Head Games: Trash Talk Really Does Make Athletes, Gamers Perform Worse

STORRS, Conn. — “Trash talk” is commonly heard across professional sports, amateur sports, and even esports leagues for gamers. Players often revel in telling their opponents that they aren’t as good as them (using far more creative verbiage, of course), but it turns out that mouthing off in the heat of the game might actually be a sound strategy. A new study by researchers at the University of Connecticut shows that trash talking really does have the ability to significantly hinder an opponent’s performance.

Athletes have long turned to lip service as a means to cause their opponents to lose focus and perform worse, but few studies have been conducted to show whether trash talk was, in fact, all talk.

“We always think of sports as being very physical games but they are absolutely mental games,” said study author Karen C.P. McDermott, a doctoral student at UConn, in a media release. “Plenty of coaches will tell you to ‘get your head in the game’ because having that mental edge and being mentally focused is incredibly important, especially in sports that require hand-eye coordination. There’s always that mental component and trash talk is another form of offense that athletes have to play defense against.”

McDermott, a former high school volleyball player who regularly competed in tournaments, used the classic video game “Mario Kart” as the study’s medium, recruiting 200 participants — men and women aged 18 to 35 — to compete against each other. As they played, some heard verbally aggressive insults, while others competed without any trash talk. Researchers found that those who could hear the insults performed worse than those who didn’t.

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More specifically, McDermott notes that while all players experienced some form of auditory and cognitive distractions, it was the cognitive distractions that affected the competitors’ motivation to perform well — which ultimately affected their ability to focus on their task. She also saw that players felt both anger and shame when listening to the insults.

“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 says. “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’s study is the first to statistically show that trash talk negatively affects competitive performance. She suggests that teams spend more time training players on ways to ignore trash talk from opponents and not allow their comments to get in players’ heads.

“We practice defensive skills all the time on the courts but you don’t practice defensive mental drills,” she says. “Part of the reason I think they don’t do that is because there hasn’t been enough study about trash talk to be able to formulate a defense against it. The study I did is one of the first that attempted to map out the cognitive and emotional processes that a person will actually feel while being the target of trash talk.”

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