Turns out trash-talking in sports is surprisingly effective

“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, who was famed for his trashed-talking on the court; he even trash-talked against his teammates during practice.

Did Wallace’s verbal antics – most of which are unprintable here – ever get under other player’s skin? Most certainly, according to new research from the University of Connecticut. A new study showed that trash talk is quite effective at claiming a psychological advantage to emotionally destabilize your opponent.

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“We always think of sports as being very physical games but they are absolutely mental games,” says Karen C.P. McDermott, Ph.D., whose recent doctoral dissertation in communications is one of the first studies to statistically show the specific effects of trash talk on competitive performance.

McDermott’s study used the racing video game “Mario Kart,” played under controlled conditions by 200 men and women. Some of them heard verbal insults and aggressive talk while they played, and some didn’t. McDermott, who observed the players, said the trash talk resulted in “cognitive distraction.” Players lost motivation, the ability to focus, and experienced feelings of anger and shame. This was of particular interest.

“I had originally conceived anger and shame to be two opposite reactions; that people would either feel one or the other strongly; that if you felt angry it was going to motivate you more,” McDermott said. “What I found actually is that anger and shame were related to each other. People didn’t feel one or the other, they tended to feel both. In many cases what happened was that people felt shame more strongly and it made them angry. That affected their performance. I hadn’t expected that.”

McDermott said that while athletes get psychological help in preparing to compete, it’s usually based on positive outcomes, like imagining them performing a task successfully. They aren’t coached against trash talk, and McDermott says that her study is the first step towards exploring in a more nuanced way the emotional and psychological effects of trash talk in a competitive setting.

As basketball’s other famous trash-talker Larry Byrd said, “I’m going to play this one left-handed.”