The Daily Tar Heel's sports editor Ryan Wilcox recently sat down with Anson Dorrance, the legendary head coach of the North Carolina women’s soccer team. In part one of the Q&A, Dorrance discusses the new edition of his 2002 book, "Vision of a Champion: Advice And Inspiration From The World's Most Successful Women's Soccer Coach", co-written with Gloria Averbuch, and how to build a culture of competitiveness in women’s sports. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity:
The Daily Tar Heel: How did you and Gloria meet and decide on the process of writing the book?
AD: You know, I don’t even remember anymore. She had a daughter that played that we ended up recruiting, so my guess is because of her daughter’s involvement in soccer, she probably approached us about writing the book. She would certainly know better than I, but I think she approached us and I liked her idea.
I had one book out there already, a book I wrote with Tim Nash, and that was a book we wrote for coaches. I think what she pitched me was to write a book for players, and of course part of her motivation was her daughter (Yael Averbuch). What was wonderful about her kid’s evolution – and also in a way as a selling point for the book – was her kid ended up coming to play for us. She started for us her freshman year, which is obviously very rare.
In her sophomore year, which is even more rare, she had such an incredible season, she was the national player of the year… a lot of the principles we talk about in the book are to have a player like Yael go from where she was, and then from hard work, she could get to her potential.
DTH: What are the two or three biggest things that you want people to take away from the book?
AD: I think for anyone to reach their potential, they have to set up their own training and development platforms. When we originally started developing the U.S. women’s national team, much of what we had to rely on was this idea of self-coaching. We needed to recruit kids that were intrinsically motivated, but also would do the right things in training on their own to get to their potential.
I think the design of this book was along the lines of the way we won that first national championship. Because back in those days, we didn’t have that many chances to get together. We didn’t have that many matches in preparation. So for us, what we had to do was to find these extraordinary people that not only were very talented players, but had the self discipline to choose the right things to do on their own.
The name of the book is appropriately taken from...I was driving to work one day in the second semester of Mia Hamm’s senior year, and it was kind of cold out, and it was relatively early in the morning. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see this figure going five (yards) and back, ten and back, fifteen and back. It’s a grueling exercise we call “cones,” and I was so impressed because obviously it was one of my kids. Without her even realizing, I pulled in the parking lot and I’m watching this kid.
Between these sprints you can see, Mia hunched over from the exhaustion, the effort that she was putting in. I drove in to work, I scribbled a note to her, I dropped it in the mail and I forgot about it. Ten years later, after she had become world famous, she sent me a copy of her book called “Go for the Goal.” There on the breastplate of the book was the note I had written her: “The vision of a champion is someone bent over drenched in sweat at the point of exhaustion when no one is watching.”
DTH: That’s a great story. In Sports Illustrated 20 years ago, Mia Hamm said “I grew up always good at sports, but being a girl I was never allowed to feel as good about it as the guys were. My toughness wasn’t celebrated, but when I came here (to Chapel Hill) it was OK to want to be the best.” How do you foster that sort of competitive environment, especially back then – and still now – when it’s not as common for women to be that way?
AD: Our women are sort of culturally pushed in the direction of being “pleasers.” We as males are lauded for being competitive. In the culture of girls and young women, they’re not. If they’re competing, they’re considered b------ and they’re excoriated by their own culture.
We wanted to have a culture that embraced competitive women and supported them. The way we do that is through this tool we call the competitive cauldron. It’s basically an exercise where every element of practice is a competition, and it’s evaluated and recorded to demonstrate where everyone is in 28 different categories.
If you lose it, you’re gonna see your name at the bottom of a list. What that did is it gave the girls permission to compete. Here’s what all of us know: you don’t develop in a recreational environment. You develop when someone’s pushing you. You develop psychological strength when you compete, and you develop a standard for your own excellence if someone else is trying to compete against you. That’s the environment we wanted to structure, and I think that’s what separates our culture.
DTH: How difficult was that to institute, especially in the early years, when that wasn’t —
AD: It wasn’t difficult. We just started recording everything – and we don’t beat them over the head with it – we just record it and post it, and they get to do with it whatever they want. But what I want them to do with it is to look at it and say, “You know what, I’m sick and tired of genuflecting to my teammates. I’m gonna start ripping heads off.” And so it wasn’t difficult.
These are competitive athletes, and so for a lot of them, like what Mia’s quote is all about, it’s like a duck to water. “At last, someone is encouraging me to compete!” So now, when these athletes finally get here, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this place exists? Where you’re patting me on the back for beating everyone to death?” Yeah, it does exist, it’s right here in Chapel Hill. I think that’s what separated us.
DTH: So that’s how you think most girls would respond, with a sigh of relief, basically?
AD: Not all girls. But these girls that I recruit, yes.
Stay tuned for part two of the Q&A, where Dorrance talks about his experience coaching the U.S. women's national team and his predictions for former Tar Heels in the World Cup.