamented in this space the decline of the human voice in the era of texting. Touch feels similarly imperiled. In many schools, teachers are forbidden from even laying an encouraging hand on a kid's shoulder. In the #MeToo era there’s a radioactive taboo around any kind of touching at all. Those of us inclined to hug anyone this side of a random stranger can come off as nutty and needy if not downright creepy—and maybe that’s how it must be as the culture sorts this one out with an overcorrection.

But make no mistake: it’s once again safe, at least for the moment, to high-five strangers on street corners in Canada.

So hold the restraining order on Drake.

At least until the playoffs are over.