Off The Wall

February 13, 2012 Post Comment Uncategorised

I’ve written a number of articles about pre-match and half-time team talks and strategies – their contents and effects both conscious and unconscious. It’s a fascinating area, and to be honest, there’s always an observable difference in the way players are behaving as a result, when they get into competition.

For me this is quite satisfying. However, my dilemma with the rugby team I coach on a voluntary basis is that this is now the fourth season I’ve coached them and, although the mixture of team personnel has changed through these years, I’ve probably done about 50 team talks – all different. All of them different and, as I’ve been told quite often, all very much “Off The Wall”.

For our most recent game my idea for the talk came from what most binds them together as a team, and what is likely to have the biggest impact on a disparate group of eighteen young players mostly aged 19-25. The other main idea was about how to present this to engage their interactive compliance – or in other words how to make it work!

The Archetypal Team Talk

There’s this notion that the archetype of every team talk involves one person doing all the talking, sometimes in the style of Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt, and everyone else just listening – like dumb sponges.

So, are they listening? Evidence has it that not everyone IS listening – and even when they are, how they are interpreting what they are hearing is anyone’s guess, given that there are 18 players I’m talking to, each with his own perception of reality, his own understanding of what I’m saying or implying, or trying to get across as a message. Finally, even when the grasp of my message has been received and translated, the players then have to go out into the match and interpret with their actions during the course of play, the whole focus of what we are collectively trying to achieve.

How difficult is this for them?

Even at international level we see teams’ performances fluctuate and ebb and flow through a game, a series, a season. These are elite professionals, at the top of their game. To bring some positive things to bear at a grass roots level is much more of a challenge – and to make it happen consistently multiplies that challenge.

So, coming from a different direction I decided to let the players do their own pre-match talk, rather than have me ‘spout’ at them yet again!

Playing at what I love

As they were sat in the changing room ready for the warm-up I asked them to work in pairs. They were to engage with the person next to them and one was to talk for a minute and the other was to listen for a minute. The listener was asked not to talk back, ask questions or get into conversation with his partner- he was to just listen. Then, after a minute they would swap roles. The topic I asked them to talk about to their partner was “What I love most about playing Rugby.” In other words – what brings me to this match today, and what do I get out of it the most.

This is a really generative process. It gets the talker to go inside to his thoughts, and then express himself to his partner. The unconscious process of speech formation is engaged with his thoughts through this, which is quite a distraction to any of those with pre-match nerves. The act of listening without having to talk back is also a good thing for mental warm-up. The swapping of roles then has the effect of switching off – then switching back on in a different way – thus double-distracting the internal dialogue and getting them more able to engage at an unconscious level.

With my explanation and their chat this took less than four minutes in total. The relevance was that they were all able to express to each other what they loved the most about this mutual activity – reaffirming to and for each other what makes them a team, what ties them together in a common bond.


What were the Outcomes?

Well, as one player said afterwards, the opposition didn’t quite know what had hit them. The team played as a cohesive unit, players were more focussed, and more committed, some of the individual and collective skills on show were exceptional, compared to previous performances this season.

The real and probable long-lasting effect is that they gained an embodied
understanding that they were doing it all for each other.