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Photographer: Grace Chiu/GraceClick (Grace Chiu/GraceClick)
Photographer: Grace Chiu/GraceClick (Grace Chiu/GraceClick)

Put trash talking in its place, say leading sports psychology experts Add to ...

New York Rangers forward Sean Avery is generally considered the best trash talker in the National Hockey League.

Over the years, he has allegedly said something disparaging about then Toronto Maple Leaf Jason Blake's leukemia, taunted New Jersey Devil Martin Brodeur about rumours the goalie was having an affair with his sister-in-law (which turned out to be true) and publicly referred to Mr. Avery's former girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert, who was dating then Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, as "sloppy seconds."

"Some players have escalated trash talking into an art form," says Jonathan F. Katz, a sports psychologist and a managing partner of High Performance Associates in New York. Because people see clips of professional athletes trash talking being played over and over again on TV, a lot of young and amateur players emulate their behaviour, he says.

The purpose of trash talking is to make a player on the opposing team "lose his focus," says Gordon Bloom, an associate professor in the department of Kinesiology & Physical Education at McGill University. "Does it work? Only if the person on the receiving end reacts. The best response is to ignore it."

Dr. Bloom, who works with professional, amateur and university athletes,

believes anyone can be trained not to react. If he knows a player has a short fuse, "I sometimes tell his teammates to trash talk him during practice to see how he reacts," and he uses the example to help teach the player to remain cool during a game.

Although an effective trash talker can gain certain advantages for his team, especially if he goads a more talented player into a fight that removes the player from the game and into the penalty box for a period of time, Dr. Katz generally frowns on it as a productive tactic. "Anything that can take away from [the trash talker's]focus, energy and concentration on the athletic task at hand is not, in my opinion, very constructive," he says.

Thomas Anczurowski, 39-year-old co-owner of Entertainment Liquidators of Canada, plays in several elite recreational hockey leagues in the Toronto area. He says he doesn't instigate any trash talking but, if provoked, "will lash out with my tongue." Most examples of what is said on the ice can't be printed in a daily newspaper, he notes. The comments tend to be attacks on a person's sexuality, physical appearance or abilities on the ice. Or, something of a sensitive personal nature.

"I once told this big, slow guy that he should eat some of the faster players on his team," he says. "When I then asked, 'With your eating disorder and lack of intelligence, how did you ever make it to your 40th birthday?' he lost his mind."

One of Mr. Anczurowski's tactics is to skate by the opponent's bench and tell them to "get their cameras ready," meaning he's about to do something on the ice worthy of being recorded. "Then, of course, you have to actually do it," he adds.

Gordon Bloom rues the evolution from old-school trash talk, which was never personal ("The code was that you didn't cross that line and you never talked about someone's family," he says), to the kinds of attacks perpetrated by players like Sean Avery. According to a Toronto sportswriter, Mr. Avery searches social media sites to find information, perhaps about a person's changed relationship status, to use on the ice.

Dr. Bloom advises coaches on teams playing against an adept trash talker to "alert the players about how he or she wants them to react if provoked." It doesn't always work, however. "It can be hard to walk away from some comments," he says, "especially if it's something personal."

For Dr. Katz, walking away is definitely the best strategy. "When players take the bait and respond to the trash talking," he says, "they are walking right into the trap set very cleverly by their opposition."

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