Soccer Coaching Blog | Professional Soccer Coaching Advice

The best coaches know what to say at half-time

Dave Clarke

Two managers under pressure met in the semi-finals of this season’s Carling Cup. Birmingham city managed by Alex McLeish and West Ham United managed by Avram Grant showed how managers can have a profound effect on the performance of a team.

With Birmingham 3-1 ahead on aggregate at half time in the second of the two leg semi-final it was likely that Birmingham were out. McLeish had to motivate his team if he wanted to have any chance of winning the game. This is what he said to the team: "We are out… but it’s not official yet. It’s up to you if you want to come in at the end of 90 minutes and say you have regrets or you didn’t give it your all."

His talk resulted in Birmingham coming back from 3-1 to win the game in injury time 4-3. An amazing turnaround.

On the other hand Grant was quiet in the West Ham dressing room. He later confessed: "I didn’t know what to say to them at half-time."

While McLeish used a motivational approach to revive a team that looked beaten, Grant seemed to shrink from the challenge because he couldn’t cope with the pressure of winning.

This illustrates how the half time team talk is important – however you choose to do it – to inspire your team to victory.

Here are my half-time tips:

  • As soon as the first half is over, move to your players. Don’t make them move for you. Unless there is an obvious alternative, such as some shade or cover in sunny or adverse weather.

  • Be clear from obvious distractions such as the opposition.

  • Ask the players to sit down. This way communication is easier, the players are still and they are in the best position for recovery and hydration.

  • A key tip is to get players to drink moderate amounts of water at a continual rate. This means having as many water bottles available as possible. Successful recovery and hydration allows the team to absorb feedback quicker.

For the most constructive feedback time:

  • Get or wait until you know that you have everyone’s attention.

  • Provide two or three major points.

  • Be clear, positive and constructive.

  • Colourful language doesn’t necessarily motivate players.

Plan for the second half

  • Pinpoint the areas for improvement.

  • Highlight opposition weaknesses and how to take advantage of them.

  • Re-emphasise the positives and the skills from the first half and the need to stick to the game plan, particularly for the first 10 minutes of second half.

  • Before you leave the field, have a quick final word with the captain before the final huddle is formed.

Half-time summary

  • Don’t talk until everyone is listening.

  • Don’t concentrate on negatives.

  • Don’t spring any surprises.

  • Don’t allow too much player input all at once.

Getting things wrong as a coach is part of your learning curve

dave clarkeFaced with entertaining the team that has scored the most goals in our league last week I decided to play three defenders for the first time this season, bring my wingers into midfield with a lone striker up front.

It meant my team was sitting deep allowing the opposition to come on to us. It was a tactic we used to great effect last season hitting teams on the break after they lost the ball to us. It relies on us keeping a clean sheet up to half time then adjusting the team accordingly to try and get a goal. We have been much more attack minded this season and are the second highest goal scorers in the league so I was expecting a lot of shots on goal.

Unfortunately the plan was never tested properly because we let in two early goals and then struggled to change our tactics to get ourselves back into the game. Such was the intensity of the match I was finding it hard to get my views across to the players – not helped by the squeeling parents around me.

We found it hard to take the initiative back and all our hard work in training where we practice compact defending had gone to waste.

In the same week Steve Bruce the manager of English Premier League team Sunderland also decided to play three centre-backs to deal with Stoke City’s threat from set pieces, but the plan did not work for him either as the home side scored all three of their goals this way. The final two Stoke goals were similar – coming from excellent Jermaine Pennant free-kicks, and converted by Robert Huth, who is ironically enough a centre-back.

It is disappointing when your tactics don’t work, but it doesn’t mean you were wrong to try it. As a coach using tactics in matches should be part of your game. It’s not just the players that need to experiment – getting things wrong is part of your learning curve as a manager.

Watch these highlights of Sunderland playing Birmingham in which both teams use three centre-backs and both get caught out.

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