Take Out the Trash: Why Athletes Should Stop Talking Smack

Today I’m going to look at the psychology of trash talking. While it is entertaining, it’s my belief it’s unnecessary and even harmful to the sport in question. What are your thoughts on trash talk?

The most notorious trash talker of all time is Muhammad Ali. Ali was never short on words – words for his opponents, words of prediction, and sometimes he just wanted to wax poetic to entertain the masses. Ali was a dominant fighter, a cultural figure, and an iconic poet.

Of all sports, boxing in particular is chock-full of colorful characters and many, many trash talkers. Indeed part of fighting and competing is psychological, and a big part of psychology is what we say with our mouths. Sometimes winning is mental, even in a physical arena like the worlds of fighting and sport. That said, it’s long been my contention that it is what we don’t say that has the lasting impact.

I am intrigued by the psychology of trash talking and more so by the effectiveness of it. Does trash talking work? Furthermore, what’s the point of taking smack? Well, the point is winning, and those who have a propensity for it will do anything to gain an edge. If we look at some of the most famous trash talkers – Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Ali, Kobe – they all have the reputation for being win-at-all-cost athletes. You get the feeling Kobe Bryant would run over his own mother to win a ring.

This is America and we love winners. We are a winner’s culture. We’re also a culture of trash talking. In the movie Stripes, Bill Murray’s character humorously commented that our military was “ten and one.” (Korea was a tie, so I guess he was only partially correct.) “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” George Patton once said. We all know Lombardi’s quotation about second place. Whatever it takes, as long as you get the ‘W.’

Indeed, we love a winner and if trash talking comes with it, or if winning results because of the trash talk, we not only tolerate it, we relish it. However, something still doesn’t sit well with us about it. It seems this mantra of win at all costs has led to the disturbing trend of ‘look at me’ in athletics. Ironically, this self-serving arrogance does not actually aid winning in the long run, it sets an athlete up for failure. Pride cometh before the fall.

Mike Tyson is perhaps the most intimidating trash talker of all time. Mike spoke not only with his mouth but much of his ‘talking’ came with his body language. Most of Mike’s fights were won before the bell rang. Mike also had plenty of loud-mouthed moments, including when he infamously threatened to eat Lennox Lewis’s children. Mike, we miss you! You can’t make that stuff up. By the way, for those of you who forgot, Tyson lost and Lennox ‘ate’ him up.

Ultimately respect ranks higher than winning, and you can gain respect even in losing. Conversely, you can lose respect by talking trash, even in winning. When Anderson Silva fought in UFC 112, his showboating was so embarrassing that UFC boss Dana White refused to put the championship belt on him after his victory, as is tradition. Silva is a world champion and unquestionably one of the most talented fighters in UFC history, but was the showboating really necessary? What was gained?

Sure, Michael Jordan’s, Larry Bird’s, and Muhammad Ali’s legacies are intact and will go down in the history books as one word – great. I can’t help but wonder, though, what those reputations and legacies might look like without the trash talking. I also wonder if the trash talking somehow isn’t overcompensating for failures in other arenas in life. As much as athletes who trash talk might dominate on the field, do they do so off the field? Do they ‘win’ at life? I haven’t forgot Larry Bird’s and Mike Jordan’s many off-court issues, or, for that matter, even some of their on-court failures. Most champions end their careers on their backs, so to speak. Are they talking trash then?

I am fine with a little showmanship and promoting your sport is part of competing, I suppose. Many of Ali’s quotations were hilarious and meant in jest. Sport should have a little fun and humor after all. It’s play and not war. Still, trash talking just seems entirely unnecessary and rife with downside. It seems like it’s always going to come back in the end somehow to haunt the offender doing the talking.

In short, I wonder if somehow karma plays out here. I wrote months ago about America’s decline in the sport of boxing. Our failure in the most recent Olympic Games was colossal and the alarming trend has been there for years. My contention is the sport has lost its foundation as a martial art based in and around respect. Of course, that being said, perhaps America’s greatest current champion is noted trash-talker Floyd Mayweather, Jr. It’s a dilemma for sure. We look up to great champions but we want our kids to learn respect and what the spirit of competing really is all about.

In the long run the only way to truly build a culture of winning is through humility, respect, and the ability to listen. True competitors – those who love competition, win or lose – will do their talking with their actions. They also have the same attitude of winning in their personal lives. Greatness is about character. Winning ultimately is about respect. Shut up and play.

Photo by Marylandstater (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.