Evidence-based basketball II: Does research point to a Big Red win?

Because we usually deal with such weighty issues here at Evidence-Based Living, we hope we can be permitted a light-hearted post (but still about research evidence in the real world, of course!). Our recent post on “evidence-based basketball” received a lot of interest, and we wondered: How else can science enlighten us about basketball? We were interested to find that a surprisingly large body of research has been done about the hoops world. .

But more important: Does the research point to victory for the Cornell Big Red in tomorrow’s NCAA game against the daunting Kentucky Wildcats? Of course, we can’t tell you that, but we’re willing to say that from a translational research perspective, things don’t look that bad for us! (All this is speculative, of course, so don’t place your bets on it.) A few reasons, in no particular order:

1. Cornell’s team bonding gives it a special advantage. Much has been made in the media of the high degree of bonding among the Big Red’s players, most of whom live, work, and play together. A recent study shows how important this can be.  Psychologist Michael Kraus and colleagues at UC-Berkeley painstakingly coded NBA games over the 2008-2009 season, looking for signs of cooperation among teammates (you can find the article on Kraus’s web site).

 Behaviors indicating cooperation included: talking to teammates during games, pointing or gesturing to one’s teammates, passing the basketball to a teammate who is less closely defended by the opposing team, helping other teammates on defense, helping other teammates escape defensive pressure (e.g., setting screens) – basically, behaviors that show a reliance on teammates at the expense of one’s individual performance. Precisely this kind of cooperation between teammates predicted better individual and team performance over the season.

 One fascinating part of the study: Tactile communication — physical touch between players — was a key factor in promoting cooperation. The researchers coded twelve distinct types of touch that occurred when two or more players were in the midst of celebrating a positive play that helped their team (e.g., making a shot), 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.”  This study controlled for a lot of important other factors, and found that how much the players touched each other predicted greater performance for individuals as well as teams later in the season. So keep up the celebrations, Big Red!

 2. Cornell’s brand of perfectionism is the good kind. There’s been a lot of research on the role of perfectionism in athletic performance, defined as “striving for flawlessness and the setting of excessively high standards for performance accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior and an over-sensitivity to mistakes.” But it turns out that there is a good kind of perfectionism in sports: positive striving for excellence and setting high personal standards for performance.

 Now anyone who has followed the Big Red (and the national media coverage of their positive attitude toward performance while downplaying the negative) knows they embody this kind of perfectionism (no bias on my part!). Using a basketball training task in an experiment, Oliver Stoll and colleagues found that good perfectionism leads to better basketball performance. So chalk another one up for the Big Red. 

 3. We’re closer to home. The Big Game will be played in nearby Syracuse. Now, that’s not exactly home court advantage, but it’s a lot closer than Kentucky. Interestingly, in sports there has been something of a debate about a “home choke” disadvantage in big games, rather than the traditional home court advantage. But what you suspected all along is true: the home court advantage is no myth. After crunching a huge amount of NBA and college basketball data over 50 years, John Tauer and colleagues (in an article in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology) found that the big advantage goes to the home basketball team (Tauer writes an interesting blog on sports psychology).

 Okay, none of this makes us a lock to advance in the NCAA tournament. But based on this (admittedly highly selective) evidence, dare we hope?


  1. Jeremy says:

    Karl, that Cornell team, ranked #12, upset two high ranking teams in the tourney before succumbing. So perhaps there was something to what you have uncovered in this article.

  2. Ben says:

    Karl, that Cornell team, ranked #12, upset two high ranking teams in the tourney before succumbing. So perhaps there was something to what you have uncovered in this article.

  3. deemyra says:

    Hope is always uplifting! 🙂

  4. Karl Pillemer says:

    Okay, I was wrong. I admit it. The moral of the story, I suppose, is: Research evidence is a good thing, but don’t take it too far!

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