The Body Language of Sports – Handball Players Exhibiting Nonverbal Communication During Matches
Jenny Galvao

According to recent research by Karin Moesch of Lund University and associates, nonverbal behaviours are often exhibited in sporting matches, but the frequency of the nonverbal behaviours change as the game goes on, and depending on the score.

The researchers observed 18 games of elite handball and noticed that the amount of nonverbal behaviours (touching, and gestures) was significant, and the researchers drew several important conclusions about the frequency. The more points a team was leading by, the more gestures and touching they exhibited. Also, the amount of nonverbal behaviour was higher at the beginning of the match, and decreased as the match went on. Lastly, more nonverbal behaviours occurred during playoff matches compared to regular league matches.

“Handball players showed more gestures than touch after they scored. Within the different forms of gestures, the most typical behaviors seen were one fist up and two fists up,” the researchers specify.

In this experiment, the researchers opted for naturalistic observation, and taped public handball matches. The participants were handball players who were unaware that they were being observed by researchers (nonparticipant observer perspective). Nine different female handball teams were observed in this study.

The researchers found that after every goal, gestures were demonstrated by the teammates whose team scored, and it was rare that no gestures were exhibited after a goal by the team. The player who scored the goal always exhibited a gesture afterwards, most commonly consisting of either one fist in the air or two fists in the air (examples of pride behaviours). The most common touch behaviours after a goal were high- and low-fives.

“There are interindividual differences in the degree of overt behavioral expression, in such that some players naturally show more emotional expressions than others following a successful event. In fact, Friedman and Riggio (1981) highlighted the existence of emotional expressive and unexpressive persons, who differ in the amount they show emotional expressions,” the researchers hypothesized regarding the players who exhibit less nonverbal behaviours upon scoring.

It saves a lot of time (and breath) to give a teammate a high-five as opposed to saying “Hey that was a great pass back there,” which is likely why nonverbal communication is so common in sporting matches. There is another hypothesis that players who are ranked higher on their team exhibit more nonverbal behaviours than their lower status teammates; so status may influence expressiveness/comfortability.

If you showed up late to game and aren’t sure what you’ve missed or what the score is, perhaps the players nonverbal behaviour can give you some insight, especially if the players are expressive by nature!

Jenny Galvao_smallAbout the Author: Jenny Galvao is an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph studying psychology.





Moesch, Karin, Göran Kenttä, Martin Bäckström, and Mikael Mattsson. Exploring nonverbal behaviors in elite handball: how and when do players celebrate? Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 2015. 27: 94-109. doi: 10.1080/10413200.2014.953231