Football coaching – half time psychology

Football coaching – half time psychology

with Jimmy Petruzzi

Make sure your football coaching mentally prepares you for the second half!

One of the things that should be taught in any football coaching is that the half-time period in a match is not just about refuelling and physical therapy. It’s also an absolutely crucial time for the coach and team to gather their thoughts and prepare mentally for the challenges of the second half. And, according to Jim Petruzzi, the importance of effective communication is hard to overestimate


Looking back to half-time in the 2005 European Champions League final, with Liverpool 3-0 down to AC Milan, according to his Liverpool colleagues, captain Steven Gerrard was in a state of disbelief and was ready to concede defeat. Afterwards, all he could remember of half-time was the manager getting his pen out, writing down the changes he wanted on the board and telling the team to try and get an early goal, as that could make the opposition nervous. But Gerrard said that, to be honest, he just couldn’t concentrate. There were all sorts of things going through his head. He just sat there with his head in his hands. He really thought it was over.

The half-time period in a game tends to create an emotional experience amongst the players and the coach. A full review might take place a day or two after the game, which can be generally analysed free of the emotional reactions associated with the game itself. However, at half-time the outcome of the game is yet to be decided. The interval is only around 15 minutes in duration, and is the only direct opportunity the coach will have to speak to all the players and to influence the second-half performance and result.

The half-time team talk will, of course, depend on the score and the coach’s perspective of the match. It is also important to note other variable factors, such as the context of the game – eg is it a cup match in which the loser gets knocked out? Is it a league game and what are the league positions of the teams contesting the game? Is one team an overwhelming favourite to win the game? Is the team winning but not performing well?

Football, in particular, is a game with many psychological demands, such as confidence, motivation and concentration, and these demands can be influenced by the situation in the game at half-time. For example, if a team is winning 3-0 and performing very well, it will go into the half-time break with a different psychological perspective from that of the team that is losing. However, if the same team is winning 2-0, and just before the half-time break the losing team score and make it 2-1, the psychological perspective of both teams would be different; the losing team would gain renewed optimism by scoring the late goal, and the team conceding the goal may become frustrated! Half-time is also psychologically important because it’s the first time in the game that the players have an opportunity to reflect consciously for a sustained period on the game.

The coach’s role at half-time

The main goal of the coach during the half-time interval is to influence positively the second-half performance as much as possible. The coach may give the players feedback on how they are performing individually or collectively as a team, and discuss technical, tactical and physical aspects of the game, including formations, styles of play, changing tempos and pitch conditions.


A key element of a successful half-time talk is communication. This is a two-way process that consists of giving and receiving information. Coaches can learn a lot about the development of the game at half-time by listening and asking the members of the team questions to prompt a two-way discussion. However, while coaches are typically good at talking, being in charge and giving instructions, they are often poor listeners.

It is also important to note that communication is not only verbal. As early as the late 1960s, research in communication had indicated that non-verbal behaviour (ie body language) plays an important role in communication(1-3). Researchers have determined that just 7% of what we communicate is the result of the words that we use or the content of our communication; 38% of our communication to others is a result of our verbal behaviour, which includes tone of voice, timbre, tempo and volume; and 55% of our communication to others is a result of our non-verbal communication, our body posture, breathing, skin colour and our movement.

Leadership styles

The leadership style also has a major influence on the effectiveness of a half-time team talk. There are several types of leadership styles, including ‘authoritarian’, ‘democratic’ and ‘laissez-faire’ (see box, page 6). It is possible for coaches to use different methods in different situations, and it’s important to note that personality types, cultural behaviour and other factors also contribute to coaching styles.

Some coaches display a combination of the different leadership traits, whereas others favour one style in particular. A good coach will adapt his or her leadership style to expectations, knowledge, experience and group members. For example, if a group is hostile, the leader may prefer to adopt an autocratic style. If the group is friendly the leader may choose a more democratic, person-centred style. Problems can arise if strategies for preparation used by the leader do not match the group expectations of the team.

Psychology of half-time substitutions

As with other factors in a match, like scoring a goal or a poor refereeing decision, the psychology of a second-half substitution can change the tactical aspect of the game and give an insight to what the manager’s state of mind may be. For example, if a team is winning 2-0 at half-time and the manager of the winning team substitutes an attacking player with a defensive player, this could be perceived as being a negative tactic, and possibly that the manager doesn’t have confidence in the team to carry on playing the same style; or as a statement by the manager saying ‘we are going to hang on to our 2-0 lead, rather than seize the initiative and extend the scoreline’.

Earlier this year, England rugby union coach Andy Robinson came in for criticism for replacing captain Martin Corry during their 18-12 Six Nations defeat to Scotland. Brian Moore (ex-England player, now working as a sports commentator) commented: ‘I don’t think you should ever take your captain off, unless there is an injury; it’s a huge psychological blow once your captain is substituted.’

The criteria in deciding who to take off depends on the context of the match, and there are many tactical factors that could influence whether a player should be substituted, and who to bring on at half-time. However, substituting your captain when he or she may not be playing well can have a massive impact on the team’s mental state. It may, for example, have a negative effect, producing the belief in the team that the coach is panicking. It can also be a good idea to bring on a substitute who regularly performs well against the opposition you are playing – this may induce panic in the opposing team.

Sometimes a team’s performance isn’t always reflected in the scoreline. If the team is playing well and goes into the interval losing against the run of play, is it worth keeping faith in the team to carry on performing well in the second half and hoping that the breaks will come, or does the manager make changes and risk disrupting the flow of the game thereby affecting the team’s performance?

Using neuro-linguistic programming in half-time psychology

Essentially, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is the study of excellence in how we think, how we behave and how we communicate. It provides a series of techniques, skills and methodologies that can be used to create strategies to enable us to fulfil our potential in all areas of our lives. The brain not only controls the application of skills and strategic movements, but it also affects actual body movements that people used to consider automatic. NLP can help sportsmen and women to gain control over what many consider to be ‘automatic’ functions of our own neurology. Research has shown that imagining an event can produce the same effect on structures in the brain as performing that event in reality!

For example, research carried out at the University of Chicago into visualisation in basketballers divided a number of people into three groups(4). Each was tested shooting a number of penalty shots in basketball. The groups were then given different instructions:

  • Group 1 did not practise penalty shots for 30 days;
  • Group 2 practised shots every day for 30 days;
  • Group 3 practised shots only in their mind (visualisation) for 30 days.

After 30 days the three groups were tested again:

  • Group 1 showed no improvement at all (as expected);
  • Group 2 showed a 24% improvement (not especially satisfactory given that they had been practising with the ball for one month);
  • Group 3 improved by 23% (impressive considering they had not even seen a ball for 30 days!).

Applying NLP at half-time

NLP can be applied at half-time in a number of different ways, just by using the principle of positive instruction. Stating what you want rather than what you don’t want can have a powerful positive effect on the mind, but many coaches still tell players what they don’t want, producing negative thoughts.

‘When you shoot don’t miss the target’ might be the instruction from the coach to player, but would it not be better to instruct the player when he shoots to hit the target? If somebody asks you not to think of the colour black, what immediately comes to mind? The very thing you were asked not to think of! Phrases such as ‘don’t foul’, ‘don’t lose the ball’, ‘don’t lose the game’ can all be replaced by more positive instructions.

Here are some half-time techniques that can be used in sequence to create the right state of mind for the coach and the players. These techniques are ‘dissociation’, ‘reframing’ and ‘anchoring’. They are aimed at creating a logical state of mind for the coach at half-time and getting the players to go out into the second half in peak mental state to achieve their desired outcome.


Dissociation is about recreating a past experience from the perspective of an onlooker or observer. This means that the person does not re-experience the original emotion but instead experiences the detached emotions of an ‘observer’. This enables the coach to think logically and not emotionally. The technique of dissociation is useful just before half-time, so the coach can think logically and not emotionally when delivering the half-time team talk.


Reframing is the process of shifting the nature of the problem. It is the process of changing a negative statement into a positive one by changing the frame of reference used to interpret the experience. If all meaning is context dependent, changing the context will change the meaning.

Depending on the situation at the end of the first half, we can decide from what perspective we want to go out in the second half. A perfect example of a reframe was in the 2005 European Champions League final when Liverpool’s manager Rafa Benítez urged his players to ‘go out and score the first goal and see what happens from there’. If he had said ‘go out and score three goals’ the size of the task may have been too great. Another possible reframe is when a team comes in losing; the coach can reframe the situation by asking them to wipe the first half from their minds and just focus on winning the second half.


An anchor is a stimulus that creates a response either in you or in another person. When an individual is at the peak of an experience during an intense emotional state, an applied specific stimulus can establish a neurological link between the emotional state and the stimulus. Anchoring can occur naturally or be set up intentionally and can assist in gaining access to past states and linking the past state to the present and future. Anchors can be used by both coaches and players to produce a state of mind or mood needed for a given situation.

Jim Petruzzi is a performance coach, specialising in sports science and sports psychology, who works with several professional football clubs and international teams

1. J Counselling Psych 1967; 31:248-52
2. European J Social Psych 1970; 1:385-402
3. RL Birdwhistle (1970) Kinesics and Context, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
4. J Curriculum Studies 1985; 18:197-209