When young athletes step onto the field, the court or the ice, they often look to emulate the star athletes they've seen on television or at the stadium.
Sometimes, unfortunately, that includes taunting and trash talk.
Whether it's former New York Rangers forward Sean Avery chirping about opponents' wives and girlfriends, Indiana Pacers great Reggie Miller adding insult to injury against the New York Knicks in the mid-90s, or recently retired Boston Red Sox captain Jason Varitek setting off a brawl with a few choice words for Alex Rodriguez, instances of trash talk have drawn plenty of media attention at the professional level, so it's only natural that young athletes will occasionally try to get under one another's skin in the midst of competition, in an effort to throw the opponents off their game.
“Coaches have been pretty good at controlling a lot of it and most I know discourage it,” says Dave Starman, a former minor league and junior A-level coach and an instructor with USA Hockey's National Coaching Education Program. “But emotion can take over and kids can get lippy when the heat of the game gets to them.”
“There are still some youth coaches that think their pee-wee team is playing NHL games,” acknowledges Starman, who is also a national college hockey analyst for the CBS Sports Network. When adults do think this way, he adds, they end up having very little control over their athletes because they take their kids’ wins/losses a little too seriously.
Your instinct as a parent and/or coach is probably to tell your young athlete to disregard the chatter, and according to Dr. Gordon Bloom, an associate professor of sports psychology at McGill University in Montreal, that’s just the right advice.
“Does it work?” Bloom asked of trash talk in a Globe and Mail article last year. “Only if the person on the receiving end reacts. The best response is to ignore it.”
Of course, that's easier said than done for some of the best, most highly trained athletes in the world. So, naturally, it can be even more difficult for kids and teens, as they don't have the benefits of maturity on their side.
“At the youth level I will always tell players to focus on playing the game and communicate with their own players as opposed to the opposition,” Starman explains. “This isn't the schoolyard, this is organized competition and focus has to be maintained. Then again, tell that to a nine-year-old and see what happens. One of 15 kids might actually process it.”
Still, Bloom believes that anyone can be trained to let taunting wash right over them.
If a player is known to have a short fuse, Bloom says, he'll sometimes have teammates verbally harass him during practice, and use the player’s response as training for future clashes with trash-talking opponents. That kind of technique is probably to be avoided with younger athletes, however, particularly early in a season, as it could send the wrong message that this kind of behavior is an acceptable part of the game.
“With kids,” Starman points out, “you need to make it clear to them that trash talk is not acceptable if they want to be a part of this team. Let your players know this is not acceptable and it will negatively affect [playing] time.”
That said, if you or your child does encounter a trash talker in competition, it's certainly worth doing some preparation in your next practice, particularly if you'll see that same opponent again later in the year. This way, your team is prepared to defend against these mental attacks.
After all, no matter what is said in the heat of competition, winning is the best revenge.