March Madness: How to Motivate Like a Pro Athlete

March Madness is here! The Public Speaker shows us how to give a great motivational “pre-game” speech.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #245

The NCAA tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, is always full of big moments. Little teams knock out powerhouse teams. Impossible shots are made to win a game at the buzzer.;

Now admit it;  for a minute you were wondering if you were listening to the wrong podcast. The last thing you want to do is hear The Public Speaker talk about basketball, right? Don’t worry, I’ll leave that to the experts. But since we’re in the midst of March Madness, I thought it would be fun to look at why some basketball pre-game motivational speeches are just so, well, motivational!

To prepare for this episode, I watched a lot of YouTube videos of athlete speeches. I watched videos of legendary coaches like UCLA’s John Wooden.

I watched a great clip from the movie Hoosiers, where Gene Hackman plays high school basketball coach Norman Dale and gives one of the most well-known basketball speeches of all time.

I even watched controversial coach Bobby Knight give a speech that was so full of expletives I’m not even sure what he said. His brand of motivation was not one I would recommend.

One speech clearly stood out to me. It followed some of my favorite public speaking rules, but also sparked my creative juices.  

This speech was given by the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis (yes, I know that’s football). Ray Lewis walked into the locker room of the Stanford Cardinals and gave them one heck of an inspirational speech before their tournament game. Ray Lewis is known for getting his own team fired up, but the ability to inspire another team requires some strong speaking skills. Let’s look at how he did it:

Tip #1: Use the Element of Surprise

If you really want to motivate your team, bring someone else in to do it. They’ve probably heard what you have to say more than once. They’re expecting you to try to inspire them. When I worked in the corporate world, our company would occasionally bring in a surprise celebrity to start off our annual meeting. This got our attention and brought us back to our seats from the snack line.

When legendary football player Ray Lewis walked in to the Stanford Cardinals' locker room, the mood picked up right away. He greets the players one at a time and after the initial shock, the players start laughing and clapping and you can see the excitement start to build. The team is fired up before their guest speaker even opens his mouth because he has already made a connection.

Tip #2: Start with a Question

Ray Lewis thanked the team for the opportunity to speak to them, signaling he was ready to begin. As soon as the team went quiet, he started with a question, then a group of follow-up questions. This gave his audience something to focus on:

“If tomorrow wasn’t promised, what would you give for today? 

Forget everything else. Forget everything else. Forget that there was any sunlight left. What would you spend today thinking about. Yourself? Or the man that’s beside you? Or the man that you know you’d give everything in your heart for?"

Tip #3: Use “You” to Make it Personal

The pronouns you use in a motivational speech are important. Too much “I” turns a speech into a story about the speaker. “They” is impersonal. The more you use the pronoun “you,” the more personal it will feel to the group. At a rough count, I see the words "you," "your," and "you’re" used 19 times in this speech.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.