Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Power of Positive Touch: How Kevin Garnett Can Improve Your Relationships

I often compare working a shift to being part of a team. My husband and I also consider, and often refer to, ourselves as a team or “being on the same team.” I realize that I am not going to be taking the field or the court with my coworkers or Eric anytime soon, but thinking of my relationships in terms of a team has always been a helpful analogy.

In fact, new evidence suggests that team behavior - particularly positive touches such as high fives or hugs – can actually be beneficial to interpersonal relationships.

An article in the New York Times reported that researchers at UC Berkeley have found that positive human touch (a high five, a hug, a pound) correlates with improvements in human performance. In conducting their study, the group, led by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology, chose to analyze the actions of players in the NBA. At first, it seems as though the actions of professional basketball players have little to do with the interactions of couples or coworkers. In fact, professional basketball is one of the most physical sports, and a great forum to study the effects of “touchiness.”

To study the effects of positive touch, the scientists observed the behavior of players on each NBA team in a single game. They coded each touch that one player gave another. In order to rule out the possibility that players gave positive touches because they were winning, the researchers used a complex system of analysis that included, “how efficiently players and teams managed the ball — their ratio of assists to giveaways, for example.”

What the researchers found was that, “good teams tended to be touchier than bad ones. The most touch-bonded teams were the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers … at the bottom were the mediocre Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats.” They also found correlations between touch and individual performance: “The touchiest player was Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ star big man, followed by star forwards Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors and Carlos Boozer of the Utah Jazz.” Ultimately,

“Players who made contact with teammates most consistently and longest tended to rate highest on measures of performance, and the teams with those players seemed to get the most out of their talent.”

These findings apply to our everyday lives as well. What the study concluded was that the positive touch from person to person sends a signal to the brain that essentially means, “‘I’ll share the load.’” The sensation of positive touch also seems to correlate with the body’s release of the hormone, oxytocin, which, “helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.” The reduction of stress and the feeling of trust helps to “free” the brain up to “solve problems,” instead of worrying.

An aspect of the study I found most interesting was not only that touch, itself, could be positively influential, but that individuals can be responsible for spreading positive feelings. Anyone who has seen Garnett play knows how involved in the game he gets. Even when he was injured and could not play in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, he was a constant presence on the Celtic bench. Garnett has an active verbal and physical relationship with his teammates, and, if the findings of the study are any evidence, seems to be a definite factor in their success. One stat I found interesting from the Berkley analysis of the Celtic game was that, “within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnet [had] reached out and touched four guys.” His involvement on the team is both powerful and palpable.

Whether or not you believe KG is the reason (or one of them) for the Celtics’ success during the past four years, it is clear that his interaction with his teammates has some influence on their attitudes and performance. Can you be a “KG” in your interactions? Absolutely. The next time you interact with your spouse or coworkers, remember the power of positive touch. A high-five, backslap, or hug (where appropriate! J) is all it takes to affect the mood and behavior of another. Now, go be the difference-maker on your team!

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