By what distortion, by what confusion of values, could anyone compare the game of rugby to the Resistance?” asked Nicolas Gurgand in the French magazine L’Express.
The question refers to the letter that was read out by the French team in advance of their fragile performance in the opening game of the Rugby World Cup.
The letter at the centre of the controversy was written by Guy Muquet, a 17-year-old Resistance hero, just before his execution in 1941. It begins: “My little adored mummy, my adored baby brother, my little daddy, whom I love so much, I am going to die.” It goes on to ask his family to be brave, like him, and accept that his death has “achieved something”.
Bernard Laporte suggested a player read the letter out loud, five minutes before the match, as the team stood, arms linked, in a circle. They went on to lose 12-17.
So why did this motivational technique prove so ineffective. Perhaps we need to examine the nature of the language used –my little adored mummy; my adored baby brother; my little daddy. The tone is certainly emotional. But what quality of emotion?
Perhaps the letter made the players feel weak not strong. Weakened as if disempowered. Weakened like small children about to face men. Mummy. Baby. Daddy. Language to make you feel like a small child.
Compare this to the power the Argentine seemed to draw on as they absorbed their national anthem. They seemed to grow in stature. As brothers. In it together.
In tonight’s pressure game against Ireland, perhaps the best way for Bernard Laporte to get the best out of his team is to relax them. No big speeches about playing for the country. No references to The Resistance. The players are fully aware of the pressure being host nation brings.
So less pressure – more relaxation. The state of collective relaxation begins with the coach. If he is relaxed and calm, chances are his team will be. If he is tense and anxious then so will be the team. Laporte state of mind will be governed by the quality of his game plan, his strategy and his implicit trust in his players. He knows he has found a way to win. He knows he has the players to execute the plan. Thus he can relax in the knowledge that all is in place. Let the plan and the players take care of themselves.
Sometimes a powerful motivational speech can give a team a critical edge. Clearly on other occasions, it can lead to creating too much edge. The art of being a top manager is to recognise the difference.