Linkage 2/26: Touchy Basketball, Human Growth Hysteria

I’ve come down with a severe case of baseball fever this week, earlier than ever before. Could climate change be to blame? Regardless, I thought I’d put that condition to good use with a couple pieces of science news from the sports world.

The Touchy-Feely Strategy

800px-beijing_olympics_mens_semifinal_basketball_usa_huddleTo tide me over through the long, slow crawl of spring training, I’ll be paying extra attention to college basketball as March Madness gets into full swing. As I start to ponder my bracket, I might do some scouting of how the top-ranked teams perform in an unusual statistical category: high-fives. That’s based on an unusual paper, reported recently in the New York Times, that correlated “tactile communication” with better performance in NBA teams analyzed during the 2008-09 season. The vocabulary of such communication includes the following, according to the paper: “fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, full hugs, half hugs, and team huddles.” What, no Christian side hugs?

The authors, from the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to test their hypothesis that touch is an important way by which humans build “trust, cooperation, and group functioning” (The paper has not yet been published, but is available from lead author Michael Kraus’ website). The background section mentions that primates spend as much as a fifth of their time grooming each other, and that several psychology experiments have found that brief touches increase trust and bonding between two people. That benefit, they reasoned, would be especially useful in team sports, where working together presumably increases chances of success (don’t tell Allen Iverson).

Testing this hypothesis involved “scoring” a number of basketball games from early in the 08-09 season for the above list of hands-on celebrations, as well as less overt “expressions of cooperation and trust,” such as talking, gesturing, passing the ball and helping on defense. The researchers then correlated those touch scores to individual players’ and teams’ performances over the rest of the season, and found a positive correlation for both. In other words, the touchier a player was, the better season they had; the touchier a team was as a whole, the more successful they were over the course of a season.

There’s certain confounders, of course. A team high on confidence because they were predicted to do well, or because they were already on a winning streak. Oddly enough, previous psychological research has shown that people better off socioeconomically exhibit higher touching rates, so salary was also taken into account (I’d argue what they’re actually controlling for here is talent given that better players paid more and most NBA players would be considered to be either rich or extremely rich in the grand socioeconomic scheme of things). But even with all of these factors controlled, the correlation remained – chest-bumpers were more likely to go on to basketball success.

But how could this be applied? There’s are some strong questions about cause or effect here; from the background section, the authors would seemingly have you believe that touching leads to success, but success and touching could both be independent results of some as yet undiscovered underlying factor. TV analysts and sportswriters would no doubt argue that touching and celebrating is the result of “chemistry,” a vague concept that years of reading sabermetric blogs has beaten out of me. But perhaps the truth is somewhere halfway between – a comfort level among teammates that brings high-fives and victory in equal amounts. I’ll be paying close attention to backrubs in team huddles from now on.

Human Growth Hormone Testing – So What?

As a Cardinals fan, the use of performance-enhancing drugs hasn’t been far from my mind this offseason, as much as, ahem, I’m not here to talk about the past. Despite Major League Baseball’s significant strides in testing for anabolic steroids over the past decade, the elephant in the room has remained human growth hormone, or HGH. Though banned by baseball in 2005, there has been no reliable test available to enforce that ban, leading many to speculated (with reason) that it has become the performance-enhancer of choice among athletes desperate for an edge.

But last week, British rugby player Terry Newton was given a two-month ban after testing positive for HGH, the first known professional athlete to test positive for the substance. Newton, described as “one of the most notorious and least popular players,” in his league, was caught by a blood test, which players’ unions in the United States have long resisted. Other than those scant details, it’s hard to tell how the test worked – my usual source for such information, the excellent Science of Sport blog, doesn’t know, which means it must be veiled in secrecy.

Yet it’s worth a reminder as the sports page drumbeat grows louder again that very little science points to HGH really having much effectiveness as a performance enhancer in the first place. As this nice review from Slate in 2007 explained, anabolic steroids and HGH are two entirely different ballgames, if you’ll pardon the pun. A 1990 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that HGH strengthen bones and reduced fat in 60-year-old men, but nobody has found convincing evidence that it improves athletic performance in younger men, who would presumably have higher baseline HGH. The Mark McGwire excuse – that HGH helps recover from injury – is also unsupported by hard data, save for in elderly people with hip fractures (though interestingly, it does help rats recover from chemotherapy). Really, HGH is a giant disappointment all around scientifically – it can’t even help short kids (pardon me, “children with familial short stature”) grow taller!


An interesting new liver transplant procedure – where the transplanted liver is intentionally rejected after the patient’s original liver regenerates – is analyzed by the New York Times. Our very own J. Michael Millis, director of transplantation services, is skeptical.

The annual AAAS meeting – a sort of potpourri of the latest and most exciting science across fields – was held last weekend in San Diego, and there was some excellent online coverage from ScienceNews and Nature. My favorite finding reported at the meeting: how a musician’s brain is better than all other brains.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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