“I don’t talk [trash] about anybody’s mom, wife, kids, nothing like that; I just talk about that person and their game,” said basketball player Rasheed Wallace (McClear, 2019).
The Art of Trash Talk
The 1986 NBA All-Star game in Dallas had the first three-point shooting contest, when eight all-stars were selected for the competition. Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, who was known as a trash talker, walked into the locker room as one of the competitors and asked, "Which one of you guys is going to finish second?" He won the contest that night and then finished the season leading the league in three-point shooting, making 42.3 percent of his tries. (McDermott, 2019).
Trash-talking exists in all realms of sport, from playgrounds to professional arenas. We’ve all been there, either giving or receiving some sort of trash talk during a game. The above examples of trash talk demonstrate its use on a professional level. Trash-talking can be an effective strategy to throw an opponent off their game, even if it doesn’t cause a complete detriment in performance. A minor distraction of focus can be all it takes to gain an advantage in a game situation. And depending on the nature of what was said, focus can be distracted for a long time.
Trash Talking Effects Performance
Studies have documented the use of trash talk and its effect on performance. In one study, “Emotional manipulation and cognitive distraction as strategy: The effects of verbal insults on motivation and performance in a competitive setting," In this study, Mario Kart was played under controlled conditions. The research involved 200 men and women ages 18-35; Some participants would hear verbal insults and some form of trash talk, while others did not. The findings were that participants were distracted by the sound of the talking and how it made them feel. Still, it was explicitly the cognitive distraction affecting competitors' motivation to perform, affecting their ability to focus on the game. She also found that players felt both anger and shame (McDermott). While anger and shame may seem like opposite emotions, in this context, they are actually pretty similar. Karen McDermott, the study's author, said that anger and shame were related. People didn’t feel one or the other; they tended to feel both which affected their performance. This is important to note because often we think of our emotions as singular when in fact our human emotional systems are quite complex and we often feel different combinations of emotion in different contexts which is why dealing with trash talk can be such a difficult task.
When it comes to professional athletes, some trash-talkers have no filter at all. Take Michael Jordan, for example, and this clip of him talking to Dikembe Mutombo at the free-throw line. MJ singles him out and proceeds to sink the shot with his eyes closed. You’d have to think that if you're Mutombo in that situation, you’re likely feeling a bit angry. Also, you might feel ashamed that someone (the GOAT in this case) decided to single you out in front of thousands of people to make you look foolish. No one likes being made a fool, especially if it’s magnified on a professional stage. As a result, you may want to retaliate and get even with the trash-talker. As logical as this may sound, in reality, acting on this urge may lead to you performing worse than if you were just to let the noise pass without engaging emotionally with the words. Because now, as you’re dribbling the ball down the court, you’re looking for an isolation play to get revenge, which may not be the best offensive option in that situation. The ego is now in the driver's seat rather than the humble, confident athlete.
Mindfulness as a tool to maintain focus
The usage of mindfulness in sports and how it can be practiced was discussed in an earlier blog titled Mindfulness: The Secret Edge In Sports. If you are caught up in a swarm of trash talk with a player, mindfulness can be a great tool to get your mind back in the game. To give a quick recap of the process, the breath can be used as an anchor to maintain focus when the mind becomes distracted. A good visualization for this process can be to picture blue air coming into the body during inhalation and green air exiting the body during exhalation. This can be done for several cycles until you feel a bit more relaxed and concentrated on the present moment. Practicing this exercise for just a few minutes can enhance performance and overall well-being.
Recommended Resource - Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
McDermott Study - https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190725112555.htm
McClear - https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/study-trash-talking-in-sports-is-surprisingly-effective