How to improve your trash talk
TWO YOUNG pretenders recently learned the value of keeping schtum. In Americas National Basketball Association Dillon Brooks, a player for the Memphis Grizzlies, labelled LeBron James, one of the sports greatest players, old after a playoff match against the Los Angeles Lakers. The 38-year-old Mr James proceeded to score 25 points in the next game of the series; Mr Brooks was ejected from the court for striking the older mans groin. In the snooker world Hossein Vafaei, an up-and-coming Iranian player, described Ronnie OSullivan, a British seven-time world champion, as a nice person when hes asleep. Mr OSullivan remained wide awake to thrash Mr Vafaei in their subsequent world-championship match. The episodes highlight the potential pitfalls of trash talkinsulting or taunting opponents in an effort to throw them off their game. The trash-talkers failure to lift their performances to the level of their rhetoric looked foolish, especially because their humiliation came at the hands of elder statesmen. The cases seemed to provide an additional argument to people who think that displays of disrespect denigrate principles of sportsmanship. Indeed, last month a disrespectful gesture made towards an opponent, Caitlin Clark, by Angel Reese, a college-level basketball player in America, had pious pundits fulminatingand seemingly ignoring the fact that Ms Clark had made a similar gesture earlier in the season. The flinging of jibes at sporting rivals has a long history. Cricketers call it sledging; football managers employ mind games. Basketball legends like Larry Bird and Michael Jordan excelled at it. In a match between the Chicago Bulls and the Denver Nuggets in the early 1990s, for instance, Mr Jordan won a free-throw with seconds remaining on the clock. He eyeballed Dikembe Mutombo, a Nuggets player, and quipped, Hey Mutombo, this ones for you, baby, before closing his eyes and making the shot. Mr Mutombo is still asked about the moment. Displays of bravado enhance sporting legends. But do they achieve results? Proponents of smack talk argue that it plays a crucial role in winning the mental battle inherent in competition. Shane Warne, an Australian spin-bowler and famous sledger, called it a way to gain the psychological edge on the cricket field. The practice was commonly misunderstood, he noted: the idea was not to be nasty, but to find a clever way to unsettle or distract. If deployed appropriately, he claimed, mind games help to tip the balance in professional sport, where differences of skill between athletes can be very small. The science suggests that badgering opponents can be effective, but only up to a point. Research led by Karen McDermott from the University of Connecticut found that participants were distracted by trash talk from opponents they did not know. It heightened emotions like anger and shame, affecting their performance. But a study led by Jeremy Yip of Georgetown University observed that, in general, the targets of trashing felt motivated to do better. Thus, taunts carry both opportunity and risk. You may put your opponents off, but you may also provoke them to give you a hiding. For trash-talkers-in-training, a few pointers might help. First, consider the game at hand. Studies show that smack talk is especially effective in distracting players who are engaged in actions that require creativity or fine motor skills. So it may prove more effective in games demanding high levels of concentration than in sports that require mainly strength. Cricket meets those criteria nicely, especially when the batsman is fending off a world-class spin-bowler. Next, it is worth thinking about the timing of your comments. In some sports, particularly combat ones, athletes swear by pre-match jibes. In 2015, for example, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, a Polish mixed-martial arts fighter, claimed that pre-fight taunts laid the foundations for her victory over Carla Esparza, her American opponent, in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. And who could forget Muhammad Alis suggestion in 1964 that Sonny Liston was too ugly to be boxings heavyweight world champion? Ali won a celebrated victory in the subsequent fight. But unless you can credibly claim to be The Greatest, it may be a bad idea to give opponents time to stew over a taunt. Take a recent example from rugby union. In 2022 Australias mens team hosted their English counterparts in a three-match series. After two games, the sides were drawn. Then Suliasi Vunivalu, one of Australias players, promised that his team would shut the Pommies up in the decider. The Australians went on to lose. Courtney Lawes, Englands then captain, said Mr Vunivalus cockiness had been good fuel for his teams preparations. Of course, trash talk can go too far. Critics say that crickets sledging culture, for example, can be racist. Last year a report on the Scottish game found that on-field chat could be racially abusive. Athletes who stoop to bigotry when they insult their opponents besmirch the not-so-fine art of trash talk. As Warne implied, it should be bracing but never boorish. It is, after all, supposed to be part of the fun.