The Language of the 2014 NBA Finals

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James and Duncan

June 5, 2014

With confidence, you can reach truly amazing heights; without confidence, even the simplest accomplishments are beyond your grasp.

-Jim Loehr

Last January, we analyzed inspirational locker room speeches from the head coaches of the NFL teams that were facing off in the Super Bowl. We found the language of Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks to be 32.7% more inspirational than the language from John Fox, head coach of the Denver Broncos, which may have helped inspire his team to a 43 – 8 victory. By popular demand from our readers, we undertook a similar analysis before the NBA Finals begin tonight.

For this study, we quantified the language from Tim Duncan, team captain of the San Antonio Spurs, and LeBron James, team captain of the Miami Heat. What follows is a measured comparison of their answers to questions asked during yesterday’s press conference.

The team captain’s responsibility is to lead and inspire their team to victory. In our Super Bowl analysis, we found that the key language components of inspirational speeches are engagement, authenticity, and persuasion (see why these components matter here). We wondered how effectively Tim Duncan and LeBron James use the language components found in inspirational speeches.

NBA Inspirational Language

The results of our analysis demonstrate that although both team captains scored higher than average, Tim Duncan’s language scores higher than LeBron James’ language on two of the three components of inspirational language. Tim Duncan’s language was 10.0% more engaging and 8.3% more authentic.

Here is an example of authentic language from Tim Duncan:

Q. Your words at the end of the Game 6 against the Thunder, seemed to fuel them. If you could do it over again would you have that same message, that you guys will get it this time?

TIM DUNCAN: I don’t know what I said that was so bad. Everybody keeps talking about it, I don’t know what I said that was so bad, I said I wanted to win the Finals. We’re back here now and I wanted to win. If they need to find fuel in that, so be it.

On the other hand, LeBron James’ language was 1.6% more persuasive, as he speaks more directly to his audience. The quote below demonstrates how he speaks in a way that allows you, as a listener, to put yourself in his position.

Q. LeBron, when you guys played Spain in the Olympics the first time it was such a good game, people wanted to see it again, and the second time it was just as good and a lot of people feel the same about this series. Do you think that’s possible? And do you ever say, “It would be cool to play them again,” or whoever is in front of you is in front of you?

LeBRON JAMES: You hope it’s going to be a great series for both teams’ sake, for the fans that love our game. You hope it can be one of the great Finals appearances.
As far as seeing ’em again, I think both teams will say it doesn’t matter, you just hope that you get back and be able to put yourself in a position to do it again, win, lose or draw, you want to put yourself in a position where you can try to win one. We’re excited about this opportunity to represent the Eastern Conference and we look forward to it.

To take this analysis a step further, we wondered if the language from the press conference would provide any insight into how the players were feeling the day before the series started. To compare this, we looked at the confidence and optimism displayed in their language. We found that Tim Duncan’s language displayed 18.1% more confidence and 2.6% more optimism.

NBA Emotional Language v2

Tim Duncan scores high on confidence because of his definitive statements. He answers questions in a matter-of-fact way, which demonstrates how he feels, without leaving any room for doubt.

Q. Do you feel like you guys are going into this series with a chip on your shoulder? A lot of people counted you out and last year you were one rebound away from winning. Do you feel like you’re going into this series with a chip on your shoulder?

…We’re going in this trying to win a championship. We understand what happened last year, we understand how close we got and we’re disappointed in that respect but we’re ecstatic that we have an opportunity to challenge that. Series starts over again and we’ll see what happens.

A large body of research suggests a strong connection between confidence and sports performance. Does this mean that Tim Duncan’s highly confident language indicates he’s ready to excel on the court? Or perhaps LeBron James’ persuasive pre-game words will tip the scales in the Heat’s favor. Of course, a team is the sum of many players, so we’ll have to wait and see.