• Vie. Jul 12th, 2024

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‘Inch-by-inch’? Or an on-field dressing down? — The most famous (and infamous) sporting speeches

‘Inch-by-inch’? Or an on-field dressing down? — The most famous (and infamous) sporting speeches


Crossovers between sports are increasingly common — whether it’s stars from one turning up to watch another or the growing number of athletes investing in sports other than their own.

And last week, Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag took inspiration from the other type of football. Well, the dramatised version of it at least. Before his side’s 2-1 FA Cup final win against Manchester City, a video was playing of the speech by Al Pacino’s character Tony D’Amato in the 1999 sports film Any Given Sunday.

That “inch-by-inch” motivational speech is one of Hollywood’s best examples of sporting team talks. But across the sports that The Athletic covers, there are plenty of cases of the power of the pep talk. Here, our experts run through the most famous and infamous speeches in their sports.


Soccer

Take the now infamous address that Sven-Goran Eriksson gave to his England players at halftime of their 2002 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. They needed a pep-up after conceding just before the break, but the understated Swede apparently did not deliver. Or, as a then-unnamed player said at the time: “We needed Winston Churchill but we got (famously ineffectual and uncharismatic politician) Iain Duncan Smith.” It later turned out that the mystery player was now England manager Gareth Southgate.

Some are more obvious to the outside observer. In 2008, Hull City manager Phil Brown kept his players on the pitch at halftime when 4-0 down to Manchester City, sat them on the turf like a misbehaving under-12s team and gave them a dressing down in front of the watching world.


Phil Brown giving his team talk on the pitch during halftime. (Andrew Yates / AFP via Getty Images)

Sometimes, managers outsource their motivational addresses. In 2014, Jose Mourinho once asked the Chelsea team masseur to deliver a halftime team talk. Senior players are frequently asked to step in. During Arsenal’s Invincible season of 2003-04, defender Martin Keown addressed his teammates at halftime of a tense match against Liverpool, which they went on to win.

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Brevity is often the key, but Sir Alex Ferguson took that to an extreme before facing some notoriously flakey and mentally fragile opponents, simply telling his Manchester United players: “Lads, it’s Tottenham”. At halftime of the 2017 Champions League final with Real Madrid drawing 1-1 with Juventus, Zinedine Zidane offered a masterclass in concise instructions, calmly telling each player what they needed to do to win. Madrid prevailed, 4-1.

On Saturday night, ahead of the Champions League final, Jose Mourinho recalled his speech before his two winning appearances at the showpiece game.

He said: “I told (the players) both times … make sure at the end of the match that their families are crying, not ours. Thinking about them in this moment gives them something extra.”

But arguably the most famous, successful motivational speech came before extra-time of the 1966 World Cup final. West Germany had equalised to make it 2-2 late on, and England’s players were demoralised.

Alf Ramsey simply told them: “You’ve won it once. Now go out there and win it again.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Phil Brown’s Hull City team talk on the pitch

— Nick Miller


NBA

Kobe Bryant didn’t necessarily want to play against Pau Gasol. That man was like his brother. They would win championships together with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Gasol was the second-best player on a title team that Bryant needed; he was good enough to get him those rings, but not so good as to threaten his hierarchy in the throes of NBA history.

But the late, great Kobe Bryant would always be Kobe Bryant. So, in 2008, when Team USA met Gasol and Spain with the gold medal on the line, Gasol ceased being a brother. He became the man standing between Bryant, his team and another notch on the historical resume — and Bryant responded in kind.

“Kobe said, ‘I’m going to set the tone to start the game’,” LeBron James said. “He said, ‘I’m running through Pau Gasol’s f—ing chest’.”

“Kobe said, ‘I know what they’re going to run,’” Dwyane Wade said. “‘Pau’s going to be the last guy to screen. I’m running through him.’ We were like, ‘What?’”


Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant during the gold medal match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP via Getty Images)

True to his word, on the first play of the gold medal game, Bryant ran right through Gasol and sent him flying. An eerie silence fell over the gym. Gasol laid on his back for a moment, stunned. After all, he and Bryant had broken bread together the night before.

Bryant’s play inspired his teammates and it set the stage for Team USA winning the gold medal. But it’s another example of how much of a leader he had become — and not just with his voice but his actions. By the end of that Olympic run, it was obvious who the alpha on a roster full of alphas was. A simple foul at the beginning of a game spoke volumes.

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Like most sports and competitions, the beauty of NBA basketball is carried in part by the speeches that come before, during or after the competition. They lay the groundwork for a lot of what happens on the court. A word, a gesture, a comparison; anything to gain an edge.

Sometimes, the effect of a great speech is delayed. Such was the case of Monty Williams in his season coaching the Phoenix Suns: “I gotta tell you guys, this is therapeutic for me to be around a group like this. I gotta tell you guys: man, I love you. I truly do.”

Much like a hockey assist, sometimes it’s the season that leads up to the season that leads to the breakthrough. Williams, in his first season coaching the Suns, can attest.

Sure, they went 8-0 in the final regular season games played in the 2020 COVID bubble. Sure, at that point, neither Williams nor the Suns had any idea if they would make the playoffs, and as history showed, they didn’t make it that year. But Williams wasn’t worried. At that point, this was about team building. And on that day, in Florida’s sweltering heat, Williams galvanized a basketball team.

“I don’t care what happens tonight,” Williams said. “I know what I got in this room. Us making the playoffs? That’s out of our control, whether we get better now or we get better in the offseason. Our next step is being the team that controls our own destiny. It has been a pleasure to watch you guys work and battle and gain the respect of your peers. We’re not the Phoenix Suns of old.”

The Suns went on to win 51 games in the next season. They qualified for the playoffs for the first time in a decade. They got out of the first round by beating the Los Angeles Lakers. They made it to the NBA Finals and came within two games of winning an NBA title.

A short-lived championship window ultimately closed without the Suns winning a title. But that night in the bubble in 2020 — not knowing whether or not they would play another game — saw the Phoenix Suns become relevant again within the walls of the NBA. That relevance remains to this day.

But sometimes, the payoff is instantaneous — such as when Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry challenged his teammates before a 2023 first-round Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings.


Stephen Curry playing against the Kings in 2023. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

“We just got embarrassed in Game 6,” Curry told his teammates. “We never showed up. So, I don’t care if you don’t play a minute, if you’re getting on this bus, do everything you can to help your team win.”

And then Curry did everything he could: going out and dropping 50 on the Kings and leading the Warriors to the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers.

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Unlike many of those speeches, this one was planned … kind of. When the Kings defeated the Warriors in Game 6, forward Draymond Green sent a 3 a.m. text to Warriors teammate Curry saying he couldn’t sleep. Curry responded in kind but told Green to allow him to address the team before Game 7.

He did, and the Warriors went out and played one of their best games of the series.

— Tony Jones


College football

In college football, the vast majority of speeches that make it out of the locker room for public consumption lean positive, because access to major college football programs is much more restrictive than in the pros. The motivational talks that do surface can often give fans goosebumps.

Georgia fans could feel the passion pulsating from Kirby Smart’s voice in 2021 when audio of his halftime address during the Bulldogs’ annual rivalry game against Florida leaked. He urged his team to “f—ing break” the Gators. Georgia was already up 24-0, but Smart told the Dawgs to treat it as if it were “zero to f—ing zero — and you make them never want to play again.”

The Bulldogs cruised to a 34-7 win and eventually won the national championship.

Most of the sport’s memorable speeches are delivered with similar intensity (if not always similar profanity): Nick Saban telling Alabama players to “make his ass quit!” before their 2008 meeting with LSU; ex-Florida quarterback Tim Tebow declaring that the Gators were playing the next “30 minutes for the rest of our lives” at halftime of the 2009 national championship; and former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp punching a whiteboard while screaming at the Longhorns’ defenders to “DO YOUR JOB!”

Football’s physicality prompts coaches and players to appeal to emotions, goading them to dig deep to emerge victorious.


Will Muschamp, doing his job. (Brian Bahr / Getty Images)

Pre-game or halftime motivational speeches are as old as the sport itself.

Legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne is known for his “Win one for the Gipper” speech in 1928, where Rockne told the tale of former star halfback George Gipp’s tragic death and spurred the Irish to victory over Army. A plaque with the speech’s text still hangs in Notre Dame’s locker room.

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Bo Schembechler’s “The Team” speech, delivered to Michigan ahead of the 1983 season, lives in Wolverine lore: “No man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. The team, the team, the team.”

Modern-day speeches are often recorded by a school’s internal media crew or by TV networks, making them easily go viral. Dan Lanning’s pre-game speech before playing Deion Sanders-led Colorado in 2023 attained that status, when he quipped, “They’re fighting for clicks; we’re fighting for wins.”

Although polished speeches can be effective, short (and profane) is sometimes best.

— Sam Khan Jr.


College basketball

The text came in around midnight: “Be at Coach K’s house in 30 minutes”.

That type of message could only mean one thing — and nothing good. It was January 2017, hours after Jayson Tatum and his Duke teammates lost at home to rival NC State — the Blue Devils’ third loss in four games, and more embarrassingly, the program’s first home defeat to the Wolfpack since 1995. But the really bad part about that text?

But as Krzyzewski made abundantly clear once his team arrived, even without him on the bench, he was not pleased with their efforts.“One by one, he cusses everybody out,” Tatum recalled during a 2023 podcast. “He tells every player, basically, why they’re not s—.”

Months before, Tatum became the third pick in the NBA Draft. Coach K had specific words for his latest star freshman: “You’re so full of yourself. All you care about is getting drafted, you don’t care about this team!”


Duke’s Coach K (right) speaking to Jayson Tatum. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

As the team left Krzyzewski’s house later that night, another text: “Be at the locker room at 5:30 in the morning”.

When players arrived, they found trash bags in front of each of their lockers. A classic Krzyzewski tactic, and one he’d used multiple times in his four decades of coaching: clean out your lockers, and dump all your Duke gear inside them, because the way you’ve been playing, you don’t deserve to wear it or be in this locker room.

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Practice that day was in plain white T-shirts and unbranded navy shorts. Message sent.

What came next? An expected turnaround. Duke won its next seven games, then the ACC tournament title, en route to becoming a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

— Brendan Marks


NFL

Thanks in large part to NFL Films (take it away, Vince Lombardi) and films about NFL-like entities (Al Pacino doing Al Pacino things), the motivational speech is as much a part of professional gridiron football as it is any sport.

The method of motivation can run the gamut. Sometimes you’re just looking for hype, and when it came to hype, Hall of Fame Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis did it better than anyone. He also did it for quite a while: his two Super Bowl rings came 12 years apart.


Hall of Fame Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. (Jeff Haynes / AFP via Getty Images)

Sometimes motivation can come from a simple statement of fact; anyone who’s been the intended audience of a speech by the legendary coach Bill Belichick knows that. There was the leadup to Super Bowl XXXIX, when he told his New England Patriots team that the city of Philadelphia had already planned a parade route for their championship game opponent, the Eagles. (The Patriots won that Super Bowl 24-21.)

There’s little doubt about the least motivational address a team has ever been subjected to. The NFL has long used American patriotism as part of its brand, including commemorations of the 9/11 attacks. Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott took a different tack during a 2019 address to his team when, according to Go Long, he “cited the hijackers as a group of people who were all able to get on the same page to orchestrate attacks to perfection.”

— Gary Gramling


MLB

“This ain’t a football game,” the Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver once said. “We do this every day.”

Indeed, the marathon nature of baseball’s gruelling 162-game season doesn’t lend itself to too much speechifying. Rah-rah motivational addresses aren’t part of the culture. But it happens — and those instances can be memorable.

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The 2014 Kansas City Royals were mired in midseason malaise when the newly acquired veteran Raul Ibanez found the right words for a promising young club that had yet to find its footing. “So I told them that looking in from the outside, every team hated to play them,” Ibanez said years ago. “Everyone saw the talent they had. This was their opportunity. They were on the cusp of greatness. I just thought they needed a belief.”


Raul Ibanez at batting practice with the Mariners in 2004. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

It resonated. That year the Royals won the pennant — though in the World Series, they encountered a San Francisco Giants team that also used words to fuel a turnaround.

They came from Hunter Pence, who demanded more time from his teammates during an impassioned pre-game speech during their playoff run. “Look into each other’s eyes,” Pence said. “Now! Look into each other’s eyes, I want one more day with you. It’s the most fun, the best team I have ever been on — and no matter what happens, we must not give in. We owe it to each other. Play for each other. I need one more day with you guys.”

Pence had more than one more day: The Giants went on to beat the Royals to win the World Series.

Ichiro Suzuki was an American League All-Star from 2001 to 2010, and in the clubhouse before every game, he was customarily given the last word by the manager. He offered some version of the same phrase — “Let’s go kick their f—ing fat asses!” — although witnesses say that the F-bombs and decibel level only intensified with the year. Speaking of F-bombs, David Ortiz once used one to great effect, this time while addressing the Fenway Park crowd as Boston was still reeling from the Boston Marathon bombing. “This is our f—*ing city,” Big Papi told the crowd, “and nobody is going to dictate our freedom”.

Then there are the speeches that come with a championship on the line.

Shohei Ohtani sensed that kind of moment in the Japanese clubhouse just before the 2023 World Baseball Classic final against the U.S. “Let’s stop admiring them. … If you admire them, you can’t surpass them,” he told his Japanese teammates. We came here to surpass them, to reach the top. For one day, let’s throw away our admiration for them and just think about winning.”

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That admiration was nowhere to be found when Ohtani struck out his Angels teammate, Mike Trout, to secure the final out and the title. Ortiz sensed it during the 2013 World Series when he huddled with his teammates in the dugout for an in-game pep talk. As did Chris Sale five years later, though he looked more like a football coach while urging his Red Sox teammates to snap out of an offensive funk on the way to the 2018 World Series title.

Arguably the best baseball speech ever came from an unlikely source, in an unenviable spot, with his team wavering while on the brink of snapping a 108-year-old championship drought. By looking solely at his on-field results and the eight-year, $184 million (£144.4m) contract he signed with the Chicago Cubs, it would be hard to deny that Jason Heyward underperformed during his time with the team. But his words to his teammates during the 17-minute rain delay in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series is what firmly secured his legend on the North Side of Chicago.


Jason Heyward inspired the Cubs to get over the line in 2016. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

Heyward wasn’t the most vocal of players. He was never one to get overly emotional or ride the waves that come throughout a long season. He led by example. He earned the respect and trust of all those around him by his impeccable work ethic and professional attitude.

The 2016 Cubs had won 103 games, but that playoff run featured multiple tests of their mettle — none bigger than what they faced in the World Series. The Cubs faced a 3-1 series deficit before forcing a Game 7, which they led by as many as four runs and blew a three-run lead in the eighth. Heyward sensed the tension and disappointment. It was during that short rain delay that he etched himself in Cubs lore, taking that moment to do what he had rarely done and address the group.

“I didn’t know if it was going to come or not,” the soft-spoken Heyward said as champagne glistened in his bushy beard after the game. “But I just felt like we needed to be reminded how good we are.”

That well-timed reminder brought the Cubs their first World Series championship since 1908.

“For Jason to speak up, he had to be emotional,” said David Ross, Heyward’s teammate, and later his manager with the Cubs. “He wasn’t yelling and screaming, he was just talking. It was a very deliberate message that he was sending and it was very nice to hear that come out of him.

“When a guy like Jason Heyward speaks, you listen because it’s not all the time that he speaks up.”

— Sahadev Sharma and Marc Carig

(Top photos: Getty Images)