Foul Play: The Effectiveness of Trash Talk

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Physical speed, strength and skill aren’t the only measures of how well athletes can thrive in their respective sports. A witty combination of words allows an athlete to sneak into an opponent’s head, throwing them off and making victory more important. 

There’s the physical game and then there’s the mental game, known as trash talk. 

Trash talking describes friendly banter and boasting that motivates athletes to their best performance or it can be insulting speech intended to demoralize, intimidate, or humiliate.

Alumni Orlando Heggs (‘18) played football for the Bulldogs and now competes at Wake Forest University. While following Bolles’ recent football season, Heggs witnessed a new trend in trash talk: moving off the field to online roasting.

Before social media, trash talk took place primarily on the field, player vs. player, and the performance spoke for itself. “I personally love to trash talk but only on the field and only if I’m playing well, making sure I’m backing up my trash talk,” Heggs said. “Because if I’m not backing it up, I will be looking silly.”

Online trash talk causes more people, who aren’t involved in the game that’s about to be played, to get involved in trashing the other team. This proved true for the Bolles football team after losing to Ponte Vedra (PV) in late October.  For a game on Friday, October 26th, the Instagram feeds blew up on the Tuesday before. The people talking smack included Bolles students, students from other local schools, and alumni from all over the country. 

“Taking it to social media isn’t necessarily the best thing. It can bring in the opinions and trash talk of people who have nothing to do with the game and people who aren’t playing,” Heggs said.

Bolles Bulldog, Simon Brackin (‘20), engaged in online trash talk during both PV and BK games and thinks of trash talk on social media as a way to create interest in the games, “I think it’s very exciting because not only can both schools see what’s being said back and forth but also it brings a lot more attention to the games.” 

Brackin stated he finds more fun in playing, and trash talking, a big rival, “It makes the games more fun to play and more exciting, especially when it is with teams that are our rivals such as PV and BK. It’s good old-fashioned hate.”

There are different levels of trash talk. Ryan Brewer, basketball coach, tells his athletes that there is a line between respectful trash talk and uncivilized talk,  “Friendly trash talk between opponents is a part of the game, as it’s used to mentally challenge your opponent. However, there is a line and athletes cross that line when they threaten physical abuse or verbally attack their opponent with hate speech. It is uncivilized and disrespectful, not only to the opponent, but to your coach, fans, and the program that you represent.”

Players can use social media to extend an olive branch to the opposing team. Before the October 26th gameday Mark Young, PV football player, sent a sportsmanlike Snapchat wishing Bolles players good luck but because of the large online audience the gesture was not responded to sincerely. 

Young said, “I sent that to Michael Jubran and CJ Grimes posted it with no context. I wasn’t surprised after the game. I knew Bolles would talk all week and focus too much on the trash talk. I love trash talk but they didn’t know when to shift their focus to the game… so they got what they had coming.”

The Bugle reached out to Jubran and Grimes for comment but both declined an interview.

Studies referenced by the New York Times, NBC, ESPN, and CNN in analysis of social media and human emotions show that online interactions lead more quickly to negative emotions than positive ones. “I believe there is a difference between online beef and in-person beef. If I’m actually playing and trash talking, my emotional response will be different than if I’m on Twitter or Instagram when all of my emotions are all invested on the social media,” Heggs said. 

Football players aren’t the only athletes who engage in trash talk. Bianca Degrado (‘21), an advanced swimmer, reported swimmers from Bolles and Episcopal engage in swimmer-specific trash talk, “I know a bunch of my friends trash talk. It hypes you up before a big meet.” However, Degrado said that if you focus on it too much it just distracts you, “I just focus on myself. I’m learning to focus more on what I’m doing cause everything else around you is just irrelevant. For swimming it’s about your time not everybody else’s.”

Problems with trash talk occur when athletes let it affect their composure and emotional control. During the heat of the battle, trash talk can lead to frustration and aggression, “I believe that trash talking can be a distraction,” Heggs said. “It can take away the team aspect of the game and turn it into a selfish vendetta instead of being focused on the team and plays.” 

Trash talking takes place at all levels. Richard Sherman and Michael Crabtree, two talented NFL football players, engaged in an online feud in 2014 and in 2017, Crabtree’s feud with Aqil Talib was intensified by Twitter commentary from fans and commentators alike. This turned into an ESPN headline and their anger and frustration was reflected on the field in the form of penalties for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

Heggs confirmed trash talk takes place at the collegiate level and confirmed that for his teammates social media trash talk after the game has a different vibe.

“After our big upset win against an in state rival, NC State, some of the seniors on the team took to Twitter and engaged in some friendly trash talk but only because we won and they didn’t do the trash talk prior to the game,” Heggs said. 

Athletes use trash talk as motivation and it even makes them play harder. On October 12th, our football team played Bishop Kenny (BK) after a week of intense trash talk. In that case, they won the game, “One of the most satisfying moments is when we win and the other team, that did the trash talk, has to eat their words. All I gotta say is ‘Dogs by 1000,” Brackin said. 

Heggs confirmed that trash talk can be a motivator,  “At Wake, we play Duke, which is an in-state rival and our coaches put up old pictures of them celebrating a win on our field as motivation.” 

Wake Forest beat Duke 59-7 this season. In many ways you can turn trash talk and beef into positive motivation.” Heggs said

Michael Mulvey,  lacrosse coach, has witnessed trash talking but tells his athletes to stay focused on the game, “ I tell them to not let trash talk get into their heads and to use it as a motivator and focus on their skills,” Mulvey said. 

Mulvey notices that in games where Bolles plays big rivals such as BK there is more intensity, “During big rival games trash talking can grow more personal in nature since our athletes have so many relationships with BK and Episcopal,” Mulvey said. 

Christopher Sanders (Sr.), parent of two student-athletes at Bolles, has attended games where Bolles plays a big rival, “When they play rivals there’s always a little bit more intensity involved,” Sanders said. 

Athletes engaging in trash talk should remember the student handbook which states: “Conduct both on and off the athletic field will be an example to the whole student body, nothing will be done to bring discredit to the athlete, the team, or the School.”

Coach Mulvey helps to define the difference between friendly banter and starting a fight, “Saying ‘you can’t block me’ versus targeting someone’s race and ethnicity are two very different types of trash talk,” Mulvey said.

Mulvey has also noticed parents trash talking the other team, and in some cases more than the athletes, “You hear a lot more coming from the stands and that riles players up as well,” Mulvey said. 

Full disclosure: As a Bulldogs football fan, I attend most games. Sitting in the parent section, I’ve observed parents cursing at the other players. Before the October PV game, a parent posted a “hype video” of Bolles players titled ‘The Shark Fighters’ on Facebook and Twitter. While pro athletes’ bad behavior can influence young players, parents can have just as much of a negative impact, if not more. 

Parents can also be a positive force. Sanders teaches his kids to use the trash talk as a motivator and to not get caught up in it, “We try to focus on turning things around to have the proper perspective and in doing so that becomes motivational to them,” Sanders said. 

Trash talking has been around forever. However, for Bolles, this is the first year where it has crept off the field and onto social media, making it a source of entertainment and controversy. Heggs commented, “After losing to PV, all the ‘rah rah’ that happened between the two teams on social media made us look weak and nothing about Bolles football is weak.”

Originally Published in The Bolles Bugle

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