This weekend, the eyes of the entire mixed martial arts world (and a lot of the rest of the world of sport) will be directed towards the Etihad Arena in the UAE. Six years after they first faced each other in the octagon, mixed martial arts athletes Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor will fight again in the UFC 257 main event. The first edition of this matchup ended in a resounding win for McGregor by a first-round knockout. McGregor is probably the biggest star in MMA and his fights are guaranteed to entertain with his fast, flashy but most of all deadly accurate style of fighting. However, his style is not the only reason the Irish athlete is so famous. His personality and behaviour outside of the octagon make you either love him or hate him. From his signature victory walk (now often imitated by other athletes), his statement: "we're not here to take part, we're here to take over" to his many controversies such as minor driving offences and attacking a bus with UFC athletes with a bench after an event he didn't even take part in. McGregor will always find a way to make headlines whether he wants to or not. Personally, I like McGregor, mainly because when you strip down all the controversies, extravagant clothes and arrogant behaviour, you see what an amazing athlete Conor is. The great Netflix documentary 'Notorious', shows that he works harder than I have ever seen anyone work, has a drive that is hard to equal and his rags to riches backstory is truly inspiring. On the other hand, the documentary also shows, just how crazy McGregor actually is. To know what I am talking about, I really suggest you watch the movie if you haven't already. However, what I remember most about that documentary was the amount of trash talking that McGregor and his team engage in.
Trash talking is something that you are probably familiar with if you have ever played any competitive sport. In research it is defined as: “boastful comments about the self or insulting comments about an opponent that are delivered by a competitor typically before or during a competition" (Yip et al., 2018). This definition refers to the small crude or negative remarks towards an opponent that we know happens all the time in sports. However, I don't think there is any sport in which trash talking is so integral to the spectacle as in combat sports. During pre-fight press conferences, the insults and allegations are thrown across the room almost non-stop and even during fights some athletes are continuing to taunt their opponent both verbally and non-verbally. In the first instalment of Poirier vs McGregor, you can see Conor constantly talking to Dustin, especially after a weak kick or punch by his opponent. Some trash talking is trying to disrupt the confidence of an opponent or boost the trash talkers own, other comments try to agitate the opponents or their staff and trick them into doing something rash or stupid or letting go of the tactical plan. The overall goal of trash talking seems to be to gain some kind of competitive edge over your opponent, but it might be hard to see the direct effects of that in a fight. However, there is also a dark side to trash talking. You could give your opponent even more motivation to beat you and if you are busy trash talking, you might not be fully focusing on the task. On top of that, if it turns out that you cannot back-up your trash talk, it might backfire dramatically and possibly lead to a significant loss of face. It is clear that thrash talking has a double-edged nature, yet so many athletes across different sports and levels use this behavioural tactic. Let's take a look at trash talking, why would someone decide to use it or not, what are the possible dangers of using it, but most importantly, does it work as a competitive strategy?
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It has been only recently that sport psychology research has started to look at trash talking and although it has been well established that athletes use this strategy quite often, the exact reasoning behind it is still unclear. One study suggests that "perhaps trash-talking was selected across evolutionary time because its benefits outweigh the potential costs given the possibility that some rivals might derive extra motivation from a trash-talker?" (Kniffin & Palacio, 2018). Another explanation could be that trash talking exchanges a possible long-term negative effect (looking like an idiot if you end up losing) with a possible short-term positive effect (disrupting your opponent). Unfortunately, there isn't a good answer to this question yet but some interesting findings on the use of thrash talking have been reported. For instance, one study found that most thrash talk is directed towards discrediting the opponent's sporting ability or inflating one's own ability (Kniffin & Palacio, 2018). You can think about Muhammed Ali's: "Move like a butterfly, sting like a bee" comment. Another common topic of trash talking is to talk about your opponent's overall physical appearance, more specifically, letting them know they are not fit to compete. These two common topics make sense because there is a link between both athletic ability and physical appearance and potential performance indicating that the overall goal of thrash talk is indeed to create a larger performance difference between the athlete and their opponent. This same study also found that athletes in contact sports engage in trash talking significantly more than in non-contact sports, but interestingly only for men. Women on the other hand, engage in trash talking a lot less both in contact and non-contact sports. Overall, it seems that what we instinctively know about trash talk is true: it is mostly done by men in contact sports (such as football and combat sports).
However, the real question is, does trash talking work? From anecdotal evidence, we know it does, at least sometimes. Take a situation I wrote a blog about in the past, Zidane's headbutt. This entire situation started with trash talking, and it definitely gave the Italian team an advantage, eliminating the best player in the world at that time. However, from a scientific perspective the answer is not nearly as straightforward since it has not been studied directly in sports. The closest we can get is a study focusing on trash talking in a business setting. The researchers concluded that participants who were subjected to trash talking performed better at an effort-based task compared to participants who weren't subjected to trash talk (Yip et al., 2018). This may suggest that trash talking actually has the opposite effect of what the goal is: it only makes your opponents better. However, it is impossible to assume this would be the case in sports as well. For instance, in this study, the executed task was effort-based. That means that the more effort you put in, the better you do. In professional sports, we can already assume that the athletes are putting in as much effort as possible. Additionally, the researchers concluded that the reason behind the increase in effort was because they started to see their opponents as rivals, but again this is already the case in most sporting situations. One result that could translate to sports was that participants subjected to trash-talk did worse on creativity-based tasks, so it could be possible that trash talking limits an athlete's ability to be creative and adapt to different situations. The conclusion is that we don't know whether trash talking will give a competitive advantage to the trash talker or if it does the exact opposite and give the opponent and edge.
However, there are some things we do know about trash talking. More specifically, there are some negative effects that should be considered. For instance, recipients of trash talking showed to be more interested in having their opponents lose, even if it was at the cost of their own performance. So, an athlete that is subject to trash talking might start to focus on their opponent rather than their own performance. Additionally, people subjected to trash talk were less likely to cooperate with teammates, and even more likely to cheat in order to perform better (or beat their thrash talking opponent). Although it is hard to know how these findings translate into sporting settings, it is reasonable to think that trash talk provokes unsportsmanlike behaviour to some extent.
In summary, trash talking is a widely common phenomenon that the sport psychology field knows very little about and maybe that makes it even more interesting. I don't know whether to tell an athlete to use trash talking or whether to make sure they stay away from it. Most likely, it depends on the individual preferences of the athlete and their opponent. Knowing yourself and who you will be competing against is important when deciding to use trash talking or not. Regardless, if you are going to watch the Conor McGregor fight this weekend or not, I would suggest finding some of the press conferences online and just listen to the trash talk because to me, not knowing whether they are doing something that can benefit them or harm them makes it extremely exciting.
Kniffin, K. M., & Palacio, D. (2018). Trash-talking and trolling. Human Nature, 29(3), 353-369.