High Five: an MVP Move

Basketball is Psychology VII

“I believe that the measure of a person’s life is the effect they have on others.” --Steve Nash



With two MVP’s, 8 all star appearances, and 5 seasons as the assist leader, Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash’s career was nothing short of remarkable. Perhaps his most noteworthy influence on the game was not the numerous flashy passes or leading his team’s fast paced offense, but his touches.

239 touches per game; not the amount of times he touched the ball, the number of times he touched his teammates. During the season 2009-2010 NBA season, the Phoenix Suns had an intern count the number of high fives Steve Nash gave during an average game, and he counted 239.

These simple, seemingly meaningless gestures may be the catalyst for individual and team success.


NBA Touch Study

In a study done at UC Berkeley, an early season game for each of the 30 NBA teams was coded for touches. The prediction was physical touch would predict performance because it promotes cooperation, and soothes in times of stress through warmth and increased trust.

Touching and Trusting

At birth, touch is the most developed sense we have. Physical touch is a need, right behind food, water, and rest; our brain does not develop properly without it. Touch is a powerful enabler of trust. We experience trust and many other human emotions in a part of the brain called the insular cortex. When we are touched, the insular cortex lights up. This part of our brain is activated with a simple high-five. Even the warmth of our body is powerful. Just the physical sensation of a hot cup of coffee makes people more willing to trust.

Touch is vital for trust, cooperation, and group functioning. Touch reduces feelings of threat.

Touch reinforces that teammates are operating for the good of the group and not playing selfishly.

Touch determines how well teams cooperate which determines how well they perform.

Measuring Behavior

During this study, 12 distinct types of touches were recorded: high fives, fist bumps, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, full hugs, half hugs, and team huddles.

Cooperation, in the form of unselfishness and efficiency, was also measured. These interdependent behaviors included talking during the game, passing to a teammate who is less closely defended, helping other teammates on defense, setting screens to get teammates open, and other displays of relying on teammates even at the expense of individual performance.

In contrast, behaviors that display lack of trust were also measured such as taking closely defended shots, not passing to an open teammate, and other self-reliant actions.

Finally, performance and success were measured by gaining possession of the ball, scoring efficiently, and winning.


The predictions were accurate.

Touch predicts individual and team performance.

Just by looking at the number of team touches during a game at the beginning of the season, the researchers predicted which teams would have the best records at the end of the season. They were right. The best NBA teams were always getting into tight huddles, high-fiving, and chest-bumping. Inevitably, they played like they trusted each other. They found the best shots on offense, helped each other on defense, talked more, and of course, won more games.

The worst teams in the NBA barely touched and had terrible body language. As a result, they consistently made selfish, inefficient plays, and their record showed it.

Players who touched the most, performed the best.

Teams that touched the most, performed the best.

How can this be explained? Cooperation.

Touch causes cooperation, which leads to efficient play, which determines how well a team plays.

Teams that touch more, win more.