Best sports trash talkers, explained: Science proves how Larry Bird, other GOATs were so effective


Larry Bird. Muhammad Ali. Warren Sapp. Gary Payton. Deion Sanders.

Across every generation in every sport, the greatest trash talkers understood the importance of winning the war between the ears. When the slimmest of margins separate the winners and losers, every edge matters.

At its core, trash talk in sports lives at the intersection of art and science.

Fans pay the price of admission to see the Kevin Garnetts and Conor McGregors of the world playing the role of Michaelangelo and Vincent Van Gogh. Fans sitting court side are shilling as much for the in-your-face action as much as they are for the raw, humorous, colorful — often very colorful — interactions between the game’s biggest stars. You’re not just paying to see the Mona Lisa. You’re paying to watch and hear Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa.

But art doesn’t explain exactly why or how trash talk works. Neither do almost all books using interviews or first-hand accounts to regale fans with tales from the court, field, rink, ring, pool, or track.

And that’s what makes the 2023 book Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Totally Garbage decidedly different. Author Rafi Kohan weaves together iconic athletes and never-before-told stories with modern scientific research and culture to explain why the GOAT trash talkers and those best at foiling it are actually — whether they know it or not — manipulative geniuses leveraging the power of psychology, biology and chemistry to gain an edge. 

Trash talk and science: Three ways it impacts performance

In one anecdote from the book, Kohan outlines how infamous NHL enforcer Sean Avery developed his maddening style for getting under opponents’ skin by drawing a parallel to Eminem’s climactic rap battle scene in the movie 8 Mile as part of a discussion with a psychologist and anti-bullying expert. 

As Kohan told Sporting News, “I think knowing the science behind trash talk is extremely important. To be a more effective and strategic trash talker, you have to first understand how this stuff actually works.” 

While the book goes into far more detail, citing specific studies and speaking with dozens of field experts, Kohan outlined three primary pathways by which trash talk inherently impacts a player’s performance:

  1. It can push them into — or out of — their individual zone of optimal functioning (IZOF), a unique level of stress each player needs to perform at their best. When a player has more stress than he can handle — or otherwise believes he lacks the resources to meet the demands of a situation — he will enter a threat state, which has severely negative performance consequences.
  2. It can disrupt a player’s focus and result in even momentary distraction by introducing task-irrelevant cues or otherwise causing cognitive overload. This is critical not only because players need to focus on the task at hand, but also because they need to self-regulate. Even a slight distraction can throw things off.
  3. It can increase a player’s motivation to compete. A recent study that looked at trash talk in the workplace found that targets of trash talk are more motivated to see their opponents lose and, in turn, increase their efforts. Some players (like Draymond Green) rely on trash talk as a means of self-motivation. But trash talk can backfire, too — a possibility that athletes often fail to anticipate. Researchers call this “a failed mental model.”

Said Kohan, “At its core, trash talk is a kind of test. It’s the presentation of a challenge, and it puts pressure on your opponent—and on yourself— by raising the stakes of that confrontation. Now you both have more on the line. The question then becomes whether each of you can handle it, or whether you’re going to fold under that added pressure, even for an instant.”

At the time of publishing this article, Trash Talk has a 5.0 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon.


 


Excerpts from ‘Trash Talk’ book by Rahi Kohan

Below are adapted excerpts from ‘Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage by Rafi Kohan.’ Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Michael Jordan’s simple rule for responding to Larry Bird

It was widely understood among NBA players that it was a bad idea to talk trash to Michael Jordan — which isn’t to say opponents didn’t have plenty of material to work with. “They had dirt on him,” says Cheryl Miller. Jordan wasn’t the only player considered to be off-limits, though. In fact, MJ himself would forbid teammates from engaging with Larry Bird on the floor. When the baby-faced B.J. Armstrong was a rookie, Bird took a run at him by saying, “I can’t believe they’re letting kids from junior high into the NBA.” With Armstrong about to snap back, Jordan stepped in. He said, “Not a single person. Not one word. No one talk to Larry Bird.” To which Bird replied, pleading in his Indiana drawl, “C’mon, Michael. Let these guys get involved in it. Come on.”

(Trash Talk; Getty Images)

Kevin Garnett’s special assignment for Celtics teammate

When Brian Scalabrine played alongside Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce with the Boston Celtics, it was his job to cosign the star players’ trash talk — which was almost always insulting, and often downright mean. “Those two were so demeaning to people,” he says. Garnett and Pierce would say things like, “How is this guy on the court? We won a championship last year, and now we’re playing this guy? Isn’t he in the G League?” That’s when Scalabrine would chime in with peanut-gallery-style affirmations. Scalabrine remembers, “Garnett would be like, ‘Why is this guy talking to me?’ I go, ‘I know! I took like two months before I talked to you, and this guy is doing it in the middle of the game.’” Sometimes Scal would take friendly fire, like when Garnett told an opponent, “I have a feeling you can’t even guard Scalabrine. How are you on me?” But he didn’t take offense. Even now, he chuckles at the memory. Says, “He was cold-blooded.”

How Shep Messing elevated international soccer trash talk with New York Cosmos 

When Shep Messing was a member of the New York Cosmos, a team in the North American Soccer League (NASL) that became famous for signing foreign stars like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, the goalkeeper would often ask his international teammates about their native lands—not because he was so curious about the planet’s beautiful tapestry of people, but because he wanted to exploit individual cultural sensitivities in order to most upset opposing players. “We had like eleven different nationalities on the team. I had the perfect market research right in my own locker room,” says Messing. “To a German, I’d say, ‘Your sister is meeting me back at my hotel after the game.’ That would upset the German more than the Mexican. The Mexican or Italian, if you question their manhood — that would upset them more, right?” As for his own teammates, they didn’t mind informing on their fellow nationals. “Those guys thought it was hilarious,” adds Messing. “Beckenbauer, I remember, said, ‘I’ve been all over the world. I’ve won ten titles with Bayern Munich. I won the World Cup. Nobody has ever asked me how to f— with a German.”

Source : ESPN.com

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