The power of the bro hug

At the Canada Summer Games over the last two weeks, I witnessed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Team Yukon high fives, fist bumps and bro hugs...

At the Canada Summer Games over the last two weeks, I witnessed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Team Yukon high fives, fist bumps and bro hugs (the latter is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a manly hug between two dudes who are cool with each other” in case you were wondering).

Volleyball and tennis doubles in particular seem to have a rule that requires some kind of sweaty teammate contact between each point.

When a Team Yukon tennis player shanked a return over the fence, his partner would give him a fist bump and a smile. If a volleyball player served it into the net on an important point, the team would exchange high fives and back slaps as if they had just blocked a Team BC spike in the finals. Major match events, either positive or negative, would merit escalation to bro hug.

It was very different back in the day on most of my minor hockey and softball teams. Sometimes the only physical contact you would get from your own side was when the coach threw a can of Grape Fanta at you in the dressing room after you scored on your own goalie.

Fear of being shouted at by the coach or being called a “pylon” by the rest of the team has a certain motivating power, but the research shows that the best functioning teams seldom rely on negative motivators. Games like tennis and volleyball require sustained concentration. If you’re distracted by negative chatter from a teammate, you’re likely to lose the next point too.

The Bryan brothers are among the best doubles players in professional tennis, and they are big proponents of positive energy. It is impossible to tell from their body language if they have just won or lost a point. They encourage each other constantly, and even invented their own variant of the chest bump.

These rituals also allow the player to “reset” after a lost point. Rather than brooding about a missed point, the players can go through the fist bump ritual and get in the right frame of mind for the next point. This is better than waiting in position for the next serve, thinking, “I shouldn’t do that again” or “I need to refocus.”

This is why the top tennis players all have apparently irrational rituals. Nadal pushes his hair back behind his ears whether it needs it or not. Many players adjust their racquet strings (which don’t need adjusting) or choose the best two balls out of three before a serve (all three balls are identical and from a freshly opened can, of course).

All this hugging may seem like just a fad, but there is management science behind it. There is increasing evidence from psychologists in both sports and business that this kind of ritual can significantly improve performance.

Performance expert Tony Schwartz published an article on the topic in the prestigious Harvard Business Review. He pointed out that expressing appreciation to someone else seems to benefit both the recipient and giver. It makes sense that some emotional support from the team makes it more likely for a player to do well on the next shift.

Schwartz says positive emotional energy like this is critical to sustained high performance. But he adds that managing other kinds of energy is important too. He calls them physical, mental and spiritual energy.

Physical energy involves getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, drinking less alcohol, exercising several times a week, eating smaller meals more often and taking breaks away from your desk every 90 minutes or so. You can conserve your mental energy for important tasks by avoiding distractions, such as multitasking or answering emails constantly throughout the day. He defines spiritual energy as the power we get when we spend more time working on things that we find important and engaging.

We’ve all heard this kind of advice before, but few follow it systematically. It’s easy to come with an excuse to stay up late, grab a quick lunch at Krusty Burger and put off the exercise until tomorrow.

What is interesting about Schwartz’s work, however, is that he has documented the positive impact of carefully and consistently managing your energy. And he did it for regular bank employees, not high-performance athletes.

In a study a few years ago at Wachovia, a major bank, employees who adopted Schwartz’s techniques outperformed the “control group” of regular employees by dramatic margins. Their revenue from loans was 13 per cent higher and their deposit revenues 20 were up per cent after the study period. Over two-thirds of participants said their client relationships and personal productivity had improved significantly. Importantly, the benefits were still visible a year later.

This is an important reminder that the best way to improve performance may not be by buying new equipment, working longer hours or shouting more at the staff. And if it works in banking, an industry not well known for being fun and engaging, it will probably work for the rest of us.

It is also interesting how Schwartz’s Harvard Business Review recommendations overlap with what many Team Yukon coaches tell their athletes. No HBR article is complete without a management checklist, and Schwartz’s has 16 points. The Team Yukon athletes I know from the volleyball, running and tennis teams are already doing most of them, such as getting enough rest, exercising regularly, eating healthy food in smaller portions throughout the day, being emotionally supportive to teammates and focusing on what’s important.

These are life lessons the Team Yukon athletes will remember long after the Canada Games. You might even want to work a few more bro hugs into your life.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Twitter

@hallidaykeith