Should trash talk be banned in youth and interscholastic sports? Well that’s exactly what is happening in New Jersey, and it’s an important decision that deserves a closer look.
Anyone who has ever played sports will readily acknowledge that mental toughness goes a long way when trying to beat an opponent, but specifically defining all the components of mental toughness can be difficult. Sport psychologists help with mental toughness development by encouraging athletes to play with great confidence, but does trash talking play a part in helping some athletes develop their mental toughness? In other words, do some athletes gain confidence in themselves by trash talking an opponent, allowing them to play with more confidence, greater focus, and stronger resiliency?
Interestingly, before we can evaluate the value of trash talking, the greater challenge might be in simply defining the term. New Jersey’ definition includes race, religion, and sexual orientation, but what about aggressive, profane, slang language (communication that may not meet this criteria)? For example, NBA great Charles Barkley was known for trash talking (in fact he still does on TNT when doing NBA games), but his trash talking was more comical than hurtful. Would Barkley’s trash talking be off limits in New Jersey today? Muhammad Ali was another famous athlete known for trash talking, but when he used to talk about “just how ugly” an opponent was, he words were generally met with rounds of laughter. Would Ali’s trash talking be banned?
Even if we were to come to an agreement on the exact definition of trash talking, the next question would be how officials are supposed to enforce trash talking, especially in fast moving games? Not only does the official need to be sure he or she clearly heard something, but then must also make a quick evaluative judgement as to whether the language was “trash.”
…and then there’s this angle
Some coaches (and parents) I talked to about trash talking actually thought it was perfectly fine and an expected part of sport competition. In fact, one coach told me sports, like life, aren’t always fair and that learning how to handle trash talking is an invaluable life skill. He went on to talk about today’s youth sports as the “everybody get’s a ribbon” generation (simply for participating), and that softening up sports even more by eliminating whatever individuals deem to be “trash talking” was simply going too far. Even if you don’t agree with him, you might still respect his position.
I don’t think most would object to what New Jersey leaders are attempting to do with banning trash talking, as they are simply trying to stay consistent with the zero tolerance for profanity policy in the classroom. Debates will ensue about the definition of trash talking, how officials will enforce this type of language, and even the impact over kids missing out on developing resiliency by successfully dealing with trash talking. And even with the best intentions, sports are such a fast-moving emotional human experience it may be wishful thinking to expect kids to precisely measure their words in the heat of the battle.