Have you noticed that athletes, coaches and commentators on sports events sometimes say strange things? For example, after a post game interview, have you found yourself scratching your head and asking yourself if something insightful or even meaningful had been said? Does the phrase "a string of platitudes" ring a bell with you? Or, while watching a game and hearing the commentator's remarks, have you ever thought: "Hey, that's not what I saw!" Or after a play is over and the commentator smirks that he knew that would happen, you say to yourself: "I don’t recall him saying that." or even "He actually said something different before the play!" Perhaps the most common kind of strange speech act is when people express their ideas in a non-literal manner. The purpose of this commentary is to classify some of these utterances and to reflect on why they might occur.
Speech and sport can be directly related. For example, athletes, coaches and commentators can provide insight into what took place on the field, ice or court. And there is ample support for the positive use of language by athletes to enhance performance. For example, both goal-setting and selftalk can boost confidence and motivation to improve athletic achievement . However, the present argument is concerned with the indirect relationship between speech acts and physical acts.
As noted above, we sometimes observe athletes, coaches and commentators saying some strange-sounding things. From personal observation of the media and from various other sources , I suggest that these speech acts can be usefully divided into six main categories: Metaphors, where parallels are drawn; Clichés, which are tired, hackneyed overused terms; Redundancy, where unnecessary information is provided; Truisms, which or trite statements of the obvious; Misused words, and Nonsense. Here are some examples.
Metaphors: "They’re knocking on the door." "He ran out of real estate." "He's got a six-foot wingspan." "He was literally run over by a freight train." Literally?! First we have the metaphor of the freight train, and then we have the claim that it is not a metaphor!
Clichés: "They have to take care of business." "They have to make plays on both sides of the ball." "He’s giving a clinic." "There's no "I" in TEAM" is one of the most overused hackneyed clichés around, which has been relegated to the "To be Retired" category by sportscliche.com.
Redundancy: "I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mother and father." "He’s the man of the hour at this particular moment." (During a football/basketball game) "He caught the football/basketball. Well, I think I am aware what sport I am watching. Why not just say "ball"?
Truisms: 'Goals wins games." "Better teams win more often than the teams that are not so good."
Misused words: "They’re the winningest team in league history." "It isn't like I came down from Mount Sinai with the tabloids." "Positive" employed as a noun.
Nonsense (Mangled Language): "It's great to have a player like Jamal." But he IS Jamal! "He left his feet." After a 1-0 game, "The game was closer than the score indicated.""I wouldn't be bothered if we lost every game, as long as we won the league." "Her time is about 4.33, which she's capable of." "He’s a goal scorer, not a natural one - not yet. That takes time." And the legendary baseball coach Yogi Barra almost deserves a special category all to himself: "You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six." "Baseball is 90% mental - the other half is physical." "If you can’t imitate him, don't copy him." "90% of putts that are short don’t go in." "If you come a fork in the road - take it."
How can we explain these kinds of speech acts? I suggest that five reasons may account for at least some of them.
The person may not be articulate: People vary widely in their skills with words. They may have high physical skills but this does not guarantee high verbal skills.
Nonconscious processes: It is generally agreed in psychology that we do not have conscious access to the processes that underlie our behavior . Athletes may find themselves in an awkward position when interviewers demand that they speak about their performance. Under these circumstances, they do their best, which is to fall back on the stock statements.
Narrative fallacy: If this is the case for the athlete, it even more difficult for commentators to know what the causes of game performance are. They may also do their best, making inferences and relying on stock statements. Indeed, it has been pointed out that commentators (as well as journalists and athletes) feel they have to make sense of the game and to do this they try to create a narrative or story that explains it. The attempt to do so has been labeled the "narrative fallacy". According to Samuel McNerney: (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/cognitive-biases-in-sports-the-irrationality-of-coaches-commentators-and-fans/) "The narrative fallacy describes our "limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, and arrow of relationship, upon them." For example, if the Twins win a game, commentators may point to good pitching, good hitting or good managerial decisions to explain why they won. When they do this they are creating the sense that they understand why the Twins won. This is an illusion. Their explanations are mere post hoc stories that add silly irrelevant facts just to garner more views and increase entertainment. The only fact of the matter about the Twins winning is that they scored more runs than the other team."
Filling in time: Commentators have to fill in time and take the easy way out by resorting to stock phrases. Would you be comfortable with long silences?
Capturing audience interest: Commentators and journalists may be deliberately using non-literal language to capture attention and raise interest. Vivid metaphors create images that are easy to remember (remember freight train?).
There are many utterances by athletes, coaches, journalists and commentators that do not directly reflect the sports acts that they purport to describe. A classification of these speech acts is offered, and examples given. It is argued that there are a number of reasons why these strange utterances take place, but perhaps the major one is that we do not have access to the processes that determine behavior.