In The Beginning, There Was Smack Talk

An excerpt from Rafi Kohan’s “Trash Talk” explains how talking smack can knock your opponent off their game.

The following is an excerpt from Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage by Rafi Kohan.

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Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn't Total Garbage


In the Navy, there is a flight-simulation exercise in which pilots are asked to complete a series of tasks, with varying degrees of difficulty, while a range of unusual sounds play at random in the cockpit. As the exercise unfolds, instructors measure brain activity in the pilots’ parietal lobes to see if they are recognizing the sounds. “Not surprisingly, the harder the task is, the less likely they are to have any reaction to the sound,” explains a sports psychologist who works with the United States Naval Academy but asked not to be quoted by name, since we spoke without going through the military’s proper communications channels. At a certain point, for some pilots, when the task is hard enough, they are no longer hearing the sounds at all. “They literally don’t hear it.” In fact, the pilots will insist that the sounds simply weren’t played. “Which is really dangerous if you are in a cockpit and not hearing a radio when someone is telling you really important information.”

According to Brian Decker, a former Green Beret who now serves as the vice president of team development for the Carolina Panthers, athletes—or any high-level performer, for that matter—will only be at their best when they are “totally immersed in their current environment.” What he means by this: those performers must be appropriately tuned in to what is happening around them in order to pick up on “task- relevant cues”—the stimuli that relate to what they’re trying to accomplish—and respond accordingly, while disregarding those cues that are unrelated to the task, which are mere distraction. In the jargon of athletes and sports psychologists, this is referred to as “focusing on the task at hand.”

It sounds simple: Pay attention to what you’re doing!

But it’s not easy to remain so intensely present—to not think about a recent mistake, or worry about a future play, or otherwise allow your focus to wander beyond the immediate demands of performance, regardless of whether your opponent does something inflammatory, like jamming a finger up your ass or insulting your wife by name. Even the great and notoriously dialed-in basketball legend Rick Barry—a man who has never been accused of humility—admits to me, “It’s almost impossible to stay at that high level” for the entirety of a game. Part of the problem, as the navy’s flight-simulation exercise demonstrates, is that attention is a limited resource. What that means in the case of the simulator, per the navy psych, “is that when you are really saturated, when you’re at your max capacity for attention, you don’t tend to hear a lot of other things.”

But the inverse is also true: if the pilots were to focus instead on the background noises—or if an athlete were to focus on task-irrelevant cues, like trash talk—that would likely have an attentional spillover effect. Famed psychologist and professor emeritus at Princeton University Daniel Kahneman has written about this as “capacity interference.” It’s the idea of cognitive overload, of presenting someone with more information—greater attentional demands—than they can handle. And it gives us another way to understand the mechanisms by which trash talk threatens to affect performance. Per Kahneman, everyone has “a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you go beyond your budget, you will fail.”

At Boston University, Edson Filho focuses in his research on human excellence and performance optimization. As he explains it, peak performance is defined by its efficiencies—the ability to eliminate wasted effort of any kind and to keep both the body and the brain operating with a kind of task-obsessed ruthlessness. Physically, this means there are no unnecessary movements: no hitches, no hesitations. And cognitively, this leaves the vast majority of one’s attentional resources available to attend to other demands of the contest, such as thinking about tactics, anticipating what might happen next, or monitoring one’s internal states to ensure they remain within an optimal zone of functioning— and they do need to be monitored.

According to Indiana University professor John Raglin, athletes are “constantly tweaking the dials” when it comes to this sort of self-regulation. While sports psychology fetishizes the idea of being in a flow state, when time seems to stand still and everything happens effortlessly, he says those experiences are “so rare that you remember them.” Far more often, “athletes are actively managing their resources. It’s like, ‘I’ve got to get a handle on my emotions. I’ve got to refocus,’” he says. “If anybody comes in there and screws with their instrument panel, then that’s a serious thing—it’s one more thing that they have to deal with.”

When someone is performing at his or her best, you can see this reflected in that person’s brain activity, via electroencephalography (EEG) or fMRIs, per Filho. “Part of being an expert is that you only recruit the parts of the brain that you need to recruit. You only use what you need to use,” he says. “It is called neural efficiency.” Meanwhile, if you were to look at the brain imaging of someone who is stressed, distracted, or otherwise dealing with cognitive overload, the picture would be much more chaotic, as “that person is accessing parts of the brain that he or she shouldn’t have to access.

“That’s the art of shit talking,” says two- time NBA All-Star Danny Manning. “You want to see somebody lose focus.”

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The Art And Science Of Trash Talk

Much of this happens unconsciously, of course. For example, when something distracts us, it is a stress to our system, and that often causes arousal. Our hearts may beat faster, our muscles may tighten, or our thoughts may race. It’s also possible that targets of trash talk deal with it by directing their attention inward: they will focus on their internal dialogue instead of the contest transpiring around them, perhaps obsessing over their mechanics, perseverating on a seed of self-doubt, or attending to a surge of unwanted emotion. Mark Aoyagi, the codirector of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, says this is a poor reaction to trash talk that gets less attention: the “internal reaction, the turning in and beating oneself up.” For those who allow trash talk into their heads like this, “there’s some evaluation that starts to take place,” says Michael Gervais, a performance psychologist who spent a decade working with the Seattle Seahawks. They may wonder, Is this true? Is this not true? “And that is where I want my competitor to have his attention—internal.”

Smack talk hijacks the human impulse to make meaning, which is partly why Scott Goldman, a performance psychologist for the Golden State Warriors, suggests that “even the most innocuous trash talk” has the potential to provide a competitive advantage because it “still warrants some form of inspection, whether it is milliseconds or maybe even weeks.” He says, “I’ve had a couple of players come to me and were like, ‘I’m still kind of reeling on the statement that was said about me, you know, four games back.’” If you think that sounds far-fetched, talk to Chris Bosh. He has admitted that he couldn’t sleep after Kevin Garnett called him “a mama’s boy” during a game. It wasn’t that he took offense to the allegation; it’s that he found it so inscrutable. “I had the worst game of my career after that,” Bosh said. “I was up just late at night like, ‘What is that supposed to mean?’”


Aoyagi refers to attention as “the most critical dimension” when it comes to the mental aspects of performance because it connects so many other pieces of the sports psychology puzzle. For example, he tells me about the relationship between arousal and attention: “As arousal increases, attention narrows,” he says.

This is important because there are various types of attentional states.

One way to visualize these differences is to imagine your attention as a kind of funnel or a cone. Within that funnel is a given amount of information, some of which will be task relevant, some of which won’t. When the funnel is wide, your attention will be broad with an open awareness as you take in lots of information. When the funnel is narrow, your attention will be more tightly focused. One attentional state isn’t inherently better than the other. But either a wide or narrow state can be more or less functional, based on the demands of a given task. For instance, a quarterback may want a broader awareness when he is dropping back to pass. To make the best decision about where (and when) to throw the ball, he needs to observe the routes of his receivers, read the defensive coverage, and be generally aware of the giant bodies closing in around him. A basketball player stepping to the free- throw line, on the other hand, needs a tighter spotlight of focus. In this example, “you want to be broad enough that you can take in yourself, your [physiological] activation level, the hoop, those things,” says Aoyagi, but narrow enough that you can shut out such task-irrelevant cues as the jockeying of the rebounders in the paint, the distracting taunts of fans behind the basket, and the general hullabaloo of a raucous sports arena.

The key to attentional control, therefore, is not just the ability to put your focus where you want it to be, or even the ability to keep it there. It’s also crucial to have attentional flexibility—the capacity to switch your focus, as appropriate—because there are performance-related consequences when someone’s funnel of concentration is either too narrow or too broad. To illustrate this point, Aoyagi relays an anecdote that was shared with him by his late mentor Keith Henschen, a pioneering sports psychologist who worked for decades with the Utah Jazz. As Henschen explained, John Stockton was an OK free throw shooter, but his shooting percentage would go up in critical moments of a game. What this means, per Aoyagi, was that Stockton was “probably below his zone of optimal arousal” most of the time. As a result, his attention was likely a little broader than it needed to be when he was shooting free throws. “He might be taking in the stands. Not in an obscene way. Probably not even in a conscious way,” he says. “But under pressure, he gets that little boost of arousal, and it actually pushes him into his optimal zone.”

On the flip side, if a quarterback becomes overly aroused, his attention may become too narrow. Perhaps he homes in on a single receiver, to the exclusion of all the others, or doesn’t see the safety creeping over from the other side of the field. And just like that: interception. Or think about a basketball player who responds to trash talk by turning the team sport into a one-on-one battle, driving into defensive traffic or jacking up contested shots, while seemingly ignoring a wide-open teammate beneath the rim. “That’s because their attention is off task,” says Aoyagi. “It is too narrow.”

Understanding attention in this way also adds important nuance to the IZOF [individual zones of optimal functioning] model, which posits that every player has a personally appropriate level of anxiety related to their peak performance state—and to the performance implications of trash talk therein, says Aoyagi: “When you get someone past that optimal level of arousal, not only are you potentially activating that fight-flight-freeze response, but you are making their attention ineffective, as well.” This is significant at the highest levels of competition. Why? Because while it’s unlikely that many elite athletes—especially veterans in their sport—would be pushed so far beyond their optimal zones that they enter fight-flight-freeze, even small disturbances can prove costly. “Even the veterans, you might be able to get just enough under their skin to throw their attention off,” says Aoyagi. “And that little fluctuation can make a huge difference.”

The separation between elite performers in any sport is often infinitesimal. Football, they say, is a game of inches. Gold medals are won by fractions of a second. “It doesn’t take much” to swing the outcome of a contest, per Raglin. “It’s like you nick off that edge,” he says. “We always talk about the margin of victory, which is a fraction of a percentage. Anything that subtracts from that can be the difference between a medal and not even being [on the podium].”

Just a small fluctuation. Any tiny lapse.

Excerpted 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.

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About Rafi Kohan

Rafi Kohan is author of Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage. He’s based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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