What to Say at Halftime When Your Team Is Getting Killed

Lessons learned from an epic halftime speech that actually worked 

Ben Sherwood

| 5 min read

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On a cold, wet, miserable day in Los Angeles, our boys soccer team was losing 4-0 in a playoff game against an undefeated, heavily favored squad. This was rec soccer for 8- and 9-year-olds — not exactly the World Cup. But on that day, on that field, in that torrential downpour, the season was on the line and it wasn’t going well.

Soaked and shivering on the sidelines at halftime, our boys gathered for a pep talk. I wanted to summon the echoes of Knute Rockne in the Notre Dame locker room in 1928, asking the boys to win one for the Gipper, or Herb Brooks coaxing the Miracle on Ice out of the US Olympic hockey team in 1980. 

But I kept it simple: A 4-0 deficit was no big deal. The other team’s goals were lucky.  The rain, mud and puddles had slowed the play down, eliminating any advantage for the other team.  Whoever played harder and passed more in the second half would win the game. And yes, an upset victory in these nasty conditions would go down as one of the greatest games of all time.

To tell the truth, it was hard to tell if the boys heard me. As always, they were fidgety and playing with their orange slices.  Before the whistle, I kneeled down beside the two top goal-scorers on our team. “The other team thinks this game is already over and they just want to go home,” I whispered.  “You’ve got to love the mud and rain for the next 25 minutes. They have no idea what’s about to hit them when you go back on this field.”

The second half was a blur of splashing mud, red cheeks and yelps of joy as the Grasshoppers FC stormed back and pulled ahead 5-4 in the final seconds. When the game ended, we all ran out onto the field. A few parents even jumped in the puddles.

Yes, I know winning isn’t everything but that crazy game ranks high in my memories of the past decade of coaching. Our boys played the best half of their young lives. They played together as a team. They encouraged each other. And they pulled off an unthinkable upset. 

I have since reflected on the role, if any, of the halftime speech in motivating their accomplishments. On many other occasions across my coaching career, a rousing halftime talk failed to produce any results. So, what about this game? And what about great motivational speeches in general?

Turns out, the keys to a productive pep talk are well documented in social science research. The field is called motivating language theory, or MLT, and it’s been studied for decades in sports, business and the military.

Boiling down a lot of academic papers and interviews with experts, here’s what you need to know to make the most of your next halftime talk:

Keep it short.

Remember your players have short attention spans and they want to get back in the game. They aren’t really in listening mode at halftime. So, whatever you want to say, keep it brief.

Give clear, concise directions.

In MLT, this is called “uncertainty reducing language.” In other words, what exactly did you see in the first half?  What precisely do you want to see next?  What are they doing well already? What can they do even better?  Keep the directions simple, with one or two big themes or ideas.

Make it personal.

This is called “empathic language.” Show your concern for each member of the team. Ask how they are feeling. What did they think of the first half? Then, call out a few of your athletes with praise or encouragement or a gentle kick in the pants. Demonstrate you care about each player.  Maybe even find a moment to whisper a word just for them before play resumes.

Make it matter.

This is called “meaning making.” Why does this next half really matter? What are the stakes? Why do you care? Why should they care? Sometimes it’s about winning. Sometimes it’s about pride. Sometimes it’s about progress. Find the meaning in this particular half and help them understand why it’s important.

Make ‘em feel it.

Pep talks — or “verbal persuasion”— have been analyzed by experts for years. Their most important finding: Making an emotional connection to your players increases “perceived self-efficacy,” which means they feel more confident, capable, and ready to succeed. Indeed, emotional pep talks work even better than informational, instructional, or strategy-focused speeches.

Over the years, when I’ve asked my sons and other players what they remember most about halftime talks, they typically can’t recall a single word. But they do remember the feeling when they went back out on the field. They knew that whatever happened, everything was going to be okay. They knew I believed in them. And as a result, maybe they believed a little more in themselves.  And to me, that’s the magic of coaching youth sports.

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