It’s Not a Championship; It’s an Anniversary

Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina Women’s Soccer Team had just won seven championships in a row and would go on to win 2 more, when a full page ad of the team was published hoisting the trophy would feature the caption, “It’s not a championship, it’s an anniversary.”

When it comes to Division 1 programs, Dorrance’s Tar Heels stands at the top, above all the rest. 21 National Championships. 8 straight titles from 1986-1994. Without a doubt, they are one of the most competitive programs in the history of college athletics. That competitive fire comes from: (1) the enormous value Dorrance places on competing; and (2) the strategy Dorrance implements to nurture that competitiveness.

The following two stories illustrate how Dorrance places value on competition in practices.

April Heinrich

In 1986, April came in as few freshmen do. She came to compete, to be the best player on the field every time she stepped out there. She was ruthless, fierce, and physical; so much so that in the pre-season, a group of veteran players came into Dorrance’s office looking for sympathy and asked, “What are you going to do about April?”

Dorrance’s response was simple: “Clone her.” Then, he half-jokingly asked if he should convince her to transfer to Duke, so they could play against her. The girls’ response was, “No way!” Anson used this teachable moment to highlight the competitive spirit, something coaches often shy away from, but he intentionally does this, day in and day out.

Before the girls left the office, Dorrance reminded them, “You don’t want to play against her. You want to play with her. In fact, I want all you to play just like her.” Dorrance considered instilling this competitive mentality in his players to be his job and responsibility. He tried to recruit competitors, but not every girl who showed up at North Carolina was ready to compete. However, by the time they left North Carolina, he made sure they were.

Anne Sherow

In 1987, Anne Sherow had arguably the greatest season as a goalkeeper at the University of North Carolina ever. Only two goals were scored on them that year, and one of them was an own goal. Sherow had a 0.05 goals against average, the lowest in team history.

Sherow’s record-breaking season was well into North Carolina’s dominance; they almost never lost games. Once, they went 103 games and 1,764 days without losing.

So, after an epic season in 1987, you would think Anne Sherow easily had the starting goalkeeper spot locked down. She had earned it, right?

But, newcomer Merridee Proost would become the starting goalkeeper in 1988. How could Dorrance drop a senior—much less a senior who was the best college goalkeeper at the time?

Because he created an environment where people had to earn that spot, year in and year out. He recruited exceptional athletes who were, without a doubt, near the top of the nation’s recruiting class as far as talent goes. But, that talent did not stagnate when it came to North Carolina. He used that talent to stoke a competitive fire in each and every one of his players.

The Competitive Cauldron

As a child, Dorrance was an avid competitor, playing every sport he could. When he got to UNC as a student-athlete, he would organize dorm-wide competitions in every athletic event imaginable. In these dorm-wide competitions, he would challenge anyone to beat him in any sport. One year, he even kept a running score of “Dorrance versus everyone else”. From an early age, he had an obsession with competition, and still does to this day.

His mentor early on was Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach at North Carolina. While watching one of his practices, he saw that Smith charted everything—every shot by every player. He also saw that everything in the practice was competitive; everything had winners and losers.

So, fitting his personality and the guidance of his mentor Dean Smith, he has spent the last nearly 40 years developing his competitive cauldron. At this stage, it has become a rather complex system of charting and weighting wins in practice, and if you ask him why he has been so successful at North Carolina, he will probably tell you it’s his competitive cauldron—after admitting the first reason is the remarkably talented players.

Application

Start charting winners in practice. Starting rewarding and praising a competitive effort. It is important to do this in ways that nurture a competitive spirit and a growth mindset, and I have written about how to do that here. Regardless of your level or sport, there is value in this system.

Over the last 7 years of coaching, I have implemented this with nearly every team I work with, and it looks different every season. If you are looking for practical ideas to get a competitive cauldron started, listen to Episode 52 of “Coaching Culture”. In this episode, Nate Sanderson and I talk with basketball coach and author Brian McCormick, who shares some very practical ideas for getting a competitive cauldron started in any sport.

-J.P. Nerbun

*I have created a Competitive Cauldron Excel file that I share with all the coaches in my mentorship program and I personalize for each coach and their team. Please contact me if you are interested in learning more about the mentorship program.

Works Referenced

  1. The Man Watching by Tim Crothers

 

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