‘It was the most feared half-time weapon in football – and Sir Alex Ferguson’s players all dreaded being on the receiving end of it. Fergie’s ‘hairdryer’ became a legendary force of discipline at Manchester United, and few were spared his wrath.’
His was a unique approach to persuasive communication, but the half-time team talk is a staple of any manager’s armoury. How do you raise the morale of a group of individuals who are losing badly, or change their defeatist mindset, or accept direction, or warn against complacency? And do this in a few minutes.
How do you prepare what to say, when late goals may have changed the game from a winning to a losing one, and the team from feelings of elation to despondency, just before the break. How do you rehearse to perform at your best, knowing your performance can turn the team from a losing to a winning one?
The talk maybe in a sweaty dressing room, but it calls for the rhetorical concept of kairos. It is the timeliness of a talk, suited to the moment of speaking, fitting in words, and body language, to the mood and expectation of the audience. The experienced manager may not know kairos as a term, but he understands it.
Considered preparation and rehearsal is not possible in the time it takes to hurry from the dugout to reach the dressing room. Instead, the manager will be drawing on his experience of hundreds of other half time team talks, learning from each. Every talk in effect is a rehearsal for the next one. Experience and instinct channel use of the three ‘weapons’ of communication when it matters.
Aristotle defined these as ethos, the appeal from the character, logos, the appeal to reason and pathos, the appeal to emotion. The manager seeking a change of tactics will call on logos, giving clear reason for the change. If a fighting spirit is needed, then pathos, emotion takes over.
However, these appeals count for little compared with ethos, the appeal of the character. It is the force of a personality and the trust of the players that creates truly powerful communication. Pep Guardiola, arguably the best manager in England, is captured in a leaked video that’s gone viral. It shows a critical halftime talk and the team are losing. He says a few words, not easily heard. He actually speaks with his body. He puts himself on the line, every movement, every gesture, an out pouring of passion that is mesmerising, irresistible. The team won.
Another legendary coach, from the eighties, was Brian Clough, a larger than life character who broke the mould of the dour ‘cloth cap’ managers of the time. He was a brilliant, often outrageous communicator. He brought a touch of theatre and a few words to the shortest and, possibly, best team talk ever. His team, Nottingham Forest was playing badly and losing 2-0 at home. At half time, the players waited, nervously, in the locker room. They waited and waited and, just before they had to go on for the second half, Brian Clough appeared and said:
“Sorry boys, my fault, picked the wrong team”. The ‘wrong’ team won 3-2.