The death of the half-time team talk

Modern coaches have abandoned aggressive team talks, with some ditching their rousing remarks altogether

Anyone who has ever seen Any Given Sunday will agree that the standout moment in that film is Al Pacino’s final team talk. Here, Pacino’s character, Tony D’Amato, opens his heart to his players and urges them to come together as a team and win, or be prepared to “die as individuals”. Pacino’s uplifting address perpetuates the myth of the inspirational team talk, an idea conjured up by Hollywood through many sports movies over the years. These magnificent, highly-charged speeches are usually delivered by coaches whose oratorical skills would make Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill green with envy. The reality, of course, is very different.

That is not to say that team talks do not resemble those of D’Amato; some managers have taken cues from the film in how they rally their troops, in a great example of life imitating art imitating life. The objective of these speeches is to inject players with a last-minute dose of energy before they head into battle, so it makes sense that coaches would want to reinforce a positive mindset in the camp before the kickoff or throw-in. However, anyone who’s played team sports from youth level onwards knows that most of the time, managers rely on more negative imagery when trying to get a response from their charges. 

Think of Alex Ferguson’s famous “hairdryer” treatment, or Armagh manager Joe Kernan flinging his All-Ireland loser’s plaque across a Croke Park dressing room on Final Day in 2002; most old-school managers subscribe to the notion that stimulating negative emotions is the only way to get through to their team. One popular approach is to exploit the fear of failure within their players’ psyche, casting defeat as a terrifying carnivorous beast closing in on them. 

But recent instances have shown that this approach is no longer fit for purpose. Before their Champions League semi-final second leg in Anfield last May, Lionel Messi urged his Barcelona teammates to not let history repeat itself. The previous year, the Spanish side crashed out at the quarter-final phase, losing 4-4 on away goals to Roma, having blown a 4-1 lead on aggregate from the first leg. 

Messi’s message to his brothers in arms was simple: “We have to start strong. Remember Roma was our fault. Nobody else’s. We mustn’t let the same thing happen.” As Ken Early put it several months later: “In truth, the ghosts of Rome were summoned by Messi to the Barcelona dressing room moments before the players went out on the field.” Barcelona ended up on the wrong side of a famous Liverpool comeback at Anfield. Perhaps playing on players’ fears may not be the best idea after all.

Certainly, there is a growing impression that aggression and fear mongering have run their course in terms of their value as inspirational tools. In 2018, Dublin University Athletic Football Club (DUAFC) President, Raymond O’Malley confessed to Trinity News the days of constantly flogging players no matter what the result are long gone, especially when dealing with college players: “It may return positive for the first few months, but after a while, players simply switch off … These are highly intelligent players, educated, young people with a lot of self-respect; they won’t put up with an oppressive, domineering manager for very long.”

A 2018 study conducted by the University of Salford found that the language in team talks can have a major impact on a team’s performance. In the study, two equal-ability university teams played against each other in a 60-minute football match. At half time, two actors performing the role of coaches were sent into each dressing room to give a team talk. The first actor saturated his speech with irrational beliefs, focusing on notions of shame and guilt and including phrases such as “losing is terrible” and “in the second half there could be nothing worse than to under-perform” and “failure to win the second half would be completely intolerable”. The other gave a team talk using logical arguments and non-aggressive language, with a mind to helping players confront stress. 

The results were not surprising; the players who received the ‘irrational’ team talk felt more threatened and were more focused on avoiding failure than moving up the gears. Dr Andrew Evans, who conducted the study, explains: “If you tell players that the cost of losing will be intolerable, awful, and that if they lose they will have let themselves, their fans, and their teammates down, then players will feel threatened and will have a tunnel vision based around wanting to avoid failure.”

“The days of players being fired up by a rousing motivational speech or a tirade from an irate manager are gone”

Even players have begun to speak out against the team talk as a motivational device. Former Crewe Alexandra player Chris McCready has gone so far as to brand the team talk as pointless: “There’s an assumption that something needs to be said, as if three minutes of talking is going to make a big difference to 90 minutes of playing football. It’s filling a space. There’s a lot of ego involved and it’s usually a waste of words.”

Whether they pay attention to the research or not, modern coaches are ditching the traditional approach to player motivation in favour of a more frank, less verbose style. Dublin footballer Alan Brogan has admitted that “the days of players being fired up by a rousing motivational speech or a tirade from an irate manager are gone”. He describes his former manager Jim Gavin’s speeches as more “process-driven”; players were aware of where they needed to improve and didn’t need a verbal thrashing from their coach to further hit home the message. 

Even Wexford hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald, known for his tendency to intense emotiveness, has learned to handle his players more carefully. As one of his Wexford charges Kevin Foley explains: “Davy wanted to make it unique for us because we’re the ones driving it on and leading it, he didn’t have to come in and shout any speeches.” Meanwhile, some coaches have handed the responsibility of exhilarating the troops to the players and the backroom staff. Joe Schmidt came out after the Grand Slam-winning match against England in 2018, saying he left it to captain Rory Best and defence coach Andy Farrell to get his players fired up, before finally piping in: “I want you to go out and keep playing, keep attacking”.

As sport places more and more emphasis on professionalism and less and less on the emotional side of things, it seems inevitable that the team talk may come to be universally viewed as pointless. From the perspective of modern coaches, the breaks in play are a vital opportunity to once again go through tactics and the minutiae of athletic performance rather than wax lyrical about the significance of winning this game or about how they are a special group of players. 

This drive towards professionalism across all sports threatens to revolutionise the notion of team dynamics. Before, players generally came from the same community and it may have been easier for managers to take the emotional route, composing a team talk involving community pride and playing the game their way. Now, as players come from further afield and the former community culture in a team begins to erode away, an emotional team talk becomes less effective. This erosion has already happened in top-level club football, and on the international stage of football, rugby and many other professional sports.

It is a shame to see the team talk, which is such an integral part of sporting lore, become so irrelevant. But as coaches and managers become obsessed with miniscule detail and try to create the perfect game plan, maximising every available second, it would not be surprising if they can find no room for an inspirational speech in their strategy. It seems only a matter of time before the motivational team talk becomes dismissed by new generations of sports fans as nothing more than Hollywood nonsense.

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was the Sports Editor of Trinity News for Michaelmas 2018. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.