A friendly pat on the back can improve performance in basketball

Science and Health

Amazingly, a friendly pat on the back of a basketball player can improve his/her performance, according to a research team at the University of Basel in Switzerland. 

A free throw in basketball will have every eye glued to one person during an intensely stressful situation, and many games are decided by this bonus. The university psychologists decided to study whether a friendly tap on the shoulder increases the odds of making a successful basket. 

In difficult situations, physical touch like a hug or a pat on the back can reduce stress. Whether this influences performance in stressful life situations has not yet been studied in detail. Led by Dr. Christiane Büttner, the team investigated this question in the context of basketball games and published their findings in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise under the title “The power of human touch: Physical contact improves performance in basketball free throws.”

Basketball players receive a free throw if they were fouled while attempting to score. In most cases, the fouled player gets two free throws and can win one point per successful shot. 

Büttner, who is a University of Basel visiting instructor from the University of Landau in Germany and Purdue University in Indiana studied precisely this situation using videos of basketball games. The study included a total of 60 games played by women’s basketball teams in the US National Collegiate Athletic Association. The games contained 835 incidents of two free throws.

Israel’s National Basketball Team faces off against Bosnia and Herzegovina. (credit: FIBA)

Support is most helpful when you’re already stressed

The researchers counted how many of her four teammates touched the shooter before a shot — for example, by tapping her on the shoulder or squeezing her hand. They then calculated whether there was a statistical association between the number of touches by teammates and the success rate of the subsequent shot.

The data showed that the chance of scoring rose when teammates showed their support through touch. The effect appeared only after a failed first shot, “so support from teammates is most helpful when your stress level is already high because you’ve missed the first of the two shots,” Büttner said.

It’s conceivable that a pat on the back or squeeze of the hand could also help manage stress and improve performance in other team situations and interpersonal relationships, she concluded.