Have you ever wondered what type of speech you would give to your team if you were a head coach and your team was about to play in the Super Bowl? What type of speech would be most effective from a football psychology standpoint?
There are a few pre-game speeches that any general sports fan could likely recite if asked to do so. Many people would probably choose Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech or perhaps John “Bluto” Blutarsky asking his Delta Tau Chi members if it was “over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor”.
So what does a real coach say to a real team of men right before they play in one of the biggest games of their lives? The best way to find out is to ask them and the people that were there to listen to them.
Here are a few quotes from some of the great Super Bowl coaches and their pre-game speeches.
Don Shula (Super Bowls III, VI, VII, VIII, XVII, XIX)
Don Shula coached his teams to 6 different Super Bowls including two Super Bowl wins with the Miami Dolphins. In some ways, he was doing sports psychology work before it became vogue! When asked about his pre-game speeches that he gave before each Super Bowl, Don has said that “What you try to do is do the things that got you to where you are… you don’t want to be someone that you’re not. The thing I tried to do is summarize what it took to get there.”
“Once you reach the Super Bowl, both teams are talked about during the week,” Shula said. “But when the game is over, [the media] only go to one locker room. I told them to make sure it was our locker room.”
Don Shula’s record as a head coach also included 4 Super Bowl losses. After losing one of these Super Bowls and preparing to begin a new season, Shula decided to deliver the same message to his players from the first day of practice right through the end of the season.
“We lost the year before, so my message from the beginning of training camp was that our goal wasn’t to get to the Super Bowl,” Shula said. “Our goal was to win it.”
Brian Billick (Super Bowl XXXV)
Brian Billick led the Baltimore Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV. Peter Boulware (4-time Pro Bowler and 1997 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year) later spoke about what Billick had said to the team in the locker room before the game.
“He said to approach this like any other game,” said Peter Boulware. “We took a very businesslike approach. That’s what helped us. We didn’t get tight. We just worked the same way.”
Jon Gruden (Super Bowl XXXVII)
In 2002 Jon Gruden led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. One of his players; Ryan Nece had been injured during the 2002 season and was watching from the sidelines during the Super Bowl. He later commented on Gruden’s pre-game speeches saying that “Coach Gruden always was a great pregame [speech] guy. He was always good.”
Gruden’s words seem to have been intended to stir up more emotion within his players than the quotes that you can read above from Don Shula and Brian Billick. According to Nece, Gruden said something to the effect of “This is the time of your life… go out and take what’s ours. It’s destiny. Just go out there and take what is ours.”
Mike Ditka (Super Bowl XXXVII)
Mike Ditka delivered his pre-game speech to the Chicago Bears on the evening before Super Bowl XX. While many coaches wait until just before the game to do this, I think that this was an interesting yet wise decision.
One could argue that a player is likely to worry about the game the most on the evening before the big game (rather than during pre-game when there are routine things to do like team warm-up).
After the fact, Ditka noted to the media that “Basically I said this was not about me and not about the city of Chicago. I told them this is the one memory you will have of each other for the rest of your lives.”
Chuck Noll (Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, XIV)
Chuck Noll was the Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1969 to 1991. He had several great players in his lineup during the 1970s like Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, and John Stallworth. He likely didn’t have to say much in order to inspire these types of players or lead them to victory.
Lynn Swan later said “Chuck was a very level, low-key kind of guy, not a fire-and-brimstone type of guy. Very directed in terms of what he wanted to get done. We didn’t get those type of speeches from Chuck Noll… but we didn’t lose a Super Bowl, either.”
I would imagine that Noll’s pre-game speeches were similar to that of Don Shula.
Vince Lombardi (Super Bowls I, II, NFL Champions in pre-Super Bowl era’56, ’61, ’62, ’65)
How about the man who had the Super Bowl Championship Trophy named after him? Jerry Kramer recently handed over some audio to ESPN from Vince Lombardi’s Super Bowl II pre-game speech. You can click on the link after this sentence and listen for yourself what he had to say. Vince Lombardi’s Super Bowl II Pre-Game Speech
What Type of Pre-Game Speech is Best?
So what type of pre-game speech is the most effective for players? Something simple like what Don Shula is quoted as having said? Or perhaps something more likely to stir emotion such as “It’s destiny. Just go out there and take what is ours”?
“There’s definitely a place [for a motivational speech], but it’s all how much the players respect the coach,” Ryan Nece has said. “If guys are just out there and don’t respect the coach, they’re not going to ‘win one for the Gipper’ or anything like that.”
Lynn Swan has also said that “It’s a coach-by-coach thing”.
There is a lot of truth to these statements. One of the last things that a coach should ever do is come into the locker room before the game and do something out-of-character simply in an effort to inspire his players.
This might work after a team plays horribly during the first half of a game and their calm-demeanored coach comes into the locker room and starts throwing water jugs around. That might help to get their attention and change their mindset from whatever it had been during the first half of the game. However, for a pre-game speech, I just don’t think that this would be productive.
Most sports psychologists will tell you that if a coach like Jon Gruden gets his players too fired up or too excited with an emotionally charged speech, this can actually put his players at a disadvantage. I don’t expect athletes to perform at their peak levels if they are too pumped up with energy.
While there are no exact guidelines, and the speech must be appropriate for the team and situation, I’ve always admired the more low-key, cerebral, intelligent approach like we have seen from Don Shula.