Body Language – Handshakes and Gesturing

Handshake at pre-game with coaches

When you meet someone for the first time, the initial four minutes are powerful in the development of that person’s opinion of you.  A common introductory gesture is the handshake.  Whether it is the first time you have ever seen this coach, or a coach with whom you are familiar, the handshake at the pre-game meeting with the coaches is an important non-verbal communication.  This simple gesture is not as simple or innocuous as we might think.  Does it matter whose hand is on top, or if your hand is slightly angled upward or downward?  Yes, according to research.
One research article expanded this concept – we may have three potential feelings when shaking someone’s hand.
  • The handshake is just firm enough and both hands are parallel – feelings at the gut level are good and you decide that you will give this person a fair shot, that you can do business with together.
  • The handshake feels intimidating; it is strong and dominating with the hand on top – at the gut level, you are feeling uneasy.
  • The handshake is weak and sloppy – at the gut level, this person will do anything I want.
What does your handshake tell the coaches?  Be sure you do two things when shaking someone’s hand – keep you hand perfectly straight and give the same pressure that you receive.  This is especially important when a handshake is performed between females and males.
Hand movements on the field
Researches have studied the positioning of the hand with relation to the palm and the pointing of the finger.  When the palm is up, the speaker is considered more friendly and engaging.  Adjectives that described the palms-down speaker included authoritative, managerial and pushy.  The finger-pointing style resulted in the worst adjectives and the least amount of retention of information.



When you are questioned on a call, where do your hands go?  A palm-up position can be used to possibly de-escalate the situation. By intentionally practicing hand positions with the palms up, you will start to use this calming body language more often.
The palm-down is historically a power signal What if the coach is using a palm-down technique? Now that you recognize the coach may be trying to assert power over you, you may be more prepared to handle the situation accordingly.  There may be times during a game when this technique is appropriate, for example, for bad behavior or you want to convey authority.  And remember, you should never point your finger when talking to a coach.

Hand positioning when gesturing

This picture below shows a position which is often called “steeping.”  The fingers are slightly apart and gently tapping together.



The word that goes along with this gesture is confidence.  When you are on the field and have a moment to stand still, this may be a good gesture to put into your umpire tool box.  In situations when you are not feeling confident or you are nervous, you can intentionally use this same gesture.  After consistent and deliberate practice, you will start to feel more confident and more in charge.  More importantly, the person, coach or player who sees you doing this will get the feeling that you know what you are doing, that you are in charge of the game.


Body language, even at the level of a handshake or hand positioning, is an outward reflection of your emotional condition; it shows how you are feeling.  The reverse is true also.  If you intentionally take certain positions, then your will begin to feel the emotions that go along with that gesture, movement or posture.

The above information was gleaned from a Referee Magazine article (March 2018) by Dr. Margaret E. Tieman, sports psychology professional at Lithfield, Conn and NCAA D-1 women’s basketball official.