The Wrap Around with Dr Z: Issue VI – Gamesmanship/trash-talk

Posted on Dec 28 2017 - 4:08am by DV

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“A few years back I lost a match and I’m positive the annoying behavior of my opponent impacted the outcome.  He would showboat after good – or lucky – shots, point to the heavens and whoop it up for his fans between rallies.  I also hate playing guys who talk trash during a match.  Suggestions on how to cope with this?”


Part of the appeal of handball – and one of the more commonly referenced virtues of the game – is the closely knit fraternal nature of its community.  Friendships are forged through tough battles, together or in opposition.  Off the court legacies are built around tales of the Perfect Game, whether exaggerating our best (and worst) moments, or those of heroes.  But not every match is a feel-good experience.  As is inevitable in any culture, there will be players who engage in amoral or annoying behavior that leaves you frustrated and angry.  These antics can fracture relationships and sometimes ruin your joy of the game.

Gamesmanship, also referred to as “trash-talk,” is defined as behavior (often verbal) used to motivate oneself or distract/intimidate one’s opponent.  Gamesmanship can be viewed as the opposite of sportsmanship, since the trash-talking player uses tactics outside the rules of play to harm their opponent’s performance.  Although some argue that gamesmanship is harmless verbal jockeying and not really disrespectful, researchers have noted an escalation of mean-spirited trash-talk in professional sports since the late 1980’s.  Improvements in media coverage has only increased attention to gamesmanship, leading to rules changes for many sports such as the NCAA, who state that: “No player, coach, substitute, or other person subject to the rules shall use abusive, threatening, or obscene language or gestures, or engage in such acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials, or to the image of the game” (NCAA, 2012, p. 90).  Despite these rules, gamesmanship continues to be observed in all sports, at all levels of play, and directed towards opponents, referees, coaches, and fans.

Why do athletes do it?  In one of the first research studies on the subject, Rainey and Granito (2010) noted that the performances of gamesmanship targets were hurt by the verbal trash-talk about 22% of the time.  Gamesmanship will become a problem if you let it distract you from your performance, or when you allow it to increase your aggression level to the point where you lose control of yourself or your game.  In addition to psyching themselves up, the trash-talker is trying to interfere with your focus, plant doubts, incite anger, and/or cause confusion.  “You’ve had an amazing tournament considering how much trouble you’ve had with your left” is an example of planting doubts.  More sinister forms of gamesmanship are described by Loconto & Roth (2005), and include intimidation (e.g., you don’t belong here); getting ugly (e.g., cursing and demeaning language), sexual harassment (e.g., ‘your momma…’), and body language (e.g., bumping or hovering over).

Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic to expect every opponent to exhibit exceptional sportsmanship, so be prepared for gamesmanship.  In the event of more sinister behavior, you absolutely have to know the rules regarding fair-play. If you have concerns about your opponent, make sure the referee and tournament director are also aware of the rules and your expectation that they are followed.  These rules can be found in the Official USHA Handbook on Avoidable Hinders, including 4.8B Blocking; 4.8F1 Talking During a Rally; and 4.9 on Technicals which reads “A technical is assessed for unsportsmanlike conduct…”  Also notable under USHA Tournaments, Rule 5.6 on Tournament Conduct grants the referee authority to “remove distractive or abusive people.”

Regardless of how anyone else acts, you are ultimately responsible for managing yourself and your game.  After all, the best revenge against an aggravating opponent is winning. For this, you will need a strong mental game to stay at your best.  Start by recognizing what is happening, and recognize the trash-talk  as an effort to throw you off your game and psych up the trash-talker.  Allowing yourself to stay frustrated only works against you, so the best line of defense is to find a pathway towards blocking it out.  There are two exceptions to this rule.  First, some people can effectively counter their opponent by also using gamesmanship and turning the tables.  Second, some players can effectively use negative or aggressive energy as motivation to ramp up their game.

For everyone else, it pays to have a strategy you’ve rehearsed beforehand.  For example, Trammel and colleagues coached golfers in the PACE technique (Pause, Assess, Concentrate, and Execute), and found it helped to decrease distraction caused by a trash-talking opponent.  Pause and get a little physical space from the situation, perhaps by taking a slow walk during a time-out or during the ten-seconds you have to prepare for the next point.  Take a few deep breaths to reset yourself.  Assess by mentally stepping back from the situation to think about what your opponent is doing, and why/how you are reacting to it.  You may want to take a time-out to talk to a friend or to spend some time alone on the court thinking.  Concentrate by dialing yourself back into your game, perhaps using self-talk to regroup and direct your attention to the present moment.  Focus on what’s important, which is elevating your game and blocking out whatever your opponent is doing.  Execute by letting your game do the talking; after all, talk is cheap – it’s results that matter.  In handball we compete against an opponent, but we also compete within ourselves to produce peak performance and execute to the best of our ability.  Shift your focus off your opponent and onto yourself by asking, “what can I do in order to elevate my game?”

It pays to be prepared by practicing techniques you are likely to use when facing an opponent that uses gamesmanship.  Try to visualization yourself effectively coping with difficult on-court situations such as an opponent who cheats, crowds your swing, makes negative comments, argues excessively or is boastful.  I suggest playing annoying opponents to practice managing distractions and learning how to find your best game under adverse conditions.  For example, Earl Woods used to make noise (e.g., coughing) during Tiger’s backswing.  After playing a match where your performance suffered due to a weak mental game, it is critical to assess what happened, how you responded well and poorly, and how you would prefer to manage the situation in the future. Watch how others cope with gamesmanship during their matches.  Observe how becoming increasing annoyed hurt their game or how they had specific tactics to refocus their game and block out the nuisance of their opponent’s actions.

As a final note, keep in mind that there is an emotional cost to talking trash that comes back either to the person or the sport itself in the long-run due to the moral failings inherent in gamesmanship.  I choose to believe that the essence of handball, and sport as a whole, is lost without honor and fair-play.  There is also a negative karma to gamesmanship, as players who engage in this behavior often become isolated from the community and are usually unhappy people who live a life of frustration on and off the court.  At a minimum they’ll have trouble finding partners and matches.



Albert Apuzzi, Brooklyn NY.  B. 1955.  Handball Hall of Fame, Twenty National Open 1-wall titles, 32-time Open finalist.  Prefers 1-wall small ball.

Start scoring. It stops the chirping and puts pressure on your opponent.

Joseph Durso, Brooklyn NY.  Handball Hall of Fame, Twenty-five National Open 1-wall titles (14 singles & 11 doubles).  Prefers 1-wall small- and big-ball

Trash talking, and the psyching out of opponents, is a powerful tool that many top athletes possess in their arsenal to insure victory. Many of sports greatest figures have used them to great effect.  MMA great Connor McGregor recently fought Jose Aldo, who had been a ten-year undefeated world champion.  Connor talked so much pre-fight smack at Jose that when they eventually got in the ring, Jose was so angry at Connor that he allowed himself to be knocked out in just 15 seconds of the match.  Mohamed Ali used to taunt Joe Frazier, calling him the “n” word while they fought, telling him he was too stupid and ugly to be the champion.  Arnold Schwarzenegger used to constantly belittle his main rival Lew Farigno and everyone else in his way.  We all still remember John McEnroe’s on court insults against opponents, spectators and officials alike.  As both an observer of these tactics, as well as a player who has been known to occasionally use them myself, I can attest that when used properly they are highly effective as they have the duel effect of pumping up the speaker, while deflating the object of their wrath.

The question of how best to combat them can only be answered on a case by case basis. It’s never going to be useful for a more quiet, reserved player to try to match, insult for insult, another opponent who is at home in that kind of setting. It won’t be effective and will probably just make things worse.  “to thine own self be true,” which in this context implies that how you respond to these verbal assaults very much depends on your own personality and emotional make-up.  For the vast majority of players, the more effective way to cope with this tactic is to simply stay quiet, stay focused and to remain outwardly calm and unaffected.  Remember that in these situations it’s often the speakers goal to elicit a negative emotional or verbal reaction.  By remaining stoic and impassive – by “rising above” it all, you have in effect won the exchange.  You have denied the aggressor that which he sought, a confrontation.  It may seem passive, but by taking the high road, you will find it can often lead to victory.

Vern Roberts Jr., Tucson, AZ.  b 1954.  Handball Hall of Fame, induction 2002.  Preferred to play outside (prior to replacement parts)

The only reason a player can affect the outcome with annoying behavior is if the opponent allows it.   I’d guess everyone on your list would get “fired up,” even if it was just internally in such a scenario.

Thus, concentrating on your play, pushing harder on subsequent points and visualizing your internal gratification with the dismantling of the player’s ego should keep that clown from influencing your play.

And, if that doesn’t work for you, you can try to run him or her ragged on the next rally and enjoy the heavy breathing and easier points that are sure to come.  Anyone who celebrates single points, doesn’t usually get to celebrate games or matches, i.e., acting like you’ve been in the end zone before.

Megan Dorneker, Lake Bluff IL b. 1982. 11 National Open 3-wall titles, 1 National Open 4-wall title, 8 National Collegiate Titles. Prefers 3- or 4-wall small ball. 

When I was younger, I had a lot of trouble when an opponent was acting poorly. It would absolutely get in my head, and I would just lose it. As I got older, I learned more to focus on my game and not worry about what the other person does – that is their problem. I try to focus on things like my breathing. I am by no means perfect at it, and I still have times where I get flustered, but definitely improved from my younger self.

G Michael Driscoll, Parker, TX. b. 1938.  Twenty-five National Masters titles, 1, 3 and 4-wall, 9 Canadian Masters & 2 Worlds titles.  Prefers 3-wall small-ball

You, apparently, enjoy handball and participate in tournament play to some degree. Your problem appears to be coping with the boorish behavior of some opponents and non-essential comments during matches, in general.

You need to determine whether you are overly sensitive to the behavior of certain opponents or whether these people also affect players you respect in the same manner and to the same extent. If you determine, through observations and/or conversations with friends, that they aren’t affected like you are, then you need to adjust your attitude and concentrate on the annoying opponents’ game weaknesses. If you exploit those weaknesses with your strengths, you will probably win your matches and give your opponent’s little excuse to showboat and trash talk.

If you can’t beat your annoying opponents with attitude adjustment and concentration on a game plan and the opponents’ attitudes don’t change, then you need to decide whether the benefits of playing those particular opponents outweigh the grief.  If not, content yourself playing with friends and enjoy the great game of handball and the friendships you have made.

John Robles, Phelan CA.  b1965.  Highest professional ranking #3.  15 National Masters titles, 4 Worlds titles, 1 Canadian Master Title, Southern California Hall of Fame.  Prefers indoors (but I also love outdoors)

Greatest advice I ever received was from Naty SR. I was playing him in my very first pro tournament ever, first match, first game.  He stopped the game realizing I was being more of a spectator rather than being a competitor. He said “play the ball and forget who I am.”  Easier said than done for the fact I was playing my idol let alone the greatest player ever.

This advice has stuck with me and has helped me win over the “trash talker.”  Play the ball, don’t let that ball beat you.  Forget about your opponents, let them worry about you.  Always win early and score several points first.  This keeps that proverbial trash talker somewhat at bay.

LeaAnn Martin, Bellingham, WA., b. 1956, Handball Hall of Fame (2010), 20+ National and World titles in singles and doubles, played 4-wall.

In the situation described, I would hope the referee would take control if the opponent’s actions crossed the line to unsportsmanlike behavior. Having said that, I enjoyed playing players who “show boated” or expressed lots of emotion in the court.  I challenged myself to stay calm and not react because I assumed that was exactly what he/she wanted me to do —- react. If I let it show my opponent’s actions bothered me or affected my play, I was allowing it to do so. No one can take up space in my head unless I let him/her. In essence, my opponent was in control of my emotions and ultimately, my play. That is exactly what opponents who tend to “show boat” want. However, if I maintained composure, it would potentially bother my opponent. If I devoted any thought to my opponent’s behaviors, it took away my attention from what I needed to think about — smart shots, good serves, etc. Secondly, if an opponent showed he/she was highly emotional, it would suggest to me that I could have an effect on his/her play. I’ve played opponents who would let emotions get the best of them when they couldn’t return a lob serve. Or, he/she would get frustrated if I would hit a lucky shot. If I could maintain composure and get inside the opponent’s head, I may not win, but I have increased my chances. Finally, I also never wanted to be the jerk in the court that no one wanted to play. Most people don’t enjoy being in the court with the show boater.

It’s harder to stay calm and composed than to emotionally react. It takes practice and confidence. And, it doesn’t mean the intensity of the competition is less or non-existent. It’s a different kind of intensity that allows more focus.

Cesar Sala, Bronx NY.  b 1977.  Six National Open 1-wall titles (2 singles & 4 doubles), 1 Worlds Singles small ball.  Prefers 1-wall small ball.

Trash talking is something that people have used to their advantage everywhere. The truth is that it’s part of competition whether we like it or not. I’ve done it myself (mildly) and I’ve been negatively impacted by it as well. I don’t think there is one way to deal with it. How we deal with it is really dependent on you as an individual. Perspectives change from person to person.  Some guys do it to distract their opponents and others do it to pump themselves up. Regardless of what the goal is, none of it matters if you are centered and focused.

The most effective approach to trash talking for me has been to ignore it and stay focused on myself. Making sure that I stick to my fundamentals like keeping my eye on the ball, not over hitting and sticking with the game plan. Controlling my breathing is also key when someone is getting under my skin. When I’d get upset I remembered getting bursts of energy and eventually burning out from pushing too hard. Keeping the fire in check and releasing it in a steady flow can be very beneficial. Focusing was the key. The best thing was to remind myself that my opponent was exposing his weakness by trash talking. That told me that he needed external approval and he needed me to bring my level of play down in order for him to have a chance of winning. I believed it was a lack of confidence which lead me to believe he was weak.

At times I’d join in on the trash talking just to get myself going because I was often too laid back. So, it all really depends on what you need and what your goal is. Winning is what we want and knowing that the only thing within my full control is myself. That idea helps me keep things in perspective. Everything else including my opponent is just outside noise. As in life, I try to take in the good and disregard the bad unless I find it to be useful and I keep moving forward.

Using outside sources can be tricky if not processed carefully. You’d have to know how to control it.

Controlling positive and negative energy to create balance for my mind and body wasn’t always easy. I eventually learned how to create a controlled aggression. Whatever was at my core would always be the most important thing. When my opponent would spew out venom I’d just truck along like it was okay and occasionally throw him a compliment.  That would usually end up with him eventually turning on himself or the ref. Deliberately taking my time and slowing things down would help whenever possible. If I had 10 seconds to serve I’d take all 10 to get focused. I wouldn’t speak to them directly if they were really nasty. That would drive them nuts. I’d be as professional as possible when I could.

They usually needed to engage someone or something in order to function. Respecting my opponent regardless of what they were saying or doing would be my way of staying focused and showing everyone what I believed to be the right way to play. Often this strategy would defuse the situation and allow me to play my game freely. In the end it’s all just a game and I just want to play.

Dave Dohman, Munster, IN.  b 1956, Handball Hall of Fame, 2009.  Nine National Open 3-Wall Doubles titles, 23 National Masters titles.  Prefers 3-wall

Keeping annoying opponents out of mind is not easy but always remember you must play the ball, not the opponent. Focus more on your opponent’s technique and plan of attack; use your aggression towards a better mental game and execute.

On a side note, making sure a strong ref is calling the game is one way to make sure all rules are followed.  Annoying antics don’t win games; strong serves and kill-shots always prevail over trash talk.

Anonymous Pro

When playing a show-boater and trash-talker, you really have to focus on yourself and the ball, even more so than you normally would. You have to prepare yourself mentally before the match that your opponent is going to intentionally try to aggravate you and not be surprised or upset when he does. Avoid trying to showboat or trash-talk with your aggravating opponent if that’s not your nature because conducting yourself outside of your normal disposition will detract from your play. Do not allow your aggravating opponent let you see that he is agitating you because his behavior will worsen, as will your level of aggravation. Do not play with a vengeance or revenge mindset because that will also detract from your play. Say nothing to your aggravating opponent at any point during the match. Realize that your opponent is likely using these showboating and trash-talking tactics because he feels you are good enough that he needs an edge to beat you. Realize the more good shots you hit and the more points you win, the less opportunity your opponent will have to showboat and trash-talk. Focus on making good shots and only the next shot and the next point so your emphasis is entirely on yourself, not your opponent.