What coaches should tell their players about opponents’ trash talking
Posted by Dean Holden at June 27th, 2013
by Doug Abrams, 16 February 2013
Last week’s column discussed difficulties faced by youth league and high school coaches who try to teach entirely new lessons during games, when players cannot effectively process instruction as they concentrate on the action. Experienced coaches prefer to develop the season’s lesson plans before the first practice session. They teach most of these lessons before the opening game, before adapting to the team’s circumstances during season by adding new lessons and reinforcing old ones.
This column continues last week’s theme by moving beyond skills and strategies, the physical side of the game. The focus here is on the mental side. The more mental challenges the coach can anticipate and confront beforehand, the less the coach must try to motivate the team for the first time when a predictable crisis happens during the game.
This column discusses how to prepare the team mentally for opponents’ “trash talking,” insults that can distract unprepared players and throw them off their game. Trash talking occurs more often in some sports than in others, and more often in some leagues than in others. When the coach anticipates the likelihood of trash talking, the coach can ready the players even before the first game.
Anticipating Trash Talking
Helped by thoughtful callers, Rick Wolff and I have discussed face-to-face and electronic trash talking on “The Sports Edge.” We agreed that if the coach anticipates a season rife with trash talking, the best time to begin building players’ mental strength is before the first game. If the coach has not already acted by then, first-time instruction in the heat of a game is simply too late. Mental conditioning, like physical conditioning, happens gradually over time.
When I coached high school hockey a few years ago, our preseason meetings and practices featured instruction about the trash talking that the coaches knew would occur in many of our games. Here is what we would tell the players.
1) Personal accountability. No matter what opposing players say, our team will not engage in trash talking. Period. Our coaches train our players, and not the opponents. Our parents raise their own children, and not the opponents. Our players control their own conduct, and not the opponents’ conduct. Personal accountability means playing the game right by taking the high road.
2) Taking the high road can win games. The high road may seem difficult, but playing the game right can also pay dividends. Hockey games are won in only two ways – by putting pucks into the other team’s net, and by keeping pucks out of our net. If a player on the bench waiting to enter the game is thinking mostly about scoring points in insult contests with an opponent next time, the player is not thinking about what puts points on the scoreboard. Players win games by thinking offense and defense; teams do not win with their mouths.
When a team holds a reputation for being mouthy, the team can also lose out with the referees, who must make quick judgment calls in fast-moving games. Like other people, referees sometimes react to what they believe they saw, and not necessarily to what really happened. A reputation for trash talking can deprive a mouthy team of any benefit of the doubt that accompanies instantaneous judgment calls.
During our high school team’s pregame warmup, referees would often approach the coaches on the bench to say how pleased they were to be handling our team rather than some of the league’s other teams. We appreciated the compliment, but we also wondered whether our reputation for playing the game right sometimes paid dividends on the scoreboard.
To borrow a phrase from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, players facing trash talking need to “keep their eyes on the prize.” For youth leaguers with passion to win, the prize is victory on the scoreboard.
3) Self-restraint is tough, but it ultimately pays off. Like other contact and collision sports, hockey can be an emotional game. Channeling emotions in the face of trash talking takes mental strength because turning the other cheek may seem contrary to a competitive athlete’s creed.
Dave Snyder, my hockey coach at Wesleyan University, used to say that “sports is half physical; the other half is mental.” This 50%-50% formula — physical preparation plus mental preparation — means that winning close games can sometimes depend on self-discipline and willingness to do the right thing by tuning out trash talking.
Beginning during the preseason period, the coaches’ instruction about skills and strategy produces physical strength, and their instruction about self-discipline produces mental strength. In a close game a few years ago, one of our high school players returned to the bench chuckling after his line shift on the ice. Outside the referees’ earshot, a trash-talking opponent had sent some choice insults his way. Our player said that he turned around immediately, replied “Thank you!,” skated away, and left the opponent dumbfounded.
The old proverb reminds us that “forewarned is forearmed.”