Inspirational locker room speeches are a hallmark of sports movies.
Who can forget Herb Brooks in “Miracle” trying to rally the U.S. hockey team before their legendary upset over the unbeatable Soviets in the 1980 Olympic Games?
“Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that's what you have here tonight, boys. That's what you've earned here tonight. One game. If we played 'em 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world.”
But, according to a recently published study, successful speeches are more likely to resemble the one Tom Hanks’ character gave in “A League of Their Own.”
“There’s no crying in baseball!”
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley watched 304 speeches from 23 high school and college teams and found that “players seem to perform better after a harsh, more negative halftime speech from their coach,” according to studyfinds.org.
In short, negative speeches led to quantifiably better second-half performances (i.e. outscoring opponents).
But, with anything, there is a breaking point. Coaches who displayed “extreme” bouts of anger, frustration and negativity were shown to detrimentally affect their players’ performance.
I reached out to some coaches in our area to find out their thoughts on the study. What kind of halftime speeches do they typically give? Have they found any correlation between more negative speeches resulting in better performance? How does a coach strike that balance?
“Obviously, it depends on the situation of the game,” said Mike Meadows, head coach of Lakeland football.
“However, I always try to be as motivational as possible regardless of the score at the half. In my opinion, it’s not a question of positive or negative speeches; it’s more of a question of do you, the coach, have a pulse of the team? Do you have a strong enough relationship and trust level with your players when the players need to be told to do more?”
Relaying critical information, Meadows has found, is more effective when it comes from the players.
“Player to player communication helps with accountability,” he said.
Both Meadows and Ron Hendrie, coach of North Salem boys soccer, used the same language when talking about this approach. They describe it as letting players “take ownership” of their performance.
“One of the best ways to do that is to use the methodology called guided discovery, whereby asking pointed questions and allowing them to come up with the answers would be a very effective way to steer them to their own solutions,” Hendrie said. “Not only does this empower the players, but it also provides an avenue for them to become intrinsically motivated.”
An experienced motivator, Hendrie has coached at North Salem for 32 years. Relaying an effective message—for both individual players and the team—in just 15 minutes can difficult, especially when you consider what else needs to be accomplished at halftime: rest, rehydration and game-planning.
But is it better to be a drill sergeant or a friend? It depends on the situation.
“The method of communication should most certainly be engaging but not necessarily high energy, harsh and negative in nature,” Hendrie said. “For instance, if my team’s problem during the first half was that we were losing composure and couldn’t settle the game down, then yelling and screaming at them would just make the problem worse.”
Coaches, Hendrie said, “need to have multiple tools in their toolbox and know when to use them in various situations and with various players.
“There’s a quote that says: ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, then you will tend to treat everything as if it’s a nail,’” he added.
Hendrie’s first state title team had only heard calm speeches from their coach that season—until halftime of the state semifinals. Though they were winning 1-0, the coach thought his team was underperforming.
“I spoke loudly, critically and quickly as I scolded that we were able to play better than we were and that we deserved to be there,” Hendrie said.
His team scored four unanswered goals in the second half, winning the game 5-0.
The next year, however, the same type of speech fell flat. His team came out stiff and took too long to settle down.
“Consequently, we gave up an early goal and couldn’t recover,” Hendrie said. “To this day, I blame our loss on my overly stern pre-game pep talk.”
I’ve always loved sports because they’re quantifiable. Perhaps we’ve gone too far with analytics, but for the most part, the value of a player or coach is objective. As fans, we sometimes twist ourselves into pretzels trying to excuse poor performances of athletes we like, but stats can’t be ignored.
Cal-Berkley’s study is interesting but ultimately flawed. Though second-half performances can’t be disputed, there are too many subjective variables to objectively say negative speeches equate to better performances, as our coaches have said.
How important is the game? Is it the third game of the season? The state championship?
Is the “negative” speech only effective because it was preceded by 10 “positive” ones?
What exactly is a negative speech, anyway? Does the coach’s voice have to reach a certain decibel level? Exceed a certain number of swear words?
Ultimately, Hendrie said, “A strong halftime talk should really be a conversation facilitated by the coach.” It should meet the needs of both individual players and the team as a whole, it should build chemistry and confidence while pointing out areas for improvement, it should follow an established routine but also be engaging.
Good luck portraying that in a movie.