Clichés, platitudes, and the occasional daft malapropism: that might be what you expect when a sports star or coach opens their mouth.
Probably the ‘post-game talk’ is responsible for this image. But then, you try competing against the best athletes in your class for an unforgiving hour or more and then afterward, delivering a calm, articulate analysis of what just happened.
Athletes speak with their whole bodies. In the heat of the moment, they balance the conflicting demands of passion and diplomacy, along with a generally non-academic demeanor. Studies suggest that this “warm, incompetent” interview approach may be an unconscious effort to seem humble and trustworthy. So it’s worth recalling, in the age of Twitter, Ted Lasso, and “tl;dr,” that eloquence is the art of vivid, effective verbal expression – not a knack for long, heterogeneous sentences.
The delivery and demeanor of athlete interviews overshadow the richness of the parts of speech they use. In fact, WordTips has found that some of the wordiest sports stars and coaches use over 340 one-off words out of every 500 they say.
For our latest vocabulary analysis, we collected transcripts of interviews and press conferences for the top players and coaches in NBA basketball, NFL football, and MLB baseball. And then we calculated their average unique word count across 100 samples of 500 words from each person.
The NBA boasts the players with the largest vocabularies (312 unique words per 500). That puts it just ahead of the NFL (310/500), with MLB players trailing at a distance (300). However, MLB’s Gerrit Cole (347) takes second place among all players – losing precious ‘unique words’ by using a repetitive rhetorical device called anaphora. “There are people in front of us and there are people on our butts,” says Cole. “That's the truth of the matter there.”
NFL’s Kirk Cousins (348) takes the championship for top player vocabulary. “I want to be on the same page with the coaches,” says Cousins on the art of communication. “I want to be able to communicate openly with them, from myself to them and then, likewise, from them to me, and try to be on the same page as much as possible.”
On average, coaches have marginally larger vocabularies (316 unique words per 500) than players (307/500). Baseball coaches have the largest vocabularies (326), followed by basketball (314) and football (309). Although baseball coaches dominate the top 10, football coach Zac Taylor is top dog in our whole study, with a unique word count of 359/500.
Coach Zac has even described how he talked his way into the Bengal’s job – in the most Ted Lasso-ian of terms. “It's easy when you just talk about the [working] process you followed on a daily basis,” he told a press conference. “That's easy to talk about, and when you believe in it, I think it shows. The best advice I got was just to be yourself. I know a lot of coaches are yellers and screamers and they think they need to be a certain way. Some guys are, and some guys aren't.”
Basketball players and coaches have larger vocabularies (313/500) than those of baseball (310) or football (309). Minnesota Timberwolves’ coach Chris Finch (353) has the third top vocabulary in our entire study. Sample line: “I want us to look and feel like a herd of horses coming down the floor every single time.”
The NBA player with the top vocab is CJ McCollum (345) of the New Orleans Pelicans. The shooting guard and style icon favors rich, staccato sentences: “You go buy a new fit and everything is popping. You put a really good suit on. It’s tailored right, and you’ve got the shoes to match it. It’s like, ‘I did a really good job. Kudos to myself.’”
Football is the only sport in our study where the players have larger vocabularies than their coaches on average – albeit by a difference of just one unique word per 500. On an individual basis, however, a coach comes out on top: Cincinnati Bengals’ coach Zac Taylor has the biggest vocab in our study. Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins is the player with the largest vocab out of the sports we’ve covered.
Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin (347) is not far behind, losing precious points for prefixing every interview reply with “you know…” Here’s some evocative wisdom on the need to keep one’s nerve: “Sometimes you got to cut your eye lids off when you want to blink when it gets thick.” Or, as Ted Lasso puts it, “Believe!”
The largest disparity between player and coach vocabularies is in baseball. Baseball coaches (326/500) have the largest vocabularies of any of the coaching communities, while baseball players (300) have the smallest among player groups.
Colorado Rockies’ coach Bud Black (354) has the highest vocab in the sport. “You know what I like?” begins Coach Bud, preparing to hardly repeat a word. “Good players. Guys who help you win.”
The ‘dumb jock’ stereotype is self-reinforcing. Young athletes doubt themselves in the classroom because the culture expects them to be dumb. But, regardless of generalizations about academic prowess, athletes exercise diverse forms of intelligence that give them the best shot at winning, in the classroom and elsewhere. For starters, they show up to class more than non-athletes.
Successful athletes tend not to be just smart, but SMART – strategizing with Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based tasks. The ‘dumb’ things athletes say or do on the field or on the mic, just like the genius things, are often the result of split-second decision-making while pumped with adrenalin. And they are absorbed into a grander SMART master plan.
It’s been written of Eric Cantona, the French soccer wizard and actor who kung-fu kicked a racist fan, mid-game: “His greatest virtue was that he had no edit function between instinct and action.”
But for the press conference after his sentencing, Cantona carefully prepared a short, sharp speech: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you.” Not counting stop words, it’s a speech without a single repetition.
Whether they speak with their feet, off the cuff, or with studied precision, athletes still have a lot to tell us.
The coaches seed list was compiled by including all current head coaches and managers in the NBA/NFL/MLB at the time of collation (November 2021).
The players seed list for each sport was compiled by including the most commonly occurring players across multiple Top 50 lists for each sport for the current seasons.
Words each player and coach said according to the transcripts were collated using a combination of XPath and RegEx into a corpus for each athlete.
The total number of all words and unique words used by each athlete were counted after so-called stop words were removed, i.e., pronouns, articles, prepositions, and names of teams, athletes, and coaches. Vocabulary size for each athlete was calculated as the average unique word count across 100 samples of 500 words each taken from each athlete's corpus (all their words taken together).
The final dataset includes a total of 225 players and coaches across NBA, NFL, and MLB. Athletes for which enough interviews couldn't be found were excluded from the dataset.
The data was collected in December 2021.