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'They came alive': how huddles are developing social skills
Why the 'circle time' method is moving from classroom to training ground
It's a technique used by primary school teachers, which can be traced back to Native Americans. It looks like a huddle. It's also imbuing young footballers with confidence and problem-solving skills. As Stephen Rollnick puts it: 'They came alive.'
Rollnick, a renowned clinical psychologist best-known for co-founding 'motivational interviewing', is describing a scene involving a group of academy players managed by a coach he mentored. The cohort in question were taking part in 'circle time', an exercise that sees the athletes gathered together in a formation more familiar to classrooms than training grounds.
In this instance, the team was split into two groups, the first containing the side’s strikers and midfielders, and the second comprised of the defence and goalkeeper. So far, so standard, you might say; except this exercise was conducted during the heat of a half-time break. Forget a coach yelling at his charges for fifteen minutes. In Rollnick’s example, the players are in command.
“My heart sank”, confesses Rollnick, describing the moment the coach asked him to help transform his team talks by introducing circle time.
“It was a lot. I mean, he wants to give them a voice in how they're going to play in the second half, but he's only got six minutes, right?”
Rollnick’s response to the brief, which, once you account for the troop down the tunnel and other half-time paraphernalia, really does boil down to six minutes, was simple.
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“Circle time methodology essentially means you sit around in a group and each person gets an opportunity to talk uninterrupted,” he explains.
“It’s a simple social group management skill. Everybody gets a voice. But bear in mind, it’s six minutes.
“So the coach posed the question to the defence and attack groups: what went well in the first half? Each player in turn spoke with no interruption or discussion.
“The second question was more typically more like, ‘How am I going to improve in the second half?’ Then the coach asked a leader from each of the defence and attack teams to summarize what they'd heard, made two or three points that brought everything together, and out they went.”
If the practice seems straightforward, compare the scenario with infamous stories of Alex Ferguson’s ‘hairdryer’ treatment. The contrast between the setups couldn’t be starker. But, as Rollnick suggests, circle time is far from a forward-thinking fad, possessing striking similarities to another time-honoured sporting tradition.
“This is a social ritual which you and I would probably say is a huddle,” he says.
“I know they're using them in rugby very creatively at the moment…and the academy players practiced this during the week as a methodology: in other words, they practiced the huddle.
“It’s really about practicing the social skill of listening to each other in a brief exchange during practice, so that when it comes to Saturday and a very tough competition, the players and coaches are skilled in executing it.”
Rollnick (whose interview you can listen to via the audio player below) cites group management and self-expression as just two of the skills developed during the course of the exercise, which also bled into off-pitch team activities.
Listen to the full interview - from ‘circle time’ to sociology - with Stephen Rollnick
“There was one occasion when I visited the academy and I noticed in four corners of this hanger-like gym there were four groups of players: they were using this methodology for a game review for Saturday,” he describes.
“They generalized it: I noticed players who were initially very silent because they weren't the dominant characters and they weren't used to speaking, standing up in front of the group and summarizing what they'd said in their huddle…they came alive.”
Rollnick mentions the importance of language in introducing the concept (“they didn't use the phrase ‘circle time’ because it's too kooky”, he explains), which taps into a subject he is passionate about.
“From frustration and bitter experience…you see a troubled person and you see the social conditions that fuel their unhappiness,” he explains.
“You get asked to see a player who's apparently ‘not on board’, who's described as detached and even disruptive in the group, and (it transpires) he's from another country and culture.
“Or you see players looking like they're just going through the motions, which is very common, and then when you chat to them, some of them are just pissed off with the coaches.
“I don't think it is as easy as people say, ‘Oh, it's the top two inches’, like it's some kind of isolated space in an individual's brain….these are essentially social issues in a social bubble, which have psychological impacts.”
Rollnick’s words will resonate with anyone familiar with the facts. Almost 25% of UK footballers responding to a poll in 2022 reported signs of severe anxiety. A 2021 study showed 1 in 6 international track and field competitors experienced suicidal ideations. Whether these statistics are entirely rooted in the effect of social settings is open to question, but you’d be hard-pressed to deny any connection.
Whilst elite teams are undoubtedly becoming more switched onto sport psychology, Rollnick thinks they are unwittingly ignoring the potential of another profession.
“Like it or not, coaches and sports clubs create these kinds of little mini societies, and they're a dream landscape for sociologists, as far as I can see,” he says.
“They're missing a great opportunity…some head coaches and coaches get it right, but it's by instinct, not necessarily by design.
“They are top men and women, but by far the majority of coaches I've come across struggle to clarify what is a good environment: how do we behave in such a way, communicate with each other and with the athletes, so that this environment is the way we want it to be.”
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