University of Cincinnati's UEFA 'A' licensed coach Gary Curneen, examines the evolution of the half-time team talk and its vital importance in transforming results.
By Gary Curneen | 17 January 2014
It has been happening to coaches around the world every weekend, since the game was invented. They find themselves two goals down at half-time, their team has been a shadow of their normal selves, and one or two individuals look as though they would rather be somewhere else. It can go the other way just as easily.
They cannot believe how well everything is going, the team has been outstanding for the opening 45 minutes, tearing the opposition to shreds, and cruising into the break with a comfortable lead.
Although neither scenario is new, the way of dealing with each one effectively has changed drastically in the past ten years. The globalization of football has added more pressure to results and consequently coaching techniques are changing at a phenomenal speed. Let’s look closely at this and how some exceptional coaches have the ability to turn the game around at the break.
The traditional half-time team talk (also known as the ‘hair dryer’) still dominates many changing rooms today. In this situation, the coach uses frustration and anger to ‘motivate’ their team. Criticism is rife, mistakes are highlighted, and fingers are pointed. It is an uncomfortable place to be.
For the coach, those fifteen minutes are an opportunity to let off steam, take out frustration, and let the team know how much it means to win. We’ve all heard the famous stories of teapots being thrown over suits. YouTube allows us to relive some classic rants from Neil Warnock, Vinnie Jones, and possibly the best one, John Sitton.
Showing passion and energy can certainly get a reaction from the players, who might see their performance increase alongside their arousal levels. However, two factors severely limit the impact of the traditional rant. The first is that is has a short shelf life. Yes, you can change behavior but if used every week, you see its impact drop as the players expect it and have heard it all before. The other limitation of the rant is how it impacts the modern player. Times have changed.
In every top level changing room, you are dealing with players from different cultures, backgrounds, and possibly, languages. They also come from different economic situations. What works for one, does not work for all. Even young players without the fast cars and millions in the bank, absorb information differently today thanks largely to YouTube and social media. So how does a coach today make the half time team talk successful?
The first and possibly most important factor for a coach in today's game is emotional control. If you fail to keep your cool, you reduce the ability to process information, which is a huge part of coaching. Loss of temper also impairs the ability to communicate successfully and you are only one harsh word away from losing at least one of your players.
You only have to look at Phil Brown’s infamous talk on the pitch at Manchester City for an example of that. The half-time team talk does not have to be a dramatic, Al Pacino-style, fists in the air, and trumpets blaring activity, in order for it to be effective.
Instead, the goal is to get vital information across to your players, reorganize if possible, and send the team out for the second half in the right frame of mind. Roy Keane said in a recent documentary that the greatest strength of Alex Ferguson was that he always had a sense of what the team needed at the right time.
For me, that is learned skill, knowing your players inside out and how they will respond to certain occasions and environments. That is a huge testament to Ferguson’s ability to read every one of his player’s personalities and no doubt took years of work and study to do at that level.
The second method successful coaches need in the modern game is the clarity of the message and the action steps needed to move forward. The top coaches today never criticize a player without offering solutions to the problem. Feedback becomes feed forward as the player becomes equipped with advice on how to improve their performance.
The importance of this is usually reflected in who the coach has on his bench. Look at any top club today and it will resemble an NFL staff roster. There are attack specialists, defence specialists, statistical analysts, strength and conditioning coaches; all able to help players in specific areas.
This vital feedback is calculated and not dispersed on impulse. José Mourinho places so much significance on half-time that he spends 45 minutes preparing for it.
“During the first half of the game, I prepare the half-time team talk,' Mourinho told the official Chelsea magazine. “I read the first half, I take my notes, I prepare my interventions at half-time based on the notes and where I feel I can help my players. So, I make the notes in order to be ready to make my changes.” It is hardly teapot-throwing stuff.
A successful coach in the modern game may have a ‘hairdryer’ somewhere in his locker, but it does not come out often. Instead they focus on attacking the problem and not the player.
Every time you blame the players, you give away the power to influence their performance. Because influence is what Rodgers, Mourinho, Wenger, Ferguson, Guardiola, and company strive for. Without it, heads will go down, players will look forward to getting home, and halfway through the second half, bad will have gotten worse.
To get the players to buy into the team ethos, it is vitally important that the talk centres around what the team needs, instead of what the coach wants to scream and shout. They say the coolest heads win the hottest games, and I firmly believe this is the case for coaching.
These are the coaches who are more mindful of the process that drives the results, and not the results themselves. And these are the coaches who will be most successful, as the game keeps moving forward.
By Gary Curneen. Follow Gary on Twitter @GaryCurneen
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