Why do Basketball Players Slap Hands?

For all of you basketball fans out there, you know that after every free throw a player makes in a game, they will touch or slap hands with their teammates. Whether they make the shot or not, this gesture is repeated after every free throw made. The obvious question in regards to this seemingly meaningless tradition is simple: why do they do it?

Although there is no official protocol that calls for this ritual, basketball players slap hands as a sign of encouragement and congratulations for their teammates. Even after missing a free throw, players will still touch hands as a sign of support, helping to build team unity and strength.

While this subject may seem to have a clear-cut answer, the history and psychology behind the gesture are fascinating and can give a good glimpse into the NBA culture as well as basketball culture in general. The use of the high or low five in sports also has an interesting history that will talk about as well, so keep reading!

History of Hand Slapping

Free Throw Hand-Slapping History

Some sources point back to the ’90s as the first time that hand slapping after a free throw started becoming more popular in the sport of basketball. People credit Steve Nash as the one who started using this gesture with his teammates consistently, and since his professional basketball career started in 1996, it is likely that the theory that hand-slapping started in the 90s is correct. It is very likely that Nash could have been the one that rocketed this gesture into popularity.

High-Five History

The history of the high-five actually originated within the sports world, and although it is unclear who exactly started the gesture, it is often credited to Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker at a baseball game in 1977 between the LA Dodgers and the Housten Astros. The enthusiasm that the congratulatory gesture held captured the attention of the public, and the high five has been used since then as a show of support or congratulations.

Although the high-five was created within the sport of baseball, it quickly spread to other sports and other areas of life and society and soon became a commonplace gesture of congratulations and encouragement.

There is an alternate story of how the first high-five came to be, and this one was during a basketball game in 1978 by Cardinals players Derek Smith and Wiley Brown. Both stories are credible, and it is unclear as to which sport or team started using the high-five first, although it is generally believed that the baseball game in 1977 was the first use.

Interestingly enough, the high-five also became a gay symbol throughout the 1980s-90s because baseball player Glenn Burke (one of the men who were part of the first high-five) was openly gay, and the gesture helped empower gay people during that time. (Source)

Professional Players

Not all professional players choose to do the traditional hand slap with their teammates after a free throw. Some prefer a head nod or a small wave, but the acknowledgment of the team standing behind them with their support is still there. However, whatever the gesture may be, it always means the same thing: we have your back, go out there and rock it!

People have questioned why players would give each other a high or low five even after missing a free throw, as they feel this can be counterproductive and encourage the bad behavior of missing the shot. Several coaches agree with this and feel like when a player goes to get dapped up after a missed shot, he is accepting his mediocrity and his teammates are encouraging him in this. Although this is not psychologically confirmed, this could be a relevant concern.

It has also been suggested that since basketball is a constantly moving sport with no breaks until halftime or the occasional time out, this hand slapping after the free throws is one way for the team to come together in support since they don’t have a lot of time to do it during the game.

Gesture Psychology

The psychology behind hand slapping after free throws is somewhat simple but helps explain a lot. It has become such a tradition that it is almost a ritual for players, and it symbolizes to the player that the team is standing behind them in support of their throw. In a similar way that many players have a pre-game ritual, this gesture is a post-free throw ritual, something that helps get the player’s head back into the game and gives them some encouragement.

The psychology behind a hand clap is interesting and lends another view to the situation. Whereas you can personalize words of affirmation, and a hug is a more intimate gesture of approval or appreciation, studies have shown that clapping is generally used in a way that encourages camaraderie and shows group support or encouragement. It is a universal sign of approval, and this can be transferred into the way that high or low fives are viewed as a gesture of support.

Similarities in other Sports

This affectionate gesture of support is not limited to basketball but is seen in several other sports in a slightly different form. In football, players will often hit each other’s helmets in order to hype each other up and show appreciation after a play. Volleyball players in recreational leagues will often group together and slap hands after scoring a point against the other team, and even after a teammate misses a serve the other teammates will rally around and give them a high or low five in a show of support.

A former dancer was able to confirm that a hard hit on the palms or back can not only be a sign of support but can also help refocus and wake up the person being high-fived, helping to ground them and concentrate on the game or sport.

It seems that this hand slapping tradition is beneficial in many ways, from team bonding to a positive psychological impact on the player. So next time you see your favorite NBA players dapping each other up after a free throw, you know why!

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