Male pro-athletes may linger on peaceful or even loving touches after a match, while female athletes don’t tend to embrace as heartily, according to a study of four sports with players from 44 countries.
The researchers studied match and post-match video of pro tennis, table tennis, badminton and boxing, sourced from YouTube, the International Table Tennis Federation vault and the Badminton Link vault.
In each sport, male players spent more time physically touching each other after the match than female players did.
Total duration of contact was usually only a few seconds, so the difference between male and female player contact was small, but significant, the authors write in Current Biology.
In tennis, all players traditionally shake hands after a match, but in some cases they make additional contact, with the winner touching the loser with one arm or vice versa, or with both players embracing.
This additional contact was more common in men’s tennis. Other studies have found that in daily life, female-female touching is as frequent or more frequent than male-male touching, so these sports-specific results are surprising, the authors write. “What’s so incredible to me is social scientists think of women as the more communal, interconnected, caring, emotional sex,” said coauthor Joyce Benenson of Emanuel College and Harvard University.
But women may have a harder time reconciling after conflicts – at least, conflict in sport. “In some female tennis matches they really hug and they like each other, but for the most part they don’t feel that positively,” she said.
In her work as a developmental psychologist, Benenson noticed that boys spend more time in competition with each other than girls do.“I started thinking about it and got interested in primatology,” Benenson told Reuters Health by phone.
Socially, female primates tend to gather in groups and males are more solitary, which is reversed in humans, she said. “Humans are one of the only species that engages in intergroup lethal warfare, and that’s mostly men,” Benenson noted.
She added that intergroup warfare requires cooperation, which may explain why men are able to switch from conflict during a game back to cooperation afterward, she said. Female chimpanzees and human women more often are not able to reconcile after a conflict and just “give up and leave,” she said.
For the most part, this research just helps describe how women and men interact after pro sports matches, but for regular people, particularly women, it may be good advice to keep in mind that ‘making up’ can be harder than for men, but if a relationship is worthwhile you can put past conflict behind you, she said.
“Even though we might consciously know that athletic contests are ‘just for fun’ or that there are no ‘life and death’ consequences, that doesn't mean that our brains don't perceive the situation as a real conflict,” said Melissa M. McDonald of Michigan State University, who was not part of the new study.
“I think you would probably find similar results for youth athletes and non-professional athletes,” McDonald told Reuters Health by email.