It’s The Way You Tell Them: Inspirational Speeches From The World Of Sport



What better starting point for a look at inspirational speeches in sport than the dressing room in which their absence has been most acutely felt? David Moyes’ recent sacking from his managerial post at Manchester United came as a new low in a shocking season for the Red Devils who have failed to secure Champions League football for Old Trafford next season.

Yet the team, whilst devoid of direction and character this season, is more or less the same as the Premier League winning squad of last season. Whilst this harsh reality reflects unfavourably on David Moyes, it only enhances the already fearsome reputation Sir Alex Ferguson as an oratory powerhouse.

Ferguson was well-known for giving the hair-dryer treatment to anyone who fell short of his high standards. But were the successes he inspired really all down to shouting? If Ferguson was a talented inspirational speaker - and his unrivalled success as a manager certainly suggests this is so - then it was talent hidden from public view, contained within dressing room walls or team huddles on the pitch.

Any Given Sunday (1999) gives us a glimpse into this secret world. Coach of a once-great American Football team, Tony D'Amato (played by Al Pacino) has to motivate his injury-ridden team to rise to the challenge before them. He draws on the emotional roller-coaster of the squad’s journey, and identifies parallels between his personal life and the challenges the team must overcome if they are to win. “The biggest battle of our professional lives all comes down to today...inch by inch, play by play, till we’re finished.” Pacino’s speech is at once a determined vow to rescue his own life as well as a call to arms to make his team realise they have just one chance to put everything on the line. “What are you gonna do?” is the dramatic question at the end his speech. A resounding victory is his team’s response.

Pacino-esque rhetoric is not the preserve of coaches on the silver screen. Jim Telfer’s “This is your Everest” speech was instrumental in motivating the British and Irish Lions rugby team against South Africa in 1997. The no-nonsense Scotsman’s words became iconic thanks to the victorious performances they inspired against the mighty Springboks.

The career of former boxer, Muhammad Ali’s, seemed to many like one long proclamation of greatness and self-belief punctuated by boxing contests in which he knocked out the world’s most fearsome heavyweights. Ali called on his oratory skills like never before in 1974 during the lead-up to his epic battle with George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire. In one of many soliloquies the Ali, aka the ‘Louisville Lip’, declared, “I’ve wrestled with an alligator, tussled with a whale, I’ve handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.” What seemed like amusing patter at the time became substantiated when Ali subsequently destroyed Foreman both physically and mentally in one of the most memorably brutal boxing encounters of all time.

Not all motivational speeches are pretty, however.

Football manager, Neil Warnock, proved that ugly shouting and swearing can also bring victory. The Yorkshireman once opened a half-time team-talk with a joke, “Any injuries? How could there be after a performance like that?”, before launching into a verbal tirade infused by language that could cause a power cut. His team, Huddersfield FC went on to win promotion that season.

Former Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough, is known for giving one of the most verbally efficient motivational talks of all time. As his losing team sat in the dressing room pondering a catastrophic first-half display, Clough put his head around the door and cheerfully announced, “Sorry lads, my fault. I’ve picked the wrong team.” Forest went on to storm the opposition in the second half to achieve a famous victory.

With sport and with business, a ‘pep talk’ can help to turn defeated mentality into a positive outlook. Coaches and business leaders can, when armed with the right words and vigor, reinforce the belief that their ‘players’ are able to achieve anything.

It really is true that sometimes the only thing standing in our way of attaining our goals is our own minds.

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