One of the most defining features of the Sixers’ star big-man Joel Embiid is his affinity for talking trash and getting into his opponents’ heads. This is well-documented, as he frequently takes to Twitter in order to make it happen post game. As funny and clever as he is, it’s worth investigating this a bit more from a psychological and competitive standpoint.
In behavioral psychology, there are certain ways in which you can directly manipulate the likelihood of a certain behavior occurring: punishments and reinforcements. I’m not going to speak too much about those, as I feel most people have a solid understanding about them already. Instead, I’m going to give a brief overview of Embiid’s mind-games and the consequences they can have in games.**
Let’s say, for example, that Embiid unleashes a monster dunk on a player who we’ll call Andre Bummond. After said emphatic jam, JoJo says to Bummond that he’s quote “Wack, and can’t guard [Embiid] without fouling.” If Bummond isn’t able to shake this off, one of two things can happen.
Either he will get frustrated, and make more aggressive decisions without thinking about it, or he will second-guess himself and hesitate before making a decision. The important thing to note is that both of these outcomes are favorable for Embiid in different ways.
In the frustration outcome, the player is much more likely to get more physical and overextend themselves, resulting in a foul (which for some players is the only option anyway). In this scenario, it gives Embiid, an approximate 80% free throw shooter, two easy attempts at the line, assuming he doesn’t go on to make the basket after the foul. No contact, no problem.
The second scenario, in which Bummond starts to question himself, is much more psychologically interesting. If Bummond really takes Embiid’s words to heart, he starts to think introspectively about whether his gut is making the right snap judgments, seeing as the last time he trusted his gut and challenged Embiid at the rim, he got some Cameroonian nuts in his face, and some harsh words in his ear. This hesitation, and questioning of his own decisions, leads him to rely on safer, more reliable options, and to arrive at this decision slower. This, of course, leads to much less resistance for Embiid on his way to the rim, or in the low post. Safer, reliable options don’t work against the Big Fella, especially if you don’t react quick enough.
While a lot of this is hypothetical, there are very real, tangible consequences to Embiid talking trash, on the court or off. Maybe players see his tweets and check in with something to prove, making them play reckless like fouling or turning the ball over. Or, maybe they make a business decision and stay out of his way when he gets the ball inside. Either way, Embiid’s ability to use both his physicality and mental toughness to exert himself on others is little short of competitive genius.
**(Author’s Note: I’ve included two videos. One shows Embiid frustrating Donovan Mitchell to the point of committing a moronic technical foul, resulting in shots from the line. The second one is a fantastic video by Core-A Gaming, about the usefulness of mind games and taunting in a competitive setting in video games, and goes much more in depth about different forms of conditioning and reinforcement strategies, for those uninformed.)