By SARA GERMANO, TONY OLIVERO And PIA CATTON
During their preliminary round win against China last week, members of the U.S. women's volleyball team demonstrated their mastery of digs, sets, spikes and blocks. They also excelled in another area: Spontaneous displays of affection.
A review of the first 25 plays in that game shows that the six Americans on the court shared 24 group hugs -- hugging on all but one play, when they exchanged low fives instead. There were also six high fives, 10 double-high fives, 29 low fives, two double-low fives and 12 bum taps.
That works out to 83 total touches, or an average of 3.32 public displays of affection for every stoppage in play.
"It's a celebration sport because you can't do it without each other," says Lindsey Berg, the U.S. team's captain. In these interludes, she says, "we look into each other's eyes and we know we have each other's backs."
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All this raises one of the least vitally important questions surrounding the 2012 London Olympics: Is women's volleyball the touchiest U.S. Olympic sport? And if not, what is?
Touching in team sports is nothing new: Early in the last century, athletes in football and baseball could be seen shaking hands like proper gentlemen -- sometimes in a faster, more abbreviated form.
In a famous photo taken during his 1939 retirement ceremony, Lou Gehrig is pictured receiving a hug from longtime teammate Babe Ruth.
The difference now is that handshakes have blossomed into all kinds of variations -- the bum tap, the fist bump, the chest bump. One of the more recent incarnations is the "bro hug" which is a sort of less intimate, one-armed variation on the original.
Research suggests touching may be good for building team chemistry, or at the least, a symptom of a healthy team dynamic. In 2010, three researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, reviewed broadcasts of games from the 2008-09 NBA season to see how often players touched and whether touching had an impact on winning and losing.
Teams that touch more at the beginning of the season win more over the course of the entire season. The two touchiest teams in the study, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, finished the season with two of the NBA's top three records, and the Celtics Kevin Garnett was the touchiest player in the league by at least a 15% margin, said Michael Kraus, one of the study's authors.
"Garnett does longer embraces, more hugging, grabbing people by the head and he does a ton of high fiving," Mr. Kraus said.
Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, believes touching in sports is similar to massage therapy: When athletes' pressure receptors are stimulated, arousal levels, blood pressure and the release of stress hormones are lowered while attention increases. Ms. Field says group hugging in women's volleyball makes perfect sense.
"It would be more powerful to have a group hug because you have more hands on you," Ms. Field said.
Not all sports are equally touchy. A review of roughly 25 hours of NBC broadcast video of U.S. men's and women's Olympic teams in 19 events reveals a wide range of physical contact between sports.
The title for the most stone-cold set of U.S. teammates goes to the women's table tennis pair of Erica Wu and Lily Zhang, who didn't so much as graze one another (at least on camera) during their one match, a loss to Japan.
Over the course of six exchanges, the men's 3-meter synchronized springboard diving team of Troy Dumais and Kristian Ipsen traded one fist pound, one hug and one high five between dives.
Abby Johnston, one half of the silver medal winning women's pair, embraced her partner Kelci Bryant twice.
Sometimes the scoreboard seems to have an impact on team touchiness: The U.S. women's field hockey team could be seen exchanging group hugs after goals in previous games -- but in the opening frames of a 7-0 shutout by South Africa, they were all business -- and 100% hug free. They failed to make it to the knockout round.
Beach volleyball isn't as huggy as its larger indoor cousin. In their recent match against Italy, Olympic champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings racked up one high five, 16 low fives, six double-high and double-low fives, and five bum taps, for a total of 28 touches in the first 25 plays, an average of 1.12.
The U.S. men's beach volleyball team of Jacob Gibb and Sean Rosenthal were even less affectionate. They had just 11 low fives, two double-low fives and six bum taps in their win over Russia, for a downright puritanical average of .76. Ms. May-Treanor and Ms. Walsh Jennings won their third gold medal, while the men lost in the quarterfinals.
The U.S. basketball teams offered a mixed bag. During a recent pair of blowout games against Tunisia and Angola, respectively, the U.S. men and women didn't share a single hug during any of the first 25 breaks in the action.
Nevertheless, the women traded 27 high fives of all types and one belly tap. And the men were even touchier. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and company traded 45 high fives -- the second most for any U.S. team. (Michelle Obama added to the overall vibe last week by hugging members of the U.S. men's basketball team after they beat France).
The most serious competition for volleyball comes from the famously huggy sport of gymnastics. While the men ranked in the middle of the pack -- they only managed two bro hugs, three high fives and one back pat during their team competition, in which they finished fifth -- the women excelled.
During their gold-medal-winning team competition last week, the "fab five" of Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber shared a whopping 55 individual hugs with teammates and coaches. There were also five group hugs, including one that came after their gold-medal victory was sealed -- although it seemed to have been orchestrated by coaches.
In the final tally of physical contact, the women's volleyball team fell short -- to the U.S. men's team. In a preliminary round victory over Serbia, members of the men's team participated in 17 group hugs and exchanged a spectacular 56 low fives and 21 high fives for a total of 94 touches, or 3.76 per break in the action. The men's team was defeated in the quarterfinals.
Karch Kiraly, the assistant coach of the U.S. women's volleyball team and a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the sport, says that physical contact is a sign of closeness. When teams that aren't so tight engage in hugs, he says, "there's a little more spacing."
But before you sign the players up for a drum circle, Mr. Kiraly says the hugs aren't all about love and affection.
They also serve another purpose: for all the team members to get together "to start planning how to win the next point. You gather together and maybe you're talking about who you're going to serve at, besides celebrating."—David Enrich and Scott Cacciola contributed
to this article.