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

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.”


Predominately positive
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.

'Disappointment to one side'
"I said it to him that night while we were having a pint: 'You're some man to be able to put that disappointment to one side.' The lads would have looked at that and said: 'That's leadership. He's taken off. He's down in the dumps. What would I be doing? I'd probably be sulking, blaming the manager.' His speech was way more powerful than if it had come from, say, Liam Rushe, who was playing the best that day."

Daly is one of the game’s great orators. He’s become alert, however, to the pitfalls of over-arousal, and is studying for a diploma in sports psychology.

"If anything, I've toned back on the passionate, tugging-the-jersey speeches," he says. "I've made a few mad ones in my time. I remember in 2001 when I was a sub in my last game for Clare as a player. Tipp beat us by a point. Cyril Lyons was in charge and he asked me would I give the lads the last word, and I did.

“Tipp had hammered us in 2000. I remember appealing to the boys, to Seánie McMahon and the Lohans and Colin Lynch and these guys: ‘They’re all saying we’re gone and washed up. They’re here to laugh at us – that today was going to be the day to humiliate us, the same as ’93; to humiliate our families, our mothers and fathers and younger sisters.’

Bit calmer
"McMahon often said to me, 'I couldn't see the ball for the first 10 minutes, I was balling crying.' I often cringe at that now. The boys would say the speech carried them a long way, but if we were a bit calmer could we have raced into an early three-point lead?

“With the Dubs now I would be very calculated. I was talking to Fitzy [Davy Fitzgerald] a few days before the All-Ireland final. We just met for a quick cup of tea, doing a bit of recce on Cork, and he said, ‘Look it, when I fly off the handle, there is only two per cent of it which isn’t deliberate. The rest is all calculated.’ He said he would talk for approximately seven minutes on the Sunday, all told, all day. He’s it down to a fine art.”

The gung-ho speech can leave certain players frazzled. They need to have a clear head. Former Wexford football manager Jason Ryan stresses the importance of players being able to make decisions on the pitch, to be able to see faults and to fix them. He prizes players who can think for themselves rather than depending on ones who need to be geed up with a blood-and-thunder speech at half time.

Sometimes words aren’t needed. During Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s first tour of duty as Cork hurling manager, he presented his players with their jerseys before the 1999 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. As a player, he’d been an idol to them. Now they were in the bowels of Croke Park receiving their jersey from JBM with a handshake and a hug.

Ryan had the Ireland rugby player Bernard Jackman involved with the Wexford team for a couple of seasons. The county wouldn't have had a great record on the road in the qualifiers when they met Galway in Salthill in 2010.

"The first-half was only mediocre," he says. "Bernard stood up at one stage and took a water bottle and squirted water on the ground. 'There's a line there,' he said. 'Step over it. That half is gone. Let's get over it, and move on.' It was powerful, although I would say that not every player would have thought so. Rarely if ever do you affect everybody in a positive way."

Pat Spillane, winner of eight All-Ireland winners' medals with Kerry, is a case in point. He says he never listened to the lyrics of Mick O'Dwyer's team talks.

“I presume the speeches were the same all the time. By the time the speech arrived you were in the zone. It didn’t matter if Micko was singing nursery rhymes. By the time you had reached Croke Park, he had you pumped up and full of belief. Before one of the All-Irelands, his false teeth fell out, and after the game somebody was talking about it: ‘Jaysus, when Dwyer’s teeth fell out.’ No one saw it. Why? The zone.”

Liam Griffin, who led Wexford to All-Ireland hurling victory in 1996, could set fire to a lake with his words. He concurs, however, with Spillane's sentiments. "The powers attributed to managers and people making speeches are over-stated. Players would say that the manager made a fantastic speech at half-time, but when quizzed they've an awful job remembering what he said.

'New hope'
"I think the most important thing at half-time is that when you stand up you inspire the people by being in charge, by knowing what you're talking about. If the players are in some kind of bother and the manager can identify where it is, and he shows them how they can do something about it, that gives new hope going out for the second half. That could turn a game around sometimes."

And sometimes what's needed is a white lie. "It was the worst possible day to play Gaelic football," says McNulty, recalling the 2000 Sigerson Cup final in which he played for Queens University against UCD. "The pitch was waterlogged. It was teeming rain. We had played three games in three days in heavy, lumpy conditions, and now we were moving into extra time. Our coach Dessie Ryan, who worked in New York for the fire department for years, came up with a genius idea. He said the UCD coach had told the referee that they didn't want to play extra time there and then – that they wanted to play it on a different day. He was basically telling us: 'These guys don't want to play. We'll show them who's fitter, who's tougher. We'll win it here and we'll win it now.' Nothing else needed to be said."