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New Jersey ‘Banned’ High School Sports Trash Talk Because You Stink At It

Despite what you might have read elsewhere and the exhortations of the organization that runs the state’s high school sports, trash talk is not completely banned whenever teams of teenagers play against each other in New Jersey. However, a very certain, personal strain of it is. And with that in mind, coaches have two options: ban trash talk completely, which may be impossible, or have trash-talk practice, which seems just odd — after finishing foot-fire drills, the basketball team moving on to mouth-fire drills.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, according to a release it sent June 19, “will enforce new rules that will make it clear that harassing conduct related to race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or religion is unsportsmanlike and will not be tolerated at high school events.”

Under NJSIAA sportsmanship rules, any student-athlete or coach who is cited before, during or after an interscholastic event for unsportsmanlike and flagrant verbal or physical misconduct will be disqualified from participating in the next two regularly scheduled events, or in the case of football, disqualified from the next game. Now, discriminatory conduct will also be reported to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights and may result in further investigation.

The threat to involve the state puts the NJSIAA rules in line with New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, passed in 2011 to strengthen enforcement of existing anti-bullying laws.

I can see why New Jersey is getting tough on trash-talking. New Jersey is not unique in having to deal with incidents of racial taunting during games, for example, and the statements they’re targeting aren’t all in good, competitive fun, and can, and have, resulted in more than just hurt feelings. Personally, I find it reprehensible that anyone would target people in such a facile and mean way. And I say that as a parent, as a coach, and as a connoisseur and practitioner of trash-talking. (This fact can be confirmed by my younger brother, who tended to end whatever game we were playing by throwing the requisite piece of sporting equipment at my head because he got so sick of me yapping at him.)

Part of talking trash effectively is knowing it has a time and a place, and that the best smack-talk plants the seeds of confidence in the mind of the talker, and doubt in the mind of the talkee. Trash-talking about race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., isn’t just low-class — in practical terms, it’s just as likely to fire up the person at whom it’s directed.

I offer this example of effective trash-talk from the 1997 NBA finals: Utah’s Karl “The Mailman” Malone steps to the free-throw line with nine seconds left and a chance to clinch a win against the Chicago Bulls and take homecourt advantage in the series. Before he shoots, the Bulls’ Scottie Pippen reminds Malone what day is it is: “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.” Malone misses both free throws, and the Bulls win.

My endorsement of fluent trash-talk as a competitive plus isn’t conjecture. It’s science. From Men’s Health:

Listen up, chump: Talking trash on the court, in your office, or over your video game headset can boost your self-confidence and ability, shows new research from Florida State University.

Researchers somehow tracked down 40 college-age guys willing to playMadden NFL for course credit. When allowed to trash talk, the players’ confidence in their own ability increased by 46 percent, the study found. Their video game scores also tended to improve, according to the research.

Self-assurance and positive emotion are essential to performance, and talking trash appears to provide a big shot of both, explains study coauthor Gershon Tenenbaum, Ph.D., of Florida State. While the effect on self-confidence and good vibes was clear, exactly how much your performance may improve is a tough thing to quantify, Tenenbaum adds. His experiment involved 1-on-1 play between players of varying skill levels, and so there was no way to accurately gauge ability improvements, the researchers say.

It’s not that everyone should trash-talk, but that if you can do it well, it can make a difference, as noted by the blog for the New York State Sportswriters Association in its reaction to the New Jersey rule.

It will be fascinating to see where the line gets drawn given the fact that talking trash to an opponent is practically a time-honored tradition aimed at getting inside an opponent’s head with a game on the line. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, we can certainly do without intolerance and bigotry, but a little yapping can be the element that turns a game of checkers into chess.

(Note to self: ask my high school-aged son how much trash talking goes on during his interscholastic chess matches.)

I’m not saying that every athletes should learn to trash talk, nor that I’m kicking myself for not teaching it to the third- and fourth-grade basketball players I coached last season. But figuring out how to give and receive it can be an essential skill for a young athlete, a way to get into the head of an opponent, without letting talk directed at you affect your own psyche. The best place to learn it, really, is not in a formal setting, but in free play. For example, I’ve noticed Xbox Live and backyard basketball games have helped my 10-year-old son become quite fluent in the language.

The thing about trash-talking in free play is that you learn, before a state agency can bust you, what is right and what is wrong, when to do it and when to shut up, through such valuable lessons as getting punched in the mouth. Not that it would be impossible for a teacher or coach to show a high school athlete what is good trash-talk. Maybe this Chicago teacher who educated her students in the ways of Shakesperean trash talk could be rented out to high school sports teams, so after a few jumpers a kid could yap at his opponent: “But O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.”

But if trash talk is going to devolve into the sorts of issues New Jersey is frowning upon, the kind of thing that isn’t creative but merely stupid, this Shakepearean advice should be followed: “Give thy thoughts no tongue.” If not for escaping punishment, then to step back for those of us who know how to talk some smack. Suckers.

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