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Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Key to Success - Breathing Space Blog

On Friday, October 15, 2010, I had the unique opportunity to meet with Anson Dorrance, the legendary coach of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team. My daughter had attended his wife’s ballet school for 14 years, so I was thoroughly familiar with him as a Chapel Hill resident.

On this evening, which was the basketball tip off night for UNC, NC State, and Duke, thus compelling tens of thousands of fans to stay on campus, Dorrance and Tim Crothers were to appear at Quail Ridge Bookstore to discuss the second edition of their book The Man Watching.

Instead of droves of people attending, only nine people populated the audience. So, what might have been a formal author presentation followed by a question and answer session turned into a rather brief author discussion followed by an extended interpersonal give and take. What’s more, both Dorrance and Crothers stayed for more than an hour. This was a rare night indeed.

I was able to ask them about the UNC women’s soccer team on a level that most fans can never even approach. For example, I posed questions about the health status of several key players who are currently on the injured roster, and others such as whether losses still hurt. I asked what losses really meant when he said, for example, that losing three times in 2009 didn’t prevent the team from becoming the national champions.

Dorrance discussed at length his fundamental belief that men and women are primarily different, a primary reason why he has been successful as a coach. He knows how to reach his players in a way that other coaches cannot because they are treating male and female athletes as essentially the same. I mentally noted that Geno Auriemma of the University of Connecticut shares the feeling: that women are different. Both coaches believe that women want to please others and play for a coach who has confidence in them. Coaches who harness these dual desires can propel their teams faster and further toward their goals.

I learned that Dorrance does not take a regimented approach to coaching. He is not a disciplinarian. The team doesn’t run extra laps when something goes wrong. Rather, while making sure that his team is in top physical shape, he is a constant strategist and motivator. He is constantly talking to his team members, offering them philosophical quotes and insightful observations.

The title of the book about Dorrance, The Man Watching, refers to a poem which he reads to the team at the start of each season. Freshmen and sophomores never quite understand it, but the juniors and seniors assure their underclassmen that by the time they’ve heard the poem three or four times, they’ll get it.

The team engages in a variety of bonding rituals. Any time it’s someone’s birthday, cake will be served, whether it’s after practice or a game. Surprisingly, no utensils are ever passed out. Everyone grabs their portion with their fist and eats it like cave dwellers might do.

Each team develops its own personality as the season goes on. Players often get to games on time by themselves when the games are in driving distance, such as at Duke in Durham, or NC State in Raleigh. When the team does go by bus, sometimes they don’t arrive until a few minutes beforehand. In one celebrated incident, the team left Chapel Hill at 7:15 p.m. for a game against NC State to be held in Cary at 8:00. The team had about 90 seconds to warm up on the field before the game began.

Dorrance was an unlikely candidate for the job he now holds. Self described as a “loose cannon,” he attended UNC studying to be a lawyer following his undergraduate days. He began coaching the men’s soccer team for the extra income, and was asked to take on the women’s team as well. Success came to him quickly. He won the AIA Championship – at the time the equivalent of the national championship. From that point on, his teams won 20 of 28 NCAA championships. This team represents a dynasty virtually unprecedented in college sports. What’s more, the team has had the same coach the whole way through as well as two very long term assistants.

Dorrance’s attitude towards sports is unique. He was always undersized as a high school and college soccer player, so he decided to put in the extra effort to make himself a winner. His attitude is conveyed to his players who, even when behind or not playing up to their best, still know in the back of their minds that they are going to win.

Most impressive about the evening was that Dorrance and Crothers had no notion of stopping. They would have continued to answer questions and chew the lean about soccer, their book, and UNC sports for as long as the handful of us would have listened. The bookstore staff finally came around and told us that we needed to wind it up in the next couple of minutes. So, for that reason alone, the evening with one of the greatest coaches in world history ended.


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Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC, Executive Director -- Breathing Space Institute  © 2019
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