21-5. That is Anson Dorrance’s record in the NCAA Division 1 Women’s National Championship Soccer Game. An incredible record to post in the biggest soccer game of the year.
How did he do it? According to Dorrance, it had very little to do with tactics. While most coaches would study film and prepare scouting reports the night before the game, Dorrance works late into the night, writing letters. These letters are a labor of love; he spends all night writing, editing, revising, and rewriting each one.
As Dorrance prepares for the final game, he wants each one of his seniors to know how special they are. He takes the time to let each of them know what he sees in them, and what makes them unique. And he always shares a story or two of some proud memories that best embody their character.
After writing all night, he delivers the letters to the seniors a few hours before the game. That’s not all, though; he makes copies of every letter, and in the locker room before the start of the game, he asks every senior to leave the room. He reads these letters to the underclassmen, so they can understand the importance of every player on that team, regardless of their role. And then he asks them to dedicate their performance to those seniors.
Every time he delivers these letters, the room is full of tears. And that emotion and connection to their teammates inspires the players because they understand that they are playing the game for a purpose bigger than themselves.
As Dorrance once admitted, “The letters are more powerful and valuable to my team than me actually being awake during the game. What we are consciously trying to do is to construct real connections where our players emotionally play for each other. And this stuff works.”
Anson Dorrance’s letters do something more than honor the seniors and inspire the players on the team; they develop a deeper human connection in the team’s culture.
Creating Powerful Moments
Senior night, final games, and the end-of-the-year awards ceremony can be critical moments that your athletes remember when they think back on playing for your program.
However, when it comes to these critical moments of passage throughout the course of a season, the growth of social media and the hyper-involvement of parents has only continued to inflate our expectations for senior night, awards ceremonies, and final games. Flowers, balloons, cake, public awards ceremonies, framed jerseys, signed leather basketballs, and so many other things which were once special are now merely expected. None of these are bad things, but they are not the way to create a special moment that will be transformational for your athletes or your program.
As Chip and Dan Heath share in The Power of Moments, we often obsess over all the little things. Our energy is spent making sure nothing goes wrong and fixing problems. When we do this, we don’t overwhelm or underwhelm; we just “whelm” people as Dan Heath calls it.
Why is this significant? Well, psychologists have learned that our memories of our experiences aren’t fair. We don’t take an overall look at the experience; instead, we only remember moments. And typically, the two most important moments of an experience are the peak and the ending.
So, instead of obsessing over making sure all the little things are going well, we should instead focus on creating peak moments and extraordinary endings.
If we want to create a defining or transformational moment for our team, the Heath brothers’ research points to four different elements:
Just think of Anson Dorrance’s tradition of writing and reading letters during the last game of the season:
- The moment is elevated because a very special letter is being read aloud.
- The moment provides insight into what makes each girl and the program special.
- Seniors feel the pride of personal and public recognition.
- The moment forges a connection because everyone on the team shares the letters, and underclassmen will look forward to having their special letter read when they are a senior.
3 Ways to Make the End of Your Season Memorable
Create a highlight video showing how each player (or the team as a whole) has evolved over the years and improved. Share the moments when they embodied the program’s values. Record teammates sharing their favorite memories or qualities of each other, and what they will miss most about each other.
Obituary or Last Lecture
In Inside Out Coaching, Joe Ehrmann shares that his football team’s seniors wrote their obituaries and read them aloud to players, coaches, and parents in a ceremonial rite of passage. After they shared their obituary to a teary-eyed room, they receive a plaque with “A Man Built for Others” engraved at the top.
Many of the teams we work with give the seniors the opportunity to write and deliver a “last lecture” to the team. They share lessons they have learned during their experience, and what they will miss most about the program.
Letters to the Seniors
Possibly my favorite (and the simplest) activity is to get players, coaches, and parents to write letters to the seniors, sharing their favorite memories of them and their best qualities as players and teammates. The seniors can be given the letters, or you can encourage people in the program to read them aloud on Senior Night, at the last game of the year, or at the final awards ceremony.
- Crothers, Tim. The Man Watching. St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Heath, Chip and Dan. The Power of Moments.
- Ehrmann, Joe. Inside Out Coaching.