Football matches: half time psychology

Effective communication between the coach and players is essential at half time

The half-time period in a match is the only direct opportunity the coach has to speak to all the players once the match has started, and to influence the second half performance and result. Effective communication between the coach and players is therefore essential, as Jim Petruzzi explains…

What a coach says to the players during half-time will depend on both the score, and the perspective of the match. If a team is winning 2-0 at half-time, it will almost certainly go into the changing rooms with a more positive attitude than the opposition. However, suppose the opposition score just before the break; although still losing at half-time, they may well feel very positive, believing that they now have the momentum. The type of game also affects psychological perspectives; knockout games are different to league games and top of the league teams tend to have different expectations to those at the bottom! Whatever the perspective however, the half-time period is crucial because players will have their first opportunity to reflect consciously on the game for an extended period, and the role of the coach is critical.

Maximising second half performance is the goal of any coach and this will entail discussions about tactics, state of the pitch, player formations etc. However, just as important as what is said is how effectively it is communicated. Communication is a 2-way process and while most coaches are good at talking to players and giving out instructions, some are less accomplished at listening! This is unfortunate as coaches can often get a good feel for what’s going on by asking players questions and instigating a 2-way discussion.

How a coach communicates with the players is partly reflected in his or her leadership style; ideally this style should be adapted to the circumstances of the dressing room. For example, a hostile attitude among the players may require a more autocratic style, whereas a friendly and co-operative attitude may favour a more democratic style. The characteristics of these two styles are summarised below:

Autocratic Style (eg ex-Portugal & Chelsea manager Phil Scolari)

•    The coach decides what needs to be done;
•    The players do not participate in the decision-making process;
•    The coach clearly defines how what needs to be done should be done.

Democratic Style – (eg ex-England manager Sven Goran Errikson)

•    The coach sets out what the players need to achieve;
•    He then invites the players to out forward ideas or make suggestions on how to go about it;
•    The coach decides the best course of action based on the suggestions the players have made.

Half-time psychology and substitutions

Whether and who the manager decides to substitute at half-time can make an enormous impact on the second half psychology. If a team is ahead at half-time, substituting an attacking player for a defender may suggest that the manager lacks confidence in holding the lead and has decided to ‘batten down the hatches’! Substituting the team captain can have a devastating impact on a team, suggesting perhaps that the manager in panicking. Putting on a player who’s performed particularly well against the opposition in previous encounters may on the other hand unsettle the opponents! Deciding the best course of action is often a balancing act; if a team is playing well but losing at half-time, should the manager keep the faith and trust that things will come good, or should he or she make a bold attacking substitution, but risk disrupting the flow and cohesion of the first half? In order to make these kind of decisions, it’s important that the manager and players are in the right frame of mind and this is where psychological techniques borrowed from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) can come in handy.

Using NLP at half-time

NLP is about a series of psychological techniques, which can help us gain control over parts of the brain that we normally think of as ‘automatically’ regulating the way we think, behave and perform. And when applied to sport, NLP can help athletes to maximise performance. One of these techniques is positive instruction; instead of a coach telling a player not to miss the target when shooting and create negative thoughts in his or her mind, it’s far more positive to tell the player to hit the target. In relation to half-time, there are 3 very useful techniques that can favourably affect the state of mind of players and coach and maximise second half performance:

•    Dissociation – this technique recreates a past experience but from the perspective of somebody who was not emotionally involved (eg an onlooker). For example, if the team has conceded a scrappy goal, the coach would try and recreate that experience in the mind, but imagine that he or she is a passive onlooker watching the event. This enables a coach to analyse the situation coolly and logically without emotion, and thus come up with a solution that can be discussed calmly and rationally at half-time;
•    Reframing – this is about changing the frame of reference in order to interpret a situation in a more positive light. A good example of this was in football’s 2005 European Champions League final. Liverpool were 3-0 down to AC Milan at half-time; during the team-talk, Rafa Benitiz, the Liverpool manager suggested that his players ‘go out and score the first goal and see what happens from there’. This was a far more positive frame of reference than asking them to go out and score 3 goals in order to draw level;
•    Anchoring – is a useful practical technique to help create a desired state of mind by applying a simple physical stimulus. This involves recalling a powerful memory where you experienced the desired state of mind and then simultaneously creating an ‘anchoring stimulus’ – eg pressing together your thumb and index finger. With enough repetition and practice, merely pressing together your thumb and index finger can be sufficient to reproduce the desired state of mind, whether it be confidence, relaxation etc.

Applying a combination of these techniques at half-time can significantly enhance the performance of both players and coaches, and increase the second half performance of the team.

Original article by Jim Petruzzi
Summary by Andrew Hamilton BSc Hons MRSC ACSM

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