ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JOE KLEINSASSER
The locker room is the inner sanctum for athletic teams. It’s hardly a hallowed place, but it is private. Considering how much time athletes spend there, it’s almost a home away from home.
The locker room is where coaches give last-minute pep talks. At halftime, coaches may talk strategy, or give a verbal scolding to their team if they are unhappy with the team’s effort. Depending on the coach, the ratings for the talks may range from “G” to “R.”
Sometimes the locker room is the site of practical jokes. Sometimes it’s loud and boisterous. Other times, you could hear a pin drop. The atmosphere in the locker room fluctuates wildly depending on whether you are on the winning or losing side of the ledger.
This may be the unanswerable question: Does a fire and brimstone locker-room speech affect the outcome of a game and produce positive results? Or, does that kind of speech only work at the right time and place?
In my very limited one year of basketball coaching experience at the high school junior varsity level, I don’t remember giving any dramatic speeches. However, I do remember being completely frustrated and disgusted by how poorly we were playing against an inferior opponent. Simply put, I was hacked off.
I tried something different. I took my time going to the locker room, and after walking inside, I said nothing. It was unusually quiet. Players started to glance up, wondering if or when I would talk.
When I finally spoke, I didn’t raise my voice, rant or rave, but I did say something in a disgusted tone, “That was pathetic. They (the other team) have no business staying close to you. If you don’t play any harder than you played in the first half, I’ll find someone else who will. If I have to bring varsity players back into the game to win this game, I will.”
(You have to understand that I had access to some varsity players for two quarters every junior varsity game. I’m not sure the varsity coach would have let me use any varsity players in the second half, but it sounded good to me at the time.)
To their credit, the players went out and played much harder in the second half. The results didn’t improve much until the fourth quarter when we opened up a big lead, but at least the effort was there.
Sometimes, the most effective thing a coach can do is throw a change-up. In his 1974 autobiography, Bear Bryant recalled Alabama’s football game against Georgia Tech in 1960. Alabama was being dominated and trailed 15-0 at halftime. Bryant saw a group of players braced to hear the worst, so he threw them a curve.
“I knew they expected me to blow up, rant and rave and chew some tails,” Bryant wrote. “But if I did, I was afraid we’d lose by 50. So I went the other way. The first thing I said was, ‘Where are the Cokes?’
“I … told them if I had done as good a job as they had, we wouldn’t be in the fix we were in. I said it was all right, anyway, because we were still going to win. That I had screwed up a few times, but if they’d help me get things straightened out we would win the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t believe it,” Bryant concluded, “but they did.”
The case could be made that Alabama came back and won the game, 16-15, because Bryant got them to relax.
Of course, not every speech has the desired effect. Colorado football coach Gary Barnett recalled playing Washington in 2000, his second season in Boulder, in the much-ballyhooed return of his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel.
“A couple of times, I’ve broken a glass during a speech to capture all the senses and get everybody’s attention,” Barnett said. “We’re playing Washington, and I threw the glass against the wall. It dented the wall, and sort of fell to the ground.”
Barnett looked at his players and said, “Well, that’s not a good sign, is it?”
Final score: Washington 17, Colorado 14.