Hand taps following a missed free throw: Research design practice in the stress chapter

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With the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tournaments behind us, the NBA playoffs coming up, and the WNBA season starting soon, here’s a timely research paper on free throw shooting (Büttner et al., 2024). While most basketball play involves interactions between players, the free throw is unique. Everything comes to a standstill while a player—with all eyes on them—attempts to make a basket from 15 feet away.  While waiting to make the free throw, players have time to think. That’s not a good thing in a sport that relies on a brain that automatically runs programs for particular sets of muscle movements. Of all the activities in basketball—because of the time to think—the free throw may be the most susceptible to stress-induced errors. If stress can impact free throw accuracy, Christiane Büttner (University of Basel), Christoph Kenntemich (Universität Koblenz-Landau), and Kipling D. Williams (Purdue University) wondered if social support could reduce the stress thereby increasing accuracy (Büttner et al., 2024). Read  their paper on ResearchGate.

The researchers had three hypotheses, but for the purpose of this activity, let’s focus on this one: “Only after missing the first free throw (but not when the first free throw was successful), does being touched by more (vs. fewer) teammates increase the likelihood of success with the second free throw” (Büttner et al., 2024, p. 2).

If basketball is not your sport, this video will help you understand what the post-free-throw touching looks like. During the third quarter of the Iowa-UConn women’s NCAA 2024 final, UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards was fouled. She went to the line for two free throws. (Watch video.) After missing the first one, One of the two teammates in front of her (#25) tap her hands. Edwards turned around, and the two teammates behind her tap her hands. When Edwards turned back toward the free throw line, the teammate who missed the tap (#10) was standing there waiting to do her tap. That’s all four teammates. Edwards stepped to the line for her second shot. (Spoiler alert!) She made it.

Was Edwards’ experience typical? Do hand taps following a missed free throw predict a made free throw on the next shot?

To do this study, the researchers took an archival approach. Using the recordings of 50 Division I Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) women’s basketball games, they measured several variables with the key measures being the outcome of the first and second free throws (they only looked at free throws that came in pairs) and the number of hand taps after the first free throw. They observed 699 pairs of free-throws. They found that if a player missed the first free throw, the more teammates who tapped their hand, the greater the chance that the player would make their second free throw. If a player made the first free throw, the number of hand taps did not predict the making of the second free throw.

Ask your students to determine if this was a correlational study or an experiment. How do they know?  The researchers wrote: “[W]e do acknowledge that our findings are correlational and the caveats that come with that” (Büttner et al., 2024, p. 6). Teams were not, for example, randomly assigned to tap the hand of the free-throw shooting player zero to four times. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop the researchers from making a causal statement in the next paragraph: “Physical touch by teammates boosts performance in one of the most stressful athletic tasks imaginable: Succeeding with a free throw in basketball after already missing one” (Büttner et al., 2024, p. 6). They do, however, encourage experimental research: “Future experimental research should determine whether physical touch improves performance as an active ingredient or whether more frequent touch is a symptom of better team cohesion and, consequentially, better performance under pressure” (Büttner et al., 2024, p. 6).

After sharing this study with students, there are a couple of different directions you could take this. Choose your own adventure.

Option 1: Experiment. Ask students to work in small groups to design an experiment that would test this hypothesis: “Only after missing the first free throw (but not when the first free throw was successful), …being touched by more (vs. fewer) teammates increase[s] the likelihood of success with the second free throw”(Büttner et al., 2024, p. 2).

Participants would need to be randomly assigned to conditions. Students should identify the independent variable (including its levels) and the dependent variable.

Ethics add-on: If this experiment were done with real teams—assuming it could be done without the participants being influenced by knowing the hypothesis, discuss the ethical implications of a study that may cause a team to score fewer points.

Option 2: Correlation. Ask students to work in small groups to design a correlational study that would test this hypothesis: “[M]ore frequent touch is a symptom of better team cohesion” (Büttner et al., 2024, p. 6).

First, create a measure of team cohesion. (Some research has been published in the context of work teams. One alternative is to ask students to do some research and adapt something that has already been created.) Next, describe how you could use that measure to test the hypothesis.




Büttner, C. M., Kenntemich, C., & Williams, K. D. (2024). The power of human touch: Physical contact improves performance in basketball free throws. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 72, 102610. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2024.102610




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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.