Never be lost for words: how a good speech can help revive a team’s fortunes
It doesn’t always have to be gung-ho but the power of words can help inspire a dressingroom
The half-time speech is a an integral weapon in every manager’s armoury. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Armagh played Kerry in the 2002 All-Ireland football final. By half-time, they were going down the swanee. They’d lost John McEntee to concussion. Oisín McConville had missed a penalty. They were four points adrift, having played with the wind in the first-half so their manager Joe Kernan had to use a bit of theatre to turn things around.
“I’ve been in every dressing room at half-time during Ireland’s games in the Six Nations this year,” says sports psychologist Enda McNulty, who played cornerback for Armagh that afternoon. “I’ve been in a lot of Gaelic, hurling, basketball and big-match American football dressing rooms, and I’d say Joe orchestrated that speech as good as I’ve seen anybody do it. He obviously had a good idea what he was going to do because he had his loser’s plaque from 1977 with him so he must have rehearsed it at a basic level.
“The first thing he did was to give the players time – to get some fuel on board, two or three minutes, and some quiet time to reflect on their own performance. He had time to observe the physiology of the players. Players were down. Shoulders were slumped. There was a lot of navel-gazing: what’s wrong? What’s happened to this juggernaut?
“Joe came in then and he changed our physical and emotional state by what he said. He showed us his loser’s plaque and asked us did we want to be renowned for the rest of our lives as losers? Or did we want to be remembered as winners? He got the plaque and he shattered it very dramatically against the shower wall. Once that happened it broke our negative state into a strong mental state.”
Armagh won by a point. McNulty says messages should be predominately positive in a team speech, with a ratio of about 5 to 1, positive to negative. The references have to be apt. He mentions one intercounty manager who started speechifying about the exploits of the motorcyclist Joey Dunlop. The players were driven round the bend.
Location is important. He cites the barmy decision by English Premier League manager Phil Brown to deliver a half-time talk to his Hull City players on the pitch in front of a packed stadium against Manchester City in 2008. “He made a spectacle out of the players,” says McNulty.
Sometimes, counter-intuitively, an intervention by a player who’s had a bad game can help. “You often find that lads who are playing well will get a fit of speechin’ at half-time,” says Dublin hurling manager Anthony Daly, “but a great memory I have from this year is from the All-Ireland semi-final even though Cork beat us.
“Stephen Hiney – a spiritual leader of the team – was taken off after 20 minutes against Cork. He was having a nightmare. But at half-time Hiney made a great speech about how he didn’t go to the ball like we promised each other we would. His chance was gone but everybody else had 35 minutes to put it right.