How to predict sports team success

It’s the first game of the season. You’re watching your favourite football team, full of anticipation and nervous energy. As you watch the game unfold, you’re trying to work out whether this is the year that your team is finally going to win the league. Are the star players on form? Has the manager got a winning system? Are there new players bring fresh inspiration to the team?

How about looking for how often the players touch each other? If that sound strange, think about for a moment. Touch is a powerful driver of trust. It increases cooperation and reduces feelings of threat. All of that is going to help a team work well together. So maybe a team where high-fives, reassuring arm-touches, etc – they’re going to be successful.

That’s what a team of researchers from UC Berkeley were interested in. Focusing on basketball, they wanted to find out if the touch observed during one NBA game early in the season would predict team performance over the course of the season.

Coding touch in a single early-season game

The researchers analysed video tapes of a single game early in the season for each of the 30 NBA teams. They coded the type and duration of touch between players, ignoring touch which resulted directly from playing basketball. So, the focus was on intentional touch, including fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, full hugs, half hugs, and team huddles.

Touch predicts both team and individual performance

The teams engaging in high levels of touch in that early game performed better throughout the season. This finding held up even after controlling for team status (measured by the total team salary), preseason expectations and early season performance.

On the individual level, richer players touched other players more frequently. This is in line with already established research which shows that wealthier and more powerful people tend to touch more. However, the researchers found that the amount of touch a player experienced in the early game predicted their performance throughout the season regardless of their salary or wealth.

The reason for this powerful predictive power is fairly straightforward. Touch indicates cooperation between teammates. The teams engaging in more touch also displayed more cooperative behaviours such as talking to teammates during games, pointing or gesturing to teammates, passing the ball to a teammate who is less closely defended by the opposing team, and any other behaviours displaying a reliance on teammates at the expense of individual performance. So, touch indicates cooperation which predicts team success.

But don't chest-bump the CEO

The researchers point out that basketball has developed its own ‘language of touch’ which will not generalise to many other settings. For example, going for leaping shoulder bump with your teacher or line manager at work is unlikely to foster cooperation.

However, this research adds to a much wider pool of evidence showing that touch is central to predicting performance in competitive group settings. It’s a driver and a physical manifestation of the trust and cooperation needed for success.