Imagine that you are getting ready to go out with friends, and you know that you will see someone who recently broke up with you for someone else.  Odds are that you’d make sure you look particularly enticing so that your ex will be acutely aware of what he or she is now missing out on. 

This “I’ll show them” attitude crops up in many contexts and has been investigated by sports psychologists.  Although teams don’t “break-up” with players, teams and players do part ways due to contracts ending and trades between teams.  And, just like ex-partners who live in the same town, they are likely to run into each other in the future.  If you follow sports, you are no doubt familiar with the hype surrounding the match-ups between a former star and the team that traded him (or her) – especially when the separation wasn’t mutually desired. 

Early research generally showed that the performance of traded players improved after being traded.  These boosts in performance were often explained by the motivation to show the new team one’s value and decreased pressure on the player, who was given a period of time to adjust to the new team.  But more recent work studying sports trades has focused on situational variables that might impact post-trade performance – for example, when the trade occurred, who is playing whom, and where the contest occurs.

I used the term “hype” above to highlight the media and social attention that are focused on the meeting between a traded player and his or her former team.  Sports trades are discussed endlessly by on-screen commentators, sports writers, and fans.  In fact, National Basketball Association (NBA) fans who tried to avoid discussions of trades and roster shuffles in early July of this year would have had a hard time steering clear of such discussions.  Was it wise for Kawhi Leonard to leave Toronto for the Clippers?  Is there anything Toronto could have done to keep him?  

However, the timing of the trade – whether it occurs during the offseason or while the season is being played – may impact the amount of attention it gets.  Even the most die-hard fans typically don’t follow a sport as closely during the offseason as they do when the games are being played.  As a result, trades usually garner more attention when they occur during the season.  This extra attention likely leads to higher motivation for the traded player to perform well, and research has shown that midseason trades are associated with greater increases in performance compared with those that take place during the offseason. 

Additionally, playing a team sport involves coordination with teammates and navigating social relationships.  Players who are traded midseason face the challenge of overcoming these obstacles within their new team without the benefit of preseason workouts and preseason practice games to get acquainted.  Helping one’s team win is a good way to help establish good rapport with one’s new group.  This might be especially true when helping your new team battle your old team.  Research supports this view as well by showing, for example, that traded National Hockey League (NHL) players play harder when facing their former teams.  What better way to show both your old and new teams your value than helping the new group beat the old one?  Thus, the challenge of establishing oneself on the new team after a trade is heightened by social and situational factors if the trade occurs midseason, and these factors probably affect performance. 

Our research explored the role of the timing of the trade in sports performance for NBA players.  We assumed that traded players would increase their performance when facing their old team  because this serves the joint goals of showing your old team what it lost and showing your new teammates what they gained. But we also felt that the timing of trades would make a difference.  Consistent with prior research, our data revealed that NBA players facing their former teams showed improvements in performance when they were traded midseason but not when they were traded during the offseason.

As many sports fans know, another important factor that affects performance involves where a competition occurs.  The idea of “home field advantage” is prevalent throughout sports, and much research has established that the home field advantage is real.  However, just like looking good and running into your ex on her or his “home turf” – say his or her favorite hotspot – might make your “check me out now” moment a little more enjoyable, we speculated that athletes who were recently traded may sometimes experience increased motivation to perform well at an away location as well.  Specifically, players who face a former team in the old arena are presented with the opportunity to not only show their former team their value but also to show their old fans what they are worth. 

So, we expected that performance would be highest for NBA players who were facing their former teams at the old arena, and the data confirmed it. In fact, our study of more than 160 NBA games in which a traded player faced his old teammates revealed that there was almost no increase in performance in games played on one’s new home court after a trade but a sizable increase in performance in games played at the old venue.

Much of the research in psychology and sports, and nearly all on the effects of being traded, has focused on male athletes.  Because men and women are socialized differently, and their sporting contests are often covered in different ways by the media, it is important to evaluate whether these effects of being traded show up among female athletes as well.  We are working on a project with data from the Women’s National Basketball Association that found that, while the timing of the trade didn’t matter very much for WNBA players, the location of the contest did matter.  Because there is less attention paid to women’s sports in general, “hype” associated with the trade is less variable based on when it occurs and the primary opportunity to “show them” – both old team and fans – one’s value is a match-up at the old arena.  Keep an eye out for these findings if you’re interested in the full picture!  So the next time you want to perform well in front of an audience, forget about imagining the audience naked as some have recommended. Instead, just imagine your ex in the audience – and let everyone keep their clothes on.  

For Further Reading

Wanic, R. A., Goldschmied, N., & Nolan, M. (2018). “I’ll show them”: Assessing performance in recently traded NBA players facing their former team. Motivation Science. Advance online publication.


Rebekah Wanic teaches in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of San Diego and is currently serving as the adjunct liaison at their Center for Educational Excellence.   Her research focuses on the application of social psychological concepts to real world contexts, such as exercise and sport performance.