Is it okay to use insults or verbal intimidation to gain a competitive advantage over another player?

Every season, notably in cricket, the question comes up about sledging. Not the ride down hill over the snow, but the common, sometimes amusing, sometimes worrisome practice of distracting an opponent through personal comments. Former Captain, Steve Waugh, has referred to it as “mental disintegration” – a deliberate attempt to ‘play with an opponent’s mind’ (‘mess with his head’), and an implied legitimate tactic (Daily Telegraph, 30 November 2013).

Concentration is a feature of all sporting activity in some way or other. Distraction, especially through inciting anger (even if well-concealed by the victim), does indirectly affect performance.*

So is it ‘sporting’? What is its place in sport? Does it have a place in sport? Once it would have been easy to call it unsportsmanlike, and that would have been the end of it. In cricket, for example, sledging just out of the umpire’s hearing would have been borderline bad behaviour – verbal intimidation just short of unpermitted physical intimidation (unless you consider aggressive fast bowling! – which was traditionally limited to ‘recognised’ or specialist batsmen). But times change. Australians, in particular, have a well- or badly-earned reputation for the practice.

In tennis, where umpires are now more prone to intervene, Nick Kyrgios was fined for an offensive ‘sledge’ (2015). The Australian Open in 2020 seemed remarkably well-behaved in most respects, however, including Nick’s own performance. Any ‘bad’ language (or behaviour) on the court is rapidly punished with fines or other penalties.

Is there, then, a place for sledging in sport and how should an athlete respond to taunts, unfair criticism, and bullying, and the like? If there isn’t a place, but the stable door is wide open and that bolted horse is well over the hill, how should we teach athletes in any sport to respond?

One obvious way is to have the self-discipline to return the favour. West Indian batsman, Viv Richards, was so famous for retaliating with strong shots that most teams quickly understood that he turned any anger to his own advantage, channelling it into his next stroke. That requires great focus, and of course a degree of experience and skill that not everyone will have.

Some reported remedies or coping strategies include self-talk, using routines, accessing external support (perhaps even from the crowd), showing frustration, avoidance coping, and relaxation techniques – a sufficiently large range to suggest that whatever works for you, follow it.**

Some ‘intimidation’, of course, may be no more than the ‘silent treatment’, refusing eye contact with an opponent on the running track, say, focussing on something unseen in the distance, looking at the sky, etc. This, too, may also be an individual’s genuine, non-intentional, non-aggressive way of harnessing concentration before an encounter.

So if we think that sledging and the like are here to stay, perhaps the remedy for each competitor is to develop a ‘thicker skin’ and a better sense of concentration – with training in effective techniques, if need be and available – and to bear in mind that, if you can turn it against your opponent, it is likely to stop.

Bullying? That may seem part of the same picture, but bullying really is about intimidating or coercing someone who seems to be vulnerable. In the workplace, buttressed by law, we no longer accept bullying behaviour. The line may be grey, but if sledging moves across it into the territory or bullying, then it surely is time to call it that. Coping with bullying is only ever a short-term answer. Longer-term – it must stop!

Sledging comes down more to a judgement call. How unpleasant or distracting is it? Is it more than that? Better, perhaps, to give it away altogether…


* Ring, C, Kavussanu, M, Al-Yaaribi, A, Tenebaum, G, & Stanger, N. 2018. Effects of antisocial behaviour on opponent’s anger, attention, and performance. Journal of Sports Sciences 37(8), 871-877

** Joseph, S, & Cramer, D. 2011. Sledging in cricket: elite English batsmen’s experiences of verbal gamesship. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology 5(3), 237-251

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