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A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to witness a pre-match team talk that almost left me lost for words, both from surprise and sheer amusement. The assistant coach in question was completely new to the team environment, knowing some players from playing against them years ago, but still a new face on the block. Consequently, the players were not expecting him to make much of a contribution after the head coach and captain had said their usual piece; outlining the game plan and what was expected of the players to get a result. When prompted however the coach absolutely went off like a train, using a plethora of words that should probably remain anonymous! Though I disagreed with many of the comments during his little speech, his passion and desire to see the team win was clear to see – it was as though he would never have the opportunity to give another team talk ever again! This mentality appeared to have a positive effect on the team it seemed! It has stayed with me over the last week or so, raising a few interesting questions that coaches across varying abilities and age ranges can ponder.

Although team talks are one of coaches’ mandatory responsibilities, more often than not they can have a hugely significant impact on the outcome of the result, yet the preparation time prior to delivering it (depending on the sport) is minimal. So how do you gather your thoughts and deliver an inspirational, match-changing message during the time the players reach the sanctity of the dressing room? Most coaches will agree, this is by no means an easy task!

For a start, deciding whether to give your team/individual the old-fashioned ‘hairdryer’ treatment, or to stifle your emotions to deliver a cool, calm and collected talk can be difficult to judge. What will have the most impact at that time? Which players will respond best to either of these approaches? Is it sometimes best to actually say nothing, and let the captain or assistant say their bit? All of these questions suggest that that there may not be a concrete, black and white answer. It may however, prompt you to journey back through time and recall some memorable talks that either you yourself have given, or have received. Everybody has that one team talk they will always remember for as long as they live don’t they? The ‘goosebump’ talk as I refer to it; the ultimate one; the one that motivated you more than any other; the one that only the people in the room at the time will collectively smile about years down the line.

The goosebump team talk that I recall occurred during my lowest sporting moment as a young sixteen year old back in 2008 – at half time during a national final, at a Premiership football ground in front of the biggest crowd we would ever play in front of. We were 4-1 down, emotions of embarrassment, frustration, despair and injustice amongst many others. Our teacher/coach at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, Chris Porter, said his usual (and much needed!) piece on tactical adjustment and tweaks to the system before our Head of Department Ben Passenger took the floor. Now I’m sure Ben won’t mind me saying that football wouldn’t rank highest in his sporting prowess, being an ex-professional rugby player and an excellent cricketer. What he did have in abundance though, was respect. Both in the classroom and on the playing field, he wasn’t the type of person that ever raised his voice; he didn’t have to, such was the presence that he had (and still has no doubt)! Still, he was someone who even the most troublesome pupil wouldn’t dare to get on the wrong side of. So when he took to the middle of the dressing room, you could hear a pin drop it was that quiet. I won’t bore you with the whole speech itself (surprisingly it wasn’t that long), but the way he assertively and passionately told us at the top of his lungs what he thought of the opposition (no expletives I should add!), what was going to happen in the second half, and how we had absolutely nothing to lose in the second half had the goosebumps well and truly going. It’s hard to recapture the feelings in words – those who have seen the famous film ‘Remember the Titans’ (I encourage you to watch it if not), specifically Coach Yoast’s final game team talk will perhaps understand where I’m coming from slightly more. Needless to say, against all odds we went on to win 5-4 courtesy of a last minute goal!

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Going back to what the most effective delivery of a team talk might be, I suppose the message in there somewhere is to pick your battles, and save the hairdryer talk or equivalent moments like Mr Passenger’s for the most important of occasions, where they can have maximum impact. If you constantly berate your player/s, then very quickly it will begin to lose effect, and become normal. We’ve all seen those football managers on the sideline who shout and bark from the first minute, with very little impact. Is it any wonder?

It is also worth remembering at this point that mistakes form a massive, if not the biggest part of the learning process for players. If they are constantly met with criticism and negativity, you will soon have a group of players with no creativity and freedom for the fear of making another error. Furthermore, if good pieces of play, either individually or collectively are not recognised and acknowledged then this can also have an adverse effect on morale, motivation and subsequent performance. Coaches therefore, must not only consider how best to deliver their team talk, be it pre-match, mid-match or post-match, but also the implications their words and overall approach will have on their players.

Next time you are about to give a team talk, perhaps just stop and think for a moment about the message you are sending, and how want your players going away from you feeling like…..angry? Aggressive? Motivated? Inspired? Confident? The brilliant thing about coaching is that there is never one answer!

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