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January 16, 2019

Why a hug is so important, especially a maternal one

In 1976 Maurice Ochieng’ scored 26 goals for Gor Mahia football club. This remains the record for most goals scored by one player in a season of the Kenya Football league. Over the last 40 years a few things have changed, football has become much more commercialised, the players uniforms have moved with the fashion of the times; but the basic rules of the game, score goals to win remain.

Nowadays whenever there is a score in many team sports the team members converge around the person who has scored to hug and congratulate him or her. Sometimes you see the group hug where a bunch of players pile on top of the scorer to the extent that you begin to wonder if the fellow will emerge alive minus broken bones; perhaps that's why a number of players after scoring run away from everyone faster than even before they score the goal, but eventually those who need to embrace and hug him catch up. Why is there the need to hug or be hugged after scoring a goal?

After all this is what you set out to do, it is the very essence of what the players are training to do. So why do they get so excited when they do what they planned? Accountants after all do not stop work and have a group hug every time they pass a journal entry or create an invoice nor do policemen do a hi five and group embrace at a road block whenever they bust a matatu. So why do football types get so excited? The answer may be in the story of an Italian footballer who in 2014 on scoring a goal ran not towards his teammates, but straight into the stands to hug his grandmother. He explained that his 82-year-old grandmother had never watched him play at this level so for him to score a goal, he just got so excited. For his show of exuberance he was booked by the referee and fined by his club for good measure. That action begins to explain why a hug is so important, especially a maternal one.

A hug is a universal form of intimacy where two people hold each other closely putting their arms around the neck, back or waist of the other person and holding them close. Unlike say a handshake, where there is physical contact, but with distinct space between the two people; a hug says that these two people are not only familiar with each other, but that there is some bond that they share. The feeling you get when you give a hug is managed by the pituitary gland found in the brain, which secretes the hormone oxytocin. This is the same hormone that is needed to help start or complete labour, when a woman is giving birth.

Oxytocin is also a key hormone needed to manage the flow of milk during breastfeeding. The levels of oxytocin are what makes a mother hug and embrace her baby, or make any two people feel good when they snuggle up to each other.  Oxytocin not only makes you feel good, it also lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood, increasing tolerance for pain. Interestingly it mediates how much we trust each other.  Where levels of oxytocin are high, a mother and baby for example, trust levels are also high. Where there are strangers, oxytocin levels are lower and therefore levels of trust are lower.


And that perhaps may explain why footballers and other team sport members hug each other after scoring. It is an individual who scores, but team sports requires the effort of everyone. A hug reinforces the team bond, builds trust that we are all part of one team and it is ‘us against them’; which is why the opposing team members are excluded from the hug session. It may explain why teams that score many goals are considered a good team. In every game they hug each other many times reinforcing the sense of team spirit. A losing team has a tough time especially when they do not score. Oxytocin can explain why the Italian footballer was yellow carded and fined for hugging his grandmother. She was not part of the team and so the player was being selfish.



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