Wasted Words

As published in Inside Sport, October 2009

I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.

As Notre Dame All-American George Gipp lay on his death bed, this purported conversation with legendary coach Knute Rockne is enshrined in sporting and cinematic folklore.  Similarly, Al ‘inch by inch’ Pacino (Any Given Sunday) and Kurt ‘this is your time’ Russell (as Herb Brooks in The Miracle) fashioned memorable monologue that true to Hollywood form, inspired fairytale victories.

Movies aside, there have been many tremendous spine tingling pearlers imparted with a gravitas transcending the realms of mere sport.  In the 1975 VFL Grand Final, the inimitable John Kennedy Snr had no Gipper to call upon but his delivery was sublime.  “Don’t think, don’t hope, just DO something…JUST DO!” boomed the gaberdine coated one to his charges.  Despite losing a little in translation, and that the Hawks failed to bridge the gap on the triumphant Kangaroos, decades later these immortal words are still used in marketing campaigns.

Whether bound in fact or fallacy, tales of athletes rising above the odds and performing beyond their standard capabilities, based on the power of the spoken word, certainly adds an element of romance and mysticism.  For outsiders, rare glimpses into clubs’ inner sanctums and the exchanges shared therein are compelling.  In truth, verbally inspired miracles are rare.  In fact, rhetoric of the John Kennedy brand might have your modern footballers choking back the sniggers.

As overt, crude physicality makes way for science and strategy in most contact codes, the value of bombastic ear splitting sprays has diminished.  The odd timely rocket is still administered, but if the televised addresses we’re sporadically privy to are indicative, coach-player dialogue is frequently a subdued, bordering on underwhelming affair.  Much to fans’ disappointment, coaches rarely pull a ‘Gipper’ from their sleeve – even entering a ‘must-win’ game or staring defeat in the face.  Armed with more stats than the census bureau, today’s coaches have no time to indulge in directionless venting.

Having studied pre game speeches over the course of Super Bowl history, eminent American sport psychologist Dr John F Murray believes it’s still an inexact science.   Some successful coaches embraced the significance of the challenge whilst others settled nerves by ensuring a regular routine.  Proving the detractors wrong is also a popular lever.  Whatever the message and delivery style, its effectiveness is underpinned by the team’s respect for the coach.

Fronting streetwise and cynical athletes, the psychology game is best left to the professionals.  The only Rock that moves players now is what athletes absorb via their iPods.  In fact, Leigh Matthews abandoned pre-match speeches years ago.  What’s left to say when the game plan’s already been covered ad nauseum?  Prior to battle, players can only retain roughly 10% of content anyway.  Most crucially, athletes differ in their optimal levels of emotional arousal.  Studies have shown that an induced adrenaline rush is temporary, with negative consequences for those prone to over anxiety.

Generally, elite athletes boast smarts at least on a par with the general populace.  Whilst difficult to correlate your average behemoth with an abundance of grey matter, consider the intricate strategies that must be learnt and executed under intense physical duress.  Communication has necessarily progressed beyond the hot gospeller barking instructions.  Alternately, the convoluted fable is a risky proposition (memo to a former football coach of mine, the nuances of the stock market are lost on 14 year olds!).

Unlocking the key to motivation these days is a team effort…Kokoda Trail-like challenges, armies of mentors and assistants, benchmarking, player ownership of strategy and leadership groups being all the rage.   If players still can’t find the required intensity and belief intrinsically through sheer hard work, pride, character, mateship…and monetary incentives, it’s unlikely quoting Martin Luther King or channelling the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket will do the trick.

Even the paint peeling post match tirades of the past have become less frequent, or at least somewhat diluted.  In extreme cases, coaches that lose control risk ‘losing’ the playing group, and ultimately their jobs.  After 29 years atIndiana, even Bob Knight, the most successful (and tempestuous) coach in US College basketball history, was purged after one blow-up too many.

Beyond boosting ticket sales and newspaper circulation, the true effectiveness of pre match banter played out in the media is also questionable.  Like the most powerful sermons from the mount, how many jibes have disappeared into the ether when the team loses, yet in victory are falsely lauded as the silver bullet?  We love them for it, but surely champion showmen of Muhammad Ali’s ilk would have walked the walk anyway, minus the talk.  In the split second afforded by the bowler, did Glenn McGrath’s pre-series prophecies weigh that heavily in batsmen’s minds, or was he just too good?  Tight-lipped coaches might disagree, but do players really enter the fray and execute their skills any better or worse because of something said in the press conference?

The immediacy of on-field trash talk is of course another matter.  Darren Berry and Shane Warne’s “tick – tock” conspiracy used to ignite Michael Slater’s delicate fuse seemed to work a treat, as did whatever Materazzi said to Zidane in the 2006 World Cup Final.  Whilst cricket’s innumerable on-field sledges and sledgers have inspired international incidents and books dedicated to the craft, not so well documented is their actual influence on the game – beyond serving as amusing anecdotes, or in more ill-advised instances, blowing up in the practitioner’s face.

This is not to say there’s no room for emotion or ‘gamesmanship’.  Bluff and bluster will always be an undeniable part of sport and one that its driven combatants struggle to resist.   So too, a coach’s tune benefits from a rousing, punchy chorus or a catchy hook.  Following former Brisbane coach Leigh Matthews’ Predator  inspired ‘if it bleeds, we can kill it’ line directed at Essendon in 2001, Hawthorn supremo Alistair Clarkson told his players before the 2008 Grand Final to ‘kill the shark’ (the equally foreboding Geelong outfit), by stopping it’s forward movement.  Both teams achieved giant killing feats, supposedly on the back of these stirring, symbolic analogies.

Finding the words that engender the optimal level of composure, concentration, confidence and commitment is the key to winning in the 21st Century.  If there’s one positive to be gleaned by our enlightened, sensitive New Age, it’s that those who veer towards abuse, disrespect and humiliation are finding they’re wasting their breath.

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