Sports is all about the body, movement and nonverbal communication. Teammates have to read each other’s cues, while competitors have to stake their claim and show nonverbal prowess.

What are some of the body language cues in sports? Here is a rundown of the nonverbal cues you can spot while watching your favorite team:

The Body Language of a Winner

Across countries, across cultures, across sports, there is universal body language of pride. Research done by the University of British Columbia studied blind and seeing athletes around the world. They found that all athletes made the same body language expression when they won a race—even blind athletes who had never seen anyone do it before. The body language of a winner is classic. Arms and hands above head, mouth open, face pointed up towards the sky exclaiming in triumph.

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The Body Language of Defeat

Sadly, losers also have a unique body expression. We do not learn this expression by observation, we are innately programmed to do this when we lose. Losers roll their shoulders in, hang their head low, make a pained or sad expression and clench their hands into fists of defeat. It looks similar to a balloon deflating as the air, adrenaline and excitement leaves the body it wilts in sadness and frustration.

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Body Language in Action

Teammates have to be able to closely read each other’s movements. Especially in quick moving sports like soccer, hockey, rugby and basketball. Typically, players have to communicate with each other on the court or field nonverbally—without saying anything they have to know when to receive a pass or when someone will move left or right to be open. There are a few nonverbal ways athletes do this:

  • The eyebrow flash is something that humans do instinctively when they want to attract attention. If you hang out in a popular bar you will notice that men flash their eyebrows at attractive women as they walk by hoping the woman will stop to chat. Players do this for teammates when they want to initiate a pass. It is a nonverbal way of saying, “You ready?”
  • Torso tilting is another thing that players do when they want another player to engage with them. You will notice basketball players sometimes will aim their torso at a player a split second before they pass to them. This nonverbally tells their teammate to get ready.
  • The chin salute is a more subtle way we point. When players want to point towards an opening, a goal or a player they often use their chin as a substitute finger. It is more subtle than using their hands and sometimes the only area of their body open when their hands are dribbling, holding sticks or rackets or defending against the other side. Watch players chins as they move down the court and you will see how their chins nod directions at each other.

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The Body Language of Shame

When a player misses a goal, makes a mistake or feels embarrassed they often do the body language of shame. This is when someone puts the tips of their fingers up to the side of their forehead. Its as if the player is trying to shield himself from the insults hurdled upon him from the crowd. In a true moment of devastation a player will cover both her eyes with her hands or her entire face to block out the shame. This is called eye blocking and we do this subconsciously because we hope by covering our eyes we will stop seeing what makes us feel so bad.

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The Body Language of Camaraderie

Team members sweat, train and sometimes even bleed together. That creates immense opportunities for bonding. How does this camaraderie show up in body language? Through the power of proxemics, a fancy word for the distance between people, and haptics, a fancy word for touch. Teammates have much higher rates of touch than average friends. They pat each other on the back, butt, head and torso in gestures of congeniality. Team players also maintain smaller distances between each other. They stand close together, huddle on sidelines and close talk much more comfortably than normal friends. Of course, this comes from frequent body touching with close proximity during play.

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The Body Language of an Alpha

Typically on a team or any group of people there is an alpha, or unspoken group leader. This is usually the most powerful player on a team. Alpha’s not only have a higher level of skill but also show different body language movements. You will notice that team alphas strut, hold their head higher and back further than other players and puff their chest out both on and off the field. These subtle confidence cues remind other players “who’s boss” and are a show to the outside world. You can practice this by viewing a team you are unfamiliar with. While the team waits on the sidelines, try to spot the player with the highest head, most puffed out chest and strutting walk. Then look up their rankings. You will almost always find this person is the top one or two players on the team.

Sports provide a great opportunity to view body language in action. Players have high emotions, adrenaline pumping and close social and territorial interactions with team members and coaches—it gives us plenty of fun body language spotting opportunities.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

6 replies on “Body Language in Sports”

  1. Andrew

    Since I’m an avid basketball player, this will definitely help me anticipate opponents moves better and get more steals and blocks!

  2. Dan

    Body language is such an interesting field and I believe it’s good to know that such behaviors like BL of pride or defeat are innate and even congenitally blind do that. Thanks for useful content on the topic.

  3. Lauren Freeman

    I’m excited to apply this to when I watch sports now! I remember doing a lot of these myself when I used to play lacrosse back in high school! The chin salute is the most prominant one I remember using with my teammates, but they all apply!!

  4. Robby Smith

    All these cues are so true!! I have played Basketball & Football pretty much my whole life, and the head nod is definitely the go-to signal to get the attention of a player to move in a particular direction (or “hey the ball is coming to you”).

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