Trash talking on the basketball court; shoving matches after the whistle in football; high-inside fastballs courtesy of ferocious pitchers: intimidation abounds in the world of sports. Just this week Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta threatened to “put a dent in his skull” when talking about Todd Frazier’s complaints after being hit by an Arrieta fastball. Is this kind of behavior “just part of the game” when it comes to intimidation, or clearly over the line?
Examining sports intimidation
Intimidation comes in many forms, from legal and strategic to unsportsmanlike and dangerous. The inside fastball is perfectly legal, but a cheap shot after the whistle is anything but. Sport psychologists note that controlled sportsmanlike aggression used legally in competition can be a good thing (known as instrumental aggression), but uncontrolled, illegal behaviors (hostile aggression) are not only prohibited, but can lead to catastrophic consequences.
Are intimidation tactics helpful? Do they increase your chances for on-field success? Taking an opponent “off his game” by getting in his head can make a difference in a game. Although many factors are involved, making an opponent more worried about you than the next play suggests that intimidation works. This doesn’t imply that athletes should try to intimidate opponents, but it does demonstrate how mental traits of competition can impact game outcomes. Every athlete prepares for a game differently, and there are lots of ways to get into an opponent’s head. Obviously, the nature of the sport influences the development of intimidation skills. You are far less likely to see evil stare-downs in golf than you are in football.
Does sports intimidation work?
When intimidation “works,” it’s usually because of the following reasons:
- It leads to an opponent purposely being knocked out of the game
Although it’s never right to take a cheap shot, unfortunately some coaches and teams encourage players to do whatever it takes to win, including hurting their opponents. Trying to hurt an opponent is at best unsportsmanlike, and at worst potentially career-threatening to the victim. This type of pressure may weaken the other team’s abilities, but it goes against the values of fairness, integrity and sportsmanship we should uphold in sports.
- It diverts an opponent’s attention from the action
If an inside fastball prompts a batter to give up more of the plate on the next pitch, most baseball purists would consider it perfectly acceptable. And if a pre-fight stare down leads to an opponent growing nervous, most would agree the fear factor worked. If you want to throw an opponent off his game through fair, sportsmanlike intimidation, that’s a personal decision. As long as you don’t cross the line, you can use intimidation to cause opponents to stop thinking about what they’re supposed to do (weakening their focus and confidence) and start thinking about how afraid they are of you (increasing sports anxiety).
Getting in the head of your opponent has value in sports, although there is a line between what is accepted as part of the game versus actions that clearly violate integrity, safety, and sportsmanship. Individual athletes will need to decide how to present themselves in competition, and where to draw the line when it comes to behaviors designed exclusively to take opponents out of their game.