Fighting Words

Language can reveal, or conceal, the soul. Words express thoughts, share emotions, and foretell actions. Now, speech can predict victory in boxing matches.

It is probably fair to say that few boxers are considered masters of the spoken word. But, researchers in Arkansas recently presented results of a study at the 16th Annual International Stress and Behavior Neuroscience and Biopsychiatry Conference that revealed an association between a boxer’s word choice and victory in a subsequent match.

In all, linguists used approximately 100 interviews, press conference quotes, and press release statements given by professional boxers prior to boxing matches over an almost 2-year period. The text was analyzed by language software that classifies words into categories. The data was then paired with wins and losses of the match.

Words conveying positive emotions, words focusing on health, and words focusing on work were associated with winning the boxing match. Use of function words (such as pronouns, prepositions, or conjunctions), words conveying social functions, and words conveying tentativeness were associated with losing the boxing match. Combative words were not associated with winning or losing.

Positive words such as “I am really looking forward to stepping back in the ring” and “This is a great arena” reflect a love of the sport. Health- and work-related words , such as “I feel really good physically and mentally,” “I’m ready…I’ll just go in there and do my thing,” and “I did everything I had to do in camp” indicate dedication to the sport, suggest the researchers. In contrast, words conveying social function included statements like “I have the right team.” Words conveying tentativeness included statements like “Experience plays an important part, but so does youth.” Social function words suggest a focus outside of oneself and tentativeness expresses doubt, according to the researchers.

But why do boxers choose these words? Have they trained their lexicons to predict victory? Doubtful. If that were the case, boxers would have language arts teachers as coaches. Word choice likely conveys their self-esteem, self-efficacy, confidence, and anxiety level, all of which are products (at least in part) of work ethic, coaching style, previous victories, and level of support. Many studies have shown a correlation between coaching style and athlete performance (including victory in sporting events), as well as athlete self-talk, anxiety level, and confidence.

In this analysis, boxers are likely mirroring the words of coaches, or even friends and family, which are reflective of training style and confidence level. The researchers have extensively studied the sport of boxing and have shown that many factors influence wins and losses, including officiating bias, athlete qualifications, fighter safety, and location of the event. Most boxers, or any other professional athletes, are probably not pulling all-nighters to choose inspiring words that give them the upper hand – or upper cut, as the case may be – to use at their next press conference, but words do reveal thoughts and predict actions. Use vocabulary wisely and victory may be yours.


Freeman P, Coffee P, & Rees T (2011). The PASS-Q: the perceived available support in sport questionnaire. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 33 (1), 54-74 PMID: 21451171

Hughes, D., W. D. Martin, et al. (2011). Linguistic analysis of precompetition interviews predict the outcome of professional boxing bouts. 16th Annual ‘Stress and Behavior’ Neuroscience and Biopsychiatry Conference., New Orleans, LA.

Nicolas M, Gaudreau P, & Franche V (2011). Perception of coaching behaviors, coping, and achievement in a sport competition. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 33 (3), 460-8 PMID: 21659673

Zourbanos N, Hatzigeorgiadis A, Tsiakaras N, Chroni S, & Theodorakis Y (2010). A multimethod examination of the relationship between coaching behavior and athletes’ inherent self-talk. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 32 (6), 764-85 PMID: 21282837

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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