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Inspiring the Lions to victory

Sport Psychology lecturers from the Institute of Sport have conducted innovative research examining what makes the speeches made by elite sporting leaders inspirational.

Dr Matt Smith and his colleagues examined the speeches made by elite rugby coaches to learn more about how leaders communicate with their players in team sports, and what is it about these speeches that would inspire players.

Sir Ian McGeechan giving speech

It is twenty years ago this week that Sir Ian McGeechan gave his famous speech to the British and Irish Lions ahead of the victorious 2nd test again South Africa (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qv54oLWz5UE). This and other speeches on the tour have been immortalised on the fly-on-the-wall documentary that was made from this 1997 tour of South Africa (Living with Lions: The complete Story).

Dr Smith said: "Many regard this as the greatest sporting documentary ever made. The cameras went everywhere, into dressing rooms, treatment rooms, and hotel rooms. This access resulted in a range of authentic footage including numerous clips where leaders act very naturally towards players. This really gave us a unique insight into the way these leaders communicate. You rarely get to watch leaders of this calibre speak to their teams, as the dressing room environment is normally off-limits. So we saw an opportunity to use the speeches as a stimulus to investigate leadership at the highest level of sport".

A range of sports players participated in the study. They were asked to imagine they were preparing for an extremely important match in their sport, and to consider how they would respond if their own leaders were to give such speeches. They watched the clips, identified which aspects they were inspired by, and were then interviewed to allow them to explain why they had been inspired.

Picture of student and subject engaged in testing

The results revealed six main ways players were inspired: when the leaders i) expressed the challenge and rewards of success; ii) created and enhanced belief, iii) embraced and reinforced the underdog status; iv) showed how the team can be successful; v) empowered the athletes to take personal responsibility; and vi) created pride and unity within the team

Dr Smith also explained: "The results gave us a variety of insights into how leaders might speak to players to inspire them ahead of important competitions. For example, when McGeechan said before the second test: 'You’ll meet each other in the street in 30 years’ time, and there’ll just be a look, and you’ll know just how special some days in your life are'. Participants found this incredibly powerful, the vision of what would happen if they achieved success".

Action shot of the victorious Lions from the 1997 tour

Twenty years on, the Lions go in to the second test match tomorrow needing a win again the mighty New Zealand side to keep the series alive. Let’s hope the leaders of today are able to inspire their players as effectively as McGeechan and his colleagues did.

Read more about this research: Inspirational leader communication in an elite team sport context

Discover more about: Dr Matt Smith