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Pat that butt, win that game

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People don't touch each other enough, research shows, but male athlete subcultures are a prominent exception. Ongoing studies confirm interpersonal touching among members of amateur or professional sports teams is rampant, and the benefits are extraordinary.

"Tactile communication, or physical touching, promotes co-operation between people, communicates distinct emotions, soothes in time of stress and is used to make inferences of warmth and trust," reports a team of University of California researchers. "Physical touch increases both individual and group performance."

According to Michael Kraus, Dacher Keltner and their University of California colleagues, athletes who touch their teammates most often and for longer periods of time have the best athletic performances and their teams tend to be most successful.

"Good teams are touchier than bad teams," the research team confirmed. "Touchiest players usually excel; touchier basketball players manage the ball better."

According to James Coan at the University of Virginia "supportive touching'' distributes initiative better and promotes collective achievement.

Touching among athletes takes many forms: fist-bumping, leaping shoulder-bumping, hugging, high-fives and butt-patting.

The University of California researchers report "The most touch-bonded teams are the most successful teams,'' and regularly have the most successful competition seasons.

"Touch predicts improved performance,'' the researchers confirmed. "Co-operative behaviour between teammates explained the association between touch and performance, and the presence of group touching is inseparable from group co-operation.''

A 2004 study by Linda Kneidinger at Temple University and her colleagues showed that among baseball players, females touched teammates more often than males, especially after negative team events. Males touched each other more often during "away" games rather than during home games.

"Touch involves an invasion of personal space, but (in sports) it is often well-received,'' the researchers reported. "Outside narrow limits, bodily contact can be unacceptable.''

Smith's team says touching has been identified as being very important to humans.

Touching has significant therapeutic value.

According to Kathryn Barnett at Texas Women's University, health-care professionals regularly use touching as therapy in a variety of medical situations, most notably in pediatrics and maternity matters. One study showed eight out of every 10 patients at a clinic were touched regularly on the hands and shoulders, and the touch had therapeutic results.

A study by Tria O'Maille and Rosiann Kasayka showed touch therapy boosts sensory awareness.

"Touching improves the clinical course of several conditions, including growth and development of preterm infants, reducing pain, increasing attentiveness, diminishing depression and enhancing immune function,'' they found.

If interpersonal touching is so beneficial, one might wonder why it is not more widespread in North American society.

Psychologists suggest that is because North Americans discourage touching. A 1978 study by Nan Sussman and H.M. Rosenfeld indicated males consider male-male touching to be an intrusion, although women do not dislike female-female touching.

"Observations among (North American) adults have revealed rates of touching far below that of many European and Latin American countries,'' Smith's team says.

Cultural phobias dictate touching prevalence, according to a new study by Darius Dolinsky at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences. In North America, men dislike being touched by men whereas women dislike being touched by strangers.

The main exceptions to the general anti-touching mindset are: sports, dancing, games, crowds, greetings and partings and medical treatments.

Meanwhile, a University of California study shows warm touching generates oxytocin, a hormone that creates feelings of trust.

 

Robert Alison has a doctorate in zoology and is based in Victoria, B.C.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2010 A12

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