By Craig Parnham, USA Field Hockey's Director of Coach Education and Learning
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At the 2018 National Coaches Forum, Craig Parnham, former head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, presented his thoughts on how to deliver an effective halftime talk and reflected on how his delivery style and messaging have evolved over the years to the present day as USA Field Hockey’s Director of Coach Education and Learning.
In my early days as a young ambitious coach, I believed it was my role to provide a full ten-minute speech that not only highlighted all the things that weren’t working and solutions to the identified failings, but also provide an impassioned, emotive and rousing monologue to motivate the team. At the time I thought this was one of my greatest strengths as a coach; I could tell a story and the players would buy in to the narrative. It was all very autocratic.
Throughout my coaching career, as I gained experience working with different teams and colleagues and was exposed to a variety of personal development opportunities, my philosophy of the game and how to coach evolved. I became more and more interested in player empowerment and a more democratic coaching style. This change in perspective impacted how I interacted with the players and staff.
How did this influence how I delivered halftime talks? Well, it completely changed how I structured the halftime break. Gone were the coach led stories and tactical observations that typically started the halftime talk, replaced by player-led reflections and discussions. While the players were having their conversations, I would compose my thoughts and identify what I thought were the key points. When working with the staff, this was the time when we would meet and identify the key points together.
The following notes are some of my thoughts about what to say and how to say it at halftime, understanding that each environment is different and that what I am saying may not be right for everyone - it’s in line with my philosophy of coaching the game.
Halftimes are a microcosm of daily team life - A key point of my coaching philosophy was to try and make myself redundant as a coach, the goal being that the team should be able to fully function whether they had coaching support or not. Essentially, the team would be empowered and ultimately become accountable for their performance. This meant developing the tools and skills during the daily training environment to allow this player-centered approach.
This also applied to halftime talks. The discussions were often led by the players. Each player was involved in the process of identifying issues and suggesting solutions, while also being responsible for ensuring that any individual, unit or team goals were being met. This structure replicated all other training sessions and meetings in which players were actively involved. This provided consistency and continuity.
Emotional Control – Halftimes can often be very emotional environments. Frustration and anger through to excitement and joy can all be present. The importance of emotional consistency from the coaching team is critical as players will often mirror the coach’s behavior, which can be detrimental or beneficial. If, as a coach you appear to be frustrated, perhaps with the umpiring, for example, this will come across to the players. Like-wise, if you can remain controlled and poised under moments of great pressure, it can ease the tension within the group.
Tips for making notes during games - Something I learned from a great coach I once worked with was how to take notes during the game without spending time writing long descriptive sentences that took my focus off the game itself. I would use a page of my notebook as an overview of the field. The bottom of the page was the defensive end and the top was the area we were attacking. Instead of writing extensive notes to be recalled in detail at halftime, I would simply draw uncomplicated pictures or write key words on the page. The pictures or words would be geographically accurate, so that when I referred to them, it reminded me of the intended point and where on the field it related to.
How to use other coaches - When working with other coaches, I like to ensure they have a valued role. During game play, I liked to position coaches around the pitch to provide a greater perspective and depth to the overall view of the game. The perspective from the bench can be completely different to that from the video tower or from the other side of the field. I also believe that the role of the head coach is to develop the whole team; not only the players, but the staff as well. For example, by providing assistant coaches with the opportunity to take ownership of particular areas such as observing how an opponent is outletting or running set plays. I have felt for many years that the best place to learn how to be a head coach is to first be an assistant coach. This is only true if, as the head coach, you provide development opportunities for your staff.
Less is more - Stick to three key points. More than three can become too much for players to process. I have no doubt that players can discuss and understand more than three points during a halftime. However, I am not convinced how much can be recalled and actualized under the pressure of the game. It’s important for players to be free to think, act and create during the game.
Ensure you are being understood - I always liked to use a coaching board to draw or write out the key points. I also used the board to check for understanding. I would have players use the board to explain their points (show me) and have them repeat in their words (tell me) the points that they and you have made.
Basic structure for halftimes:
0:00-1:00 Players gather in bench area, sit down, get a drink and mentally decompress.
1:00-3:00 Players connect within their lines (forwards, midfielders, defenders), or in vertical lines (left, center, right). This can be helpful as forwards may need to speak with defenders to discuss outletting, or midfielders need to talk with forwards about pressing. The discussions are focused and relevant. During this time, the coaches (and perhaps the captain/senior player) meet to discuss their perspective, and identify their key points. I would write these points on the coaching board. An important point for me as the head coach was to have the assistant(s) deliver their suggested point to the team, rather than always coming from me. First of all, this empowered the other staff to use their expertise; secondly, it helped develop them as individuals, and thirdly, the variety in delivery is helpful as some players connect better with different coaches or voices.
3:00-7:00 After a few minutes, we would get the team together to hear their key points. The role of the coach here is to ensure the comments are relevant and to the point. After some practice, players get very good at identifying and verbalizing their key points and often the players’ and coaches’ points are similar.
7:00-9:00 After we have discussed the key issues (2-3 points) the players can continue to chat or just relax, as each may have different preferences. This may also be a time for the coaches to speak with individuals or small units (penalty corner teams) or provide specific tactical instruction to smaller groups. When I was the head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, we didn’t spend time speaking about technical issues as we were not going to fix those during a ten-minute halftime. If our technical skills were not at a high enough level and needed addressing, this would be under the heading of concentration and focusing attention to basic skill delivery.
9:00-10:00 Line up for start of half, players return to field.
To summarize, my key points for an effective halftime talk are: have a structure, be consistent in what you say and do, use your staff effectively, involve the players in the process, check for understanding and finally, less can often be more.
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