Skip one for the Gipper

Coaches' motivational speeches do matter, suggests a new study. Nonsense, retorts Vital Speeches editor David Murray.

Football season is upon us, and basketball season is coming up. There's a bogus new study out, that pretends to quantify how coaches' motivational speeches work. Lucky for us, I had the final word on this matter back in 2011, on my personal blog Writing Boots. —ed.

The pregame speech by the head coach: To call it a ritual is to cover up what it really is: a superstition.

From peewee to the pros, coaches believe they cannot send their players out on the field of battle or the court of conflict without giving some kind of "motivational" speech.

The problem is, they so rarely have anything motivational to say. How could they? A dozen, two dozen, three dozen times a year, the coach is supposed to get up and say something to stir teamwork and togetherness in the hearts of the players?

Nope. In my experience, most motivational speeches are more like this pastiche of loudly mumbled clichés, to an audience of players who have heard it so many times they seem not to be hearing it at all.

The only coaches who don't give motivational speeches are baseball managers. (Even golf coaches give the goddamn things when they have the chance; witness all the bogus motivational hocus pocus surrounding the Ryder Cup and its honorary captain.)

Baseball managers ("manager" is such a cool, down-to-earth title  in the first place) realize it's impossible to give 162 annual motivational speeches to the same audience in a year. Why can't football and basketball coaches realize they don't have two dozen in their bag, either?

For a long time, I allowed that maybe that the players needed these talks, however clumsy, and that there was some mystical spiritual hunger for this ritual that only a player can understand.

So I once asked a player of a team I was covering: "Do you guys really like to listen to those speeches? Or do you sometimes wish the fucker would just shut up so you could get out on the field and play."

"Oh, yeah."

That's what I thought. Maybe they're not charging onto the field, as much as they're running away from the noisy oration.

But the speeches will go on, until one coach—and coaches being the most conservative creatures on the planet, it will likely be awhile—utterly eschews the pregame speech for a whole season, and wins a championship.

Now, I know what every coach who's reading this is saying right now: That's impossible.

No, Coach, it's not. You can do it! You've just got to dig down deep inside yourself … —DM


Postscript (also from 2011):

So I've got this football coach pal, and after reading this he makes three points:

1. Yes, the pregame speech is a ritual. But that doesn't mean it's a worthless ritual. "It's a step in the process of the pregame ritual."

2. Yes, he does it partly because everybody else does. "Imagine what your players would say if you skipped this component of the ritual."

3. It has some function: A last chance to "echo reminders," and a chance to get players focused.

4. It's hard to come up with the speech every week, but it's important psychologically—partly, for the coach! "Personally, it is one of my favorite parts of the pregame ritual. I love looking to the players' eyes and seeing them ready to go to work."

So who cares if the speeches have a few clichés. The editor of Vital Speeches of the Day does—but this coach doesn't, and I don't think he thinks his players do, either.


Post-postscript: Here, of course, is the final word on the matter.

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