2019 NBA Finals: Scientists Explain Why Drake's Antics Mess With Players

"His status makes a difference."

drake golden state

The Toronto Raptors may have gone home with a historic win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors Thursday, but the night was just as momentous for Raptors super-fan and mega-distraction Drake, who somehow managed to keep his notorious sideline antics under control.

Much as Drake’s become a key fixture in Toronto basketball, a sports scientist tells Inverse he was likely doing his team a favor by keeping the rowdiness to a minimum.

Drake’s egregious trash-talking, jumping around, dancing, pointing, and general disregard for personal space on NBA sidelines has caused plenty of controversy. But a recent incident, in which he gave the Raptors coach a neck rub in the middle of a game, earned him a warning from the NBA Commissioner, which may be why he was on his best behavior during Game 1.

According to Greg Wood, Ph.D., a sports scientist and expert in attentional control at Manchester Metropolitan University, Drake’s usual behavior could make players perform worse, so subduing him might be a good idea.

“It’s difficult to say, but by making himself visible and salient, it’s possible that he may attract the attention of players on the court, particularly in these highly pressurised games that can lead to performance anxiety,” he tells Inverse. And anxiety, he explains, can lead to attentional shifts that are linked to poor performance.

Golden State Warriors Guard Stephen Curry (30) warms up before game six of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers on April 26, 2019 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA.
Drake's antics could affect the anxiety level and attention of both Raptors and Golden State Warriors, according to research on attentional control.

How Drake’s Antics Affect Gameplay

Distractions (Drakestractions?) can create anxiety, and the effect of anxiety is twofold. Players who are anxious, explains Wood, are even more susceptible to distraction, plus their attention shifts from being used in a proactive manner to a more reactive manner.

Using attention proactively involves concentrating on tactics, deciding which players to pass to, and aiming at a target — all the things a team wants when it is on the court. Reactive attention, in contrast, seems to take a player’s head out of the game. Instead of deciding what to do, players may focus on “perceived threat,” start to worry, and be distracted by salient or attractive stimuli.

This shift in attention, says Wood, “has been shown to be related to choking under pressure and poor decision making is sport.” Depending on who you’re rooting for, this can be a good or a bad thing.

How Players Tune Drake Out

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 10: Toronto Raptors Forward Kawhi Leonard (2) runs while dribbling the ball during the Brooklyn Nets versus the Toronto Raptors preseason game on October 10, 2018, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by Icon Sportswire)
Drake's ability to build up support from Raptors fans may also increase player motivation.

Wood, co-author of a study on attentional control and free-throw shooting, notes that there isn’t much research on audience distractions on players’ attentional control (which is surprising, given how distracting audiences can be). He has, however, looked at the effect of distractions among players, which can be used to a team’s advantage.

He’s found that in soccer, players who are distracted by the goalkeeper’s motions during a penalty kick are more likely to kick the ball at the goalkeeper, making for an easier save. “Anxiety causes this type of attentional bias, he says, “given a stimulus that is relevant and threatening.”

Generally, professional players are trained to handle anxiety-causing distractions through methods meant to tune them out.

One method is pre-performance, in which an athlete runs through a sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions before performing a specific skill. “These types of interventions can be used for specific situations in basketball like free-throw shooting,” says Wood.

Another method is exposure, which involves exposing athletes to similar distractions during training. “They are likely to feel a greater sense of control as a result,” says Wood. “These variables have been shown to help players to feel less anxious and less distractible in our previous work.”

But Maybe Drake’s Antics Are Good?

Whether Drake will cause anxiety will depend on the player, and there exists the possibility that his behavior actually improves performance.

As University of Utah sports psychologist and mental performance expert Nick Galli, Ph.D.,, tells Inverse, the media coverage of Drake’s antics suggests players are “seeing Drake’s behavior as something that adds enjoyment and entertainment to the game,” though he notes it’s impossible to tell without knowing the individual players. Regardless, he believes “These guys are totally locked in at this point in the playoffs and are unlikely to let a boisterous fan distract their focus.”

Wood adds that Drake’s ability to rouse the crowd and make them more overtly “supportive” could also affect player performance. “Players often report that such support positively effects their motivation and effort — so maybe,” he says.

We may never know whether Drake’s effect on player motivation outweighs his effect on player anxiety. What is clear is that Drake is no ordinary fan — and is treated as such. Despite his warning from the NBA, Drake still managed to smack talk Golden State’s Draymond Green, pick lint out of Steph Curry’s hair, and troll the entire Curry family, all while remaining (mostly) seated.

“I would say though, that if an average member of the public were to behave that way then I doubt it would be tolerated,” says Wood.

“If Drake was not a celebrity my guess is they would appraise the situation differently,” says Galli. “His status makes a difference.”