How much can Trash Talking actually Influence a Sport?

How much can Trash Talking actually Influence a Sport?
Everyone likes to have their dignity and integrity intact. If you own a business you don’t want to have others slandering it directly as it can cause you to lose customers (often to competitors) or suffer boycotts. No one wants to be embarrassed or cyber bullied on social media, in the same way that no one wants to be humiliated in the workplace. The former is about maintaining a positive image and goodwill for a company, and the latter for saving face in both a personal and professional manner.

Many of the consequences that come with this type of offensive behaviour are often detrimental to the well-being of a company and to the psychological well-being of an individual. That’s why harassment online or in the workplace, as well as the slandering or leaking of sensitive company information, can often end in a lawsuit. In short, no one likes it or welcomes it.

In the sporting industry, however, it has become commonly accepted as the norm and has been for decades. You’ve probably heard of it as “trash talk” or less commonly, as “smack talk”. This technique is often employed by athletes against their opponents for many reasons. Sometimes the reasons are personal, sometimes it is to get inside their head, distract them and make them fail, and sometimes it is merely to gain more interest in themselves or an event in which they’re participating. The most common medium for talking trash is through the media or social networks. However, some athletes also make use of the technique during an event, in the form of taunts, in order distract the opposition.

Assuming trash talk is a strategy adopted by an athlete, coach or manager, just how effective is it in terms of influencing the outcome of a sporting event or propelling it into the “high-profile” realms of social media? If we are to go by some of the examples that are already out there, then the answer is quite effective indeed.

Does Trash Talking Pay Off? - infographic
Infographic source: 888poker

The mental aspect

Let’s look at it from a psychological point of view. The fact that Sports Psychology exists as an area of expertise underlines the importance an athlete’s state of mind plays in the outcome to an event. Many sports psychologists stress that having a clear mind, the right level of focus, positivity and self-belief is tantamount to success. Some even recommend that athletes believe themselves to be champions before they even become one. However, there are many examples of athletes having their confidence rattled or their nerves sparked, causing them to lose this vital mental composure when it matters most and perform detrimentally. Many of the best trash talkers love to play mind-games with their opponents in the hope of getting them to lose focus, or lose control of their emotions.

Famous boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson have used public press conferences to attack and antagonise their opponents verbally and to quickly gain notoriety. It could be said that fighters such as Cassius Clay (boxing), Floyd Mayweather Jr. (boxing) and Conor McGregor (MMA), by choosing the round in which they would knock out their opponents helped themselves gain a psychological edge over their opponents by following through on their predictions and creating a certain anxiety in the back of their opponents’ minds.

Insulting an opponent, or worse - their friends, family or ideals - can cause them to get overcome by feelings of rage or anxiety in the moment, an iconic example being when Marco Materazzi and Zinedine Zidane got caught up in a war of words during the 2006 Wold Cup final between France and Italy. Materazzi had been consistently tugging on the shirt of Zidane (now the current manager of Real Madrid) and he joked that the Italian should wait until after the game to have it - prompting Materazzi’s now famous retort “I’d rather have your sister”. Zinedine proceeded to give him a head-butt to the chest resulting in a red card and sending-off for the French captain who then had to endure watching his teammates lose via penalty shoot-outs. Unfortunately, due to his impulsivity, this is the enduring image most people have of Zidane’s outstanding career as a player.

An impulsive moment immortalized
Photo by Doha Stadium Plus Qatar / CC BY 2.0

Another good example of an athlete losing their emotional composure is the McGregor vs José Aldo fight in UFC 194. This fight, which had over two years of build-up, was over in in less than 13 seconds due to Aldo losing his composure, more than likely as a result of having to endure more than a year of Conor’s insults in press conferences and in the media, then having his teammates insist even more that he would have to beat Conor for his country, which was probably too much weight to carry on his shoulders at the time.

Helps gain attention

Talking trash, however, is not just a tactic to “get inside an opponent’s head”, but is also deployed in many cases as a marketing strategy. Fighters like Mike Tyson, Conor McGregor and Muhammad Ali are just some examples of how trash talk can be used for attracting worldwide interest in an event, leading to larger profits for their relevant organisations such as the American Boxing Federation and the UFC, as well as taking home a much bigger paycheck for both them and their opponents as a result.

Nonetheless, it is not just in combat sports that trash talking can be used for publicity. Leicester footballer Jamie Vardy became one of the most talked about players of the Premier League between the years 2011 to 2015 thanks his unorthodox use of social media and his approach to interviews with the media. He once quipped that his rivals’ matches disinterested him to the degree that he preferred to play his PlayStation instead of watching them. The amusing thing is that Vardy has also become the first Premier League player to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of consecutive goals by scoring in 11 back-to-back matches. As a result of both his skill in the field of trash talk and on the actual playing field, he has since starred in advertisements for companies like Beats By Dre.


However, it’s not just athletes that can dispose of the tool of trash talking. Football managers such as José Mourinho are also famous for their constant belittlement of the opposition. Possibly José Mourinho’s worst jibe at another manager came in the form of a not-so-subtle backhanded compliment he paid to Arsène Wenger in 2014, describing the Arsenal manager as being a “specialist in failure” after his comment describing other Premier League managers’ self-deprecation in terms of title chances as resulting merely from a fear of failure. This was back when the Portuguese man was having a successful run in charge of Chelsea. Since then, however, he’s had a tough tenure at Manchester United and has received heavy criticism for his lack of senior signings, encouraging dull, defensive play, and lack of composure due to crashing out of the Champions League after losing to Seville. In short, people expected more from the “special one” with him even admitting that maybe he “set the bar too high”.

The results aren’t always clear cut

It seems that trash talk doesn’t always pay-off and of course, in order for it to work (at least if you are an athlete) you also need to have the right level of technical skill in your respective field, or at the very least - skill that can rival your opponent’s. In other words, if you can’t back up what you’re saying, you may risk damaging your brand, reputation and credibility. A classic example of this is when US tennis legend John McEnroe downplayed Ivan Lendl from the Czech Republic as having less talent than his pinkie. The pair faced-off professionally 32 times from 1980 to 1992 with McEnroe subsequently losing the head-to-head 21-15. Indeed, a study performed by the University of Pennsylvania has also shown that aggressively talking down your opponent, depending on the individual, can sometimes even motivate them more, which is probably not going to be the desired effect in most competitive sports.

Leave it to the professionals

Trash talking is a risky game and has both its ups and downs. On the one hand it can gain you fans and improve your brand, on the other it can also backfire and have the reverse effect if you can’t follow it through. Certain professionals, whether athletes, managers or businessmen, seem to have a natural gift for trash talk and know exactly when and how to use it to their advantage, whether that be to throw their competition off course, or to further their career and improve their marketability. Almost certainly it can motivate the way people bet on competitions –the bookmakers love it when an athlete or manager claims to have more of an advantage as it makes people literally put their money where their mouth is, regardless of the odds.

Featured Photo by Andrius Petrucenia

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