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In working with US Olympic and national team coaches I have a unique opportunity to interact with some of the most successful figures in the profession. One such coach is Anson Dorrance, the winningest team sport coach in collegiate history with 22 national titles and a 92% winning percentage in the past 36 years coaching the University of North Carolina’s women’s soccer team. Coach Dorrance also guided the US national women’s soccer team to the inaugural women’s World Cup championship in 1991. Last week I participated in a session with him and this is what I learned.
1. Constantly grow as a coach. “I want my life to be one of never-ending ascension”
Coach Dorrance loves to learn. He regularly attends coaching and leadership seminars – both as a speaker and as attendee. One such event that he highly recommends is the What Drives Winning conference that was launched in 2015 (www.whatdriveswinning.com).
His approach to learning reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “When one person teaches, two people learn.” He shared that one of the reasons he so enjoys speaking at events is that it gives him an opportunity to learn through the questions that are posed to him. The questions keep him sharp and force him to explain and reflect on how he coaches. He firmly believes that he grows as a coach each time he answers a question.
He also is a voracious reader, always on the search for a great book on leadership or coaching. Early in his career he identified five great coaches and selected the five most prominent qualities of each. He then used these qualities to create his own model of effective coaching that became the foundation for his coaching philosophy.
He keeps a comic strip from Calvin & Hobbes (his favorite) on his office door that reinforces constant growth. In the strip the main character shouts out “I want my life to be one of never-ending ascension” (see p. 225 in The Man Watching by Tim Crothers for a full description of the comic).
He acknowledges that he most certainly has evolved as a coach over his career and continues to evolve as he approaches the 40 year mark of coaching. For example, at the start of his career he viewed athletes as chess pieces that he controlled in a giant chess match with an overriding goal of winning. His mindset has changed over time and he now places much greater emphasis on building meaningful connections with his athletes and developing successful people through soccer.
2. Empower and inspire athletes to compete. “The most important quality is competitive fire”
The key to success for Coach Dorrance is to create a team climate where you give your athletes permission to compete. This is the foundation of his well-known competitive cauldron tool for building competitive toughness.
In a sport such as soccer, team success often depends on the 1 v. 1 battles that occur throughout a match. The team that wins more of these critical moments will gain the competitive advantage and greatly increase their chance of winning the game. Winning the critical moments though requires competitive toughness; the athlete must want to attack that moment and do whatever it takes to win that battle. There can be no hesitation in those moments, which typically involve physical contact and the possibility of injury.
An important strategy coach Dorrance uses to build and nurture that competitive fire is his pre-game message. If playing a tough opponent, he will show them an 8-10 minute highlight video of their own performance. If playing a weak opponent, he will show them a video of their mistakes or sloppy play. He believes that prior to a tough opponent they need reinforcement of their competitiveness; prior to a match they should easily win they need to be challenged.
The most powerful pre-game strategy he uses – in his words his ‘nuclear option’ – is to read to the team letters he has written to the graduating student-athletes. He only uses this option though before national championship matches (his teams have played in 24 and won 22).
3. Measure what matters. “Players do what you inspect, not what you expect”
Much has been written about coach Dorrance’s use of the competitive cauldron. In essence, it is a tool he uses to measure all aspects of an athlete’s practice performance. Players are graded on a wide range of performance measures, including fitness (speed, agility), soccer performance in small-sided games (1 v 1, 2 v. 2, 4 v. 4), and character.
When he first started experimenting with the competitive cauldron idea in 1994 he had nine categories of performance metrics. In 2014 the cauldron included 19 different categories based on observations from members of the coaching staff, athlete self-assessments and peer ratings. For example, athletes rate their teammates on their character using a 4-point scale based on how often they model appropriate behaviors (4 = all the time, 3 = most of the time, 2 = sometimes, 1 = rarely). Character is highly valued in coach Dorrance’s system, and the character award given out at the annual banquet is the considered the most important award. Peers also rate each other’s skills through player drafts that are held during the year.
Captains and other team leaders are assigned the role of drafting teams for small-sided competitive games during practices and your draft position is another metric that is factored into your performance report card. A favorite athlete self-assessment tool that coach Dorrance uses is the 12-item Grit survey developed by Angela Duckworth. Athletes complete the Grit survey twice per year. For coach Dorrance the purpose of the Grit survey is less about scoring each athlete’s Grit and more about having the athletes reflect on the behaviors that are associate with Grit (competitive toughness and resilience).
An individual performance review is completed with each athlete three times each year. The data from the competitive cauldron is shared as a report card, and then coach Dorrance sits with the athlete to review and attack the data (not the athlete). The key is to show the athlete that you are on their side; together you are developing a plan to ‘beat the data’. Coach Dorrance believes that the competitive cauldron and the performance reviews are effective because they build trust. To build a championship team environment it is more important to be trusted than liked.
Although I was familiar with much of what coach Dorrance shared during our session together, I developed a much greater understanding of why his approach works so well for him. By nature he is an extremely competitive person. His competitive cauldron is so effective for his teams because it matches his personality – it is genuine and aligns with his core values and coaching philosophy. Throughout his career he has placed great value on building competitive toughness – a quality that most certainly transcends coaching female college soccer athletes.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from a legacy coach such as Anson Dorrance is to have the discipline to constantly learn while also having the courage to experiment with what you are learning. Coach Dorrance didn’t copy what he learned early in his career from watching renowned UNC basketball coach Dean Smith. He ‘soccerized it’ to create coaching strategies that fit his context and aligned with his coaching style.
Crothers, T. (2006). The man watching: A biography of Anson Dorrance, the unlikely architect of the greatest college sports dynasty ever. Ann Arbor, MI: Sports Media.
Dorrance, A., & Nash, T. (2014). Training soccer champions. Brattleboro, VT: Echo Point.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.
National Soccer Coaches Association of America. (2014, June 2). Anson Dorrance on UNC women’s soccer’s competitive cauldron. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Dakza6d_rI
Silva, J. M. (2006). Psychological aspects of competition: An interview with Anson Dorrance head women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. Journal of Excellence, 11, 88-102.
Wang, J., & Straub, W. F. (2012). An investigation into the coaching approach of a successful world class soccer coach: Anson Dorrance. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 7(3), 431-447.
Whitney G. (2016). UNC soccer’s Anson Dorrance: Possibly the world’s winningest coach ever. Sports Coach Radio.com. Retrieved from http://sportscoachradio.com/unc-soccers-anson-dorrance-possibly-the-worlds-winningest-coach-ever/