Sport Quarterly: Gamesmanship – Does It Have a Place in Sport?

By Mark Smith, Director of Sport, Sport Nova Scotia


“the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage.”

On Feb. 25, 1964, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, shocked the boxing world by stopping Sonny Liston and winning the heavyweight championship of the world. At the time, Liston was considered the toughest man in boxing.

In the lead-up to that fight, Clay predicted not only that he would beat Liston, but in which round he would end the fight. Media nicknamed him the “Louisville Lip” for boasting about his good looks and how and when he would end fights.

From 1998 through 2008 when Tiger Woods ruled the golfing world, he earned a reputation for what might be called non-verbal chirping. Woods would stand near the tee markers on the right side of the tee box, within the peripheral vision of his opponents, when they were preparing to hit their tee shots. Some considered this to be a psychological ploy designed to break the focus of his opponents.

Pat Summitt, the legendary women’s college basketball coach, won two Olympic gold medals and eight NCAA Division I championships with the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Coach Summitt would move her team into the visiting team’s locker room at her arena if her team was underperforming. The intention? To send a message that if the opponents were outplaying the Lady Vols, they should enjoy the perks of her team’s “state of the art” locker room.

Former NHLer Claude Lemieux, who won four Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils, had a ritual of shooting the puck into the opposing team’s end of the rink during warm-up. NBA player Dikembe Mutombo was known for wagging his index finger at opponents after blocking a shot.

When playing golf with your buddies, have you ever reminded them of the water hazard on the left or the out-of-bounds area on the right as they were about to hit their tee shot?

In competitive sport, gamesmanship, trash talking and “chirping” — verbal and non-verbal — are often part of the culture. Some people say it can lead to more serious incidents. Others counter that at the highest levels of competition where individual skills are so close, the separator becomes mental toughness and intestinal fortitude. That’s where gamesmanship comes in.

Having served as the Fair Play Co-ordinator for the province many years ago, I learned first-hand from children, parents and coaches about behaviours that were negatively affecting sport. Issues such as coaches berating players, young officials being bullied by parents and coaches, girls not being given equal opportunities to play sports or access facilities, and under-represented groups being excluded from sport were consistently raised. Gamesmanship, trash talking or chirping never made the top 10.

When gamesmanship or trash talking is done with malicious intent to insult, disrespect or demean, offenders should be held accountable. But when used appropriately, gamesmanship can be an effective psychological strategy that can change momentum and infuse positive energy.

The subject needs to be openly discussed when athletes reach the age and stage of competition where this strategy might be used. Teaching athletes and coaches how gamesmanship can be employed appropriately is an important learning opportunity.

As long as there is competitive sport, there will be gamesmanship. The better we teach our athletes how to handle it, the less it will affect their performance and the more it will improve their mental toughness.

More to explore