Friday, September 16, 2011

The Psychology of the 'half-time team talk'

For the fan who has sat through the first 45 minutes of a football match and watched his side play abysmally, it can often be a deeply frustrating and emotional time. He may have witnessed his side concede a goal or more, be playing like strangers who only met for the first time in the car park an hour before kick-off, or whose side are playing so badly that they may as well have stayed in bed!

However one can still draw comfort from the peep of the half-time whistle, for it is now time for the manager to metaphorically speaking, get his hands on the players and really earn his corn!

The half-time period in a game tends to create an emotional experience amongst the players and the coach/manager. At half-time the outcome of the game is yet to be decided. The interval is only around 15 minutes in duration, and is the only direct opportunity the coach will have to speak to all the players and to influence the second-half performance and result.

Above all, as a fan there's the hope that the manager is delivering an 'epic' half-time team talk.

Sir Alex Ferguson ' barks out' instructions

Perhaps a manager might consider using famous motivational quote/speeches in an effort to rally his troops such as one of the following:

"I've learned that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you're climbing it." (Andy Rooney, born 1919, American journalist, author and TV correspondent).

"The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That's real glory!" (Vince Lombardi, 1913-1970, an American football coach)

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do........" (Mark Twain 1835-1910, American author and commentator).

"If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room." (Dame Anita Roddick, 1942-2007, British businesswoman)

"Fear cannot be without hope, nor hope without fear." (Benedict Spinoza, also known as Baruch, 1632-77, Jewish born Dutch philosopher and theologian).

"I learned that the only way you are going to get anywhere in life is to work hard at it. Whether you're a musician, a writer, an athlete or a businessman, there is no getting around it. If you do, you'll win-if you don't you won't." (Bruce Jenner, born 1949, is a former U.S. track and field athlete).

"Any fact facing us, however difficult, even seemingly hopeless, is not so important as our attitude towards that fact. How you think about a fact may defeat you before you ever do anything about it. You may permit a fact to overwhelm you mentally before you deal with it actually. On the other hand, a confident and optimistic thought pattern can overcome or modify the fact altogether." (Norman Vincent Peale, 1898-1993, author and protestant minister).

"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that." (Bill Shankly, 1913-1981, one of Britain's most successful and respected football managers).

Bill Shankley (right) gets his point accross!

"It's nice to imagine there are Churchillian speeches going on, week in, week out," says sports presenter Gabby Logan. "You imagine the unlikeliest characters standing in front of a dressing room and delivering powerful oratory. I really hope that happens. It probably doesn't."

Football, in particular, is a game with many psychological demands, such as confidence, motivation and concentration, and these demands can be influenced by the situation in the game at half-time.

The main goal of the coach during the half-time interval is to influence positively the second-half performance as much as possible.

Castigation can be risky. Hull City manager Phil Brown is still remembered for an ill-judged decision to deliver his team talk on the City of Manchester pitch (below) when the Tigers were losing 4-0 against Manchester City in December 2008. Embarrassed and showing empathy for the travelling Hull fans, manager Brown reacted by leading his Tigers towards their own support at the break, ordering his troops to sit down in front of their own fans, while the boss began his public finger-wagging and shouting exercise. His players, visibly mortified, went on to lose the game 5-1, and won just one more game that season!

Brown explained his actions after the game: "I thought it was nice and cold and I thought I would keep the boys alive because they looked as if they were dead. Let’s not read too much into it but I think 3,500-4,000 travelling fans deserved some kind of explanation for the first-half performance and it was difficult for me to do that from the confines of a changing room."

A key element of a successful half-time talk is communication. This is a two-way process that consists of giving and receiving information. Coaches can learn a lot about the development of the game at half-time by listening and asking the members of the team questions to prompt a two-way discussion. However, while coaches are typically good at talking, being in charge and giving instructions, they are often poor listeners.

It is also important to note that communication is not only verbal. As early as the late 1960s, research in communication had indicated that non-verbal behaviour (ie body language) plays an important role in communication. Researchers have determined that just 7% of what we communicate is the result of the words that we use or the content of our communication; 38% of our communication to others is a result of our verbal behaviour, which includes tone of voice, timbre, tempo and volume; and 55% of our communication to others is a result of our non-verbal communication, our body posture, breathing, skin colour and our movement.

The leadership style also has a major influence on the effectiveness of a half-time team talk. There are several types of leadership styles, including ‘authoritarian’, ‘democratic’ and ‘laissez-faire.’ It is possible for coaches to use different methods in different situations, and it’s important to note that personality types, cultural behaviour and other factors also contribute to coaching styles.

Looking back to half-time in the 2005 European Champions League final, with Liverpool 3-0 down to AC Milan, according to his Liverpool colleagues, captain Steven Gerrard was in a state of disbelief and was ready to concede defeat. Afterwards, all he could remember of half-time was the manager Rafa Benítez getting his pen out, writing down the changes he wanted on the board and telling the team to try and get an early goal, as that could make the opposition nervous. But Gerrard said that, to be honest, he just couldn’t concentrate. There were all sorts of things going through his head. He just sat there with his head in his hands. He really thought it was over.

Saying the right things: that's the difficulty. "We live on a volcano," said Arsène Wenger in December 2009, describing how a group of players are equally likely to respond negatively as positively to a telling-off.

Alex Ferguson is famous for his half-time scolds – admonishment immortally named by Mark Hughes "the hairdryer treatment"

Logic suggests that if you get a bollocking you want to do better because you don't want another one. But often that isn't the case. A telling-off can lower a player's confidence, and it is hard to be motivated when confidence is low. There is evidence that suggests feeling appreciated – feeling that those around you have pride and faith in you – is the most important thing.

For real fireworks, look no further than Ron Atkinson. He had a half-time punch-up with Dalian Atkinson, one of his own players, when boss of Aston Villa. Ron Atkinson also once summoned a speech with the wrong score in mind; he implored his team to score an equaliser even though they already had. The goalscorer eventually put up a hand to correct the boss's oversight.

Roy Keane, a man never far from controversy kung-fu kicked a chalkboard in the middle of a half-time tantrum, when manager at Sunderland.

In 2001, Burnley boss Stan Ternent launched himself foot-first through a fire exit, convinced that the opposition were spying outside.

Footage of Neil Warnock berating his Huddersfield Town side in 1995 has recorded a huge number of hits on YouTube (particularly good is the moment the apoplectic Yorkshireman screams at one defender "You're in fucking Latvia!" – whatever that means).

Ex-Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke believes a dressing-room is no place for cameras. "It's a tough business, a survival business. If players are not doing their job then there will be some harsh words said in there. There are unpleasant times in the dressing room, but that's all part of football. It's a fascinating place to be at half time, but the world outside shouldn't know what's going on."

So the team talk remains an enigma, and that rare thing: a commodity without a price in a sport that has been happy to cash in on just about every­thing else. "Maybe it's better that it all stays a mystery," says Logan. "It's similar to the idea of not meeting your heroes. If we don't see what actually goes on we can't be disappointed."

1. J Counselling Psych 1967; 31:248-52
2. European J Social Psych 1970; 1:385-402
3. RL Birdwhistle (1970) Kinesics and Context, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
4. J Curriculum Studies 1985; 18:197-209
5. The Guardian Newspaper: February 2010

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