Anson Dorrance

2003 SeasonDorrance

Anson Dorrance is the legendary women's soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. His program is commonly referred to as "The Dynasty." He is not only the most successful coach in the women's game - a four-time National Coach of the Year - but an ambassador of the game, a highly sought-after motivational speaker, a major force in training young players through wildly popular soccer camps, and a successful television broadcaster. His teams have won 17 NCAA National Championships, and many of his former players have gone on to become the most accomplished players in the world, including superstar Mia Hamm. Anson has produced best selling soccer videos and is the author of Training Soccer Champions, written with Tim Nash.


Training Soccer Champions (1996)
The Vision of a Champion: Advice and Inspiration from the World's Most Successful Women's Soccer Coach (2002)


The Vision of a Champion
by Anson Dorrance and Gloria Averbuch
foreword by Mia Hamm
Chapter 5: Towards Personal Excellence

All of Us Can Be Excellent

In 1999, I was invited to lecture on athletic excellence in a freshman honors seminar on campus. The professor had some literature that I found so powerful that I now use it with my team. It has become the foundation of everything we do. I also use it as part of a coach's lecture I give. Below I have adapted it for you.All of Us Can Be Excellent


Excellence is accomplished through deliberate actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, made into habits, compounded together, added up over time.

Since it is mundane, it is within reach of everyone, all the time. Please don't confuse this with success. In competitive athletics success is mutually exclusive...there are winners and team finishes first and another one last.

So this is your challenge:

    through deliberate actions (the things players do in training)
    ordinary in themselves (everyone is doing them, there are no real secrets).
    performed consistently (done on a regular basis).
    and carefully (with high standards and consummate focus)
    made into habits (coached into your technical, tactical, psychological and physical fabric)
    compounded together (with an understanding of harnessing all the elements)
    added up over time (done when appropriate on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis).

Tactics & Skills

We all know what it takes to develop individual soccer skills: the correct technique, and the enormous time commitment required to do it. I refer not only to team practice, but to your individual work as well. The best example that comes to mind in terms of this skill development is Laurie Schwoy ('96-'00). Laurie was injured off and on for the final two years of her collegiate eligibility, and yet she got better because even while recovering from injury, she continually put in time with the ball, a habit she developed as a young girl. Her skills are so exquisite and remarkable, that I call her the female Etchevarry (Marco Etchevarry, known for his ball skills, is a native of Bolivia who plays for DC United of the MLS). She can bend balls, lift them and chip them and even tried a bicycle kick in one of our games. She can go through a "phone booth" (i.e. a small space) of defenders with her skills. She is also brilliant in the air. It all comes from her investment of time in all technical aspects of the game.

When you're developing your skill and physical dimensions, the ongoing factor is perseverance. Sometimes this repetitive work isn't fun; it can be lonely and boring. But it's what will make you exceptional. And skills (together with fitness) is one of the areas of the game in which excellence is completely in your hands. Your work has to be scientific, though. It can't be haphazard. It also has to be structured properly. You have to know the right things to do, and have the right advice. Your advanced training should be properly organized--seasonal and rhythmical (See Appendix for our Yearly Rhythm). You can do too much, and you can do not enough.

To develop tactically, you have to become a student of the game (see the following chapter). This entails not merely watching soccer, but watching it with a critical eye for your personal development. Let me give you an example of how this has worked at UNC. With a satellite television hook-up, I get to see the best soccer in the world. In one game, I saw something that related to my dissatisfaction at the way my team prepared the ball with their first touch. An Argentinean team named River Plate was just exquisite. I noticed how simple their technique was, yet they went through crowded defenses in every direction, and unbelievably quickly. There was one huge glaring difference between these consummate professionals and the way my team prepared the ball. Our players were using the outside of the foot to prepare the ball for penetration or service, (as opposed to using inside of the foot to draw it across and in front of the body). They were complicating their technique, causing them to be off balance. We wanted them to get back to the simplicity of River Plate. In practice I talked to them about the game I'd seen on T.V. That became the emphasis of practice for the week. I had discovered and narrowed in on a problem to work on, just by watching T.V.

In addition to watching high-level soccer for those who cannot see it live, television helps you to select your role models. Now, all of us can turn on your set and watch the WUSA. Pick out your heroes, and emulate them!

Focus & Discipline

In order to excel at the highest possible level, you need to be focused and disciplined. That's because the competitive soccer world is so stressful. For example, athletics demands tremendous fitness. Think of the note I wrote to Mia Hamm, which is in the beginning of the book. Can you drive yourself to get fit, and, after you are bent over in exhaustion from sprinting, can you spend an hour slamming a ball against the wall, doing Coervers, or juggling?  Can you drive yourself with self-discipline, when others are not there? No one is going to be constantly pushing you, insisting that you get fit or hone your skills. When it truly counts, you're on your own. Your margin of success is based on your inner drive. This focus and self-discipline is also a great element of your character.

Commitment & Courage

You can see examples of commitment and courage in athletics every day. We talk about these traits with our UNC players. When these qualities are lacking, we sometimes tease the players in a light-hearted way, because humor helps lessen the sting when critiquing them. So, we talk about humming birds.

One of the crucial aspects when we play with defensive presence is getting "stuck in," a common British expression for an aggressive player who gets in tackles, or sticks her face in where the ball is going, risking taking a knock or getting whacked. This is Michelle Akers defining quality. We describe those without this all-out physical courage as humming birds. They sort of just go humming around the action. They don't get stuck in. Now, to the untrained eye, the speedy little hummingbird might look like a bundle of energy and hustle. But the humming bird knows deep down in her tiny little heart that she just doesn't want to get close enough to risk getting hit. So, she times everything to get to the play a little late. This is clearly apparent to the trained eye.

In addition to playing good soccer, physical courage means playing with abandon. It is amazingly liberating, and actually a lot of fun, when you allow yourself to just "go for it," to get stuck in. Your capacity to take the risk is also a measure of your commitment to giving your best effort--for yourself and for your team. So, don't be a hummingbird. Be a hawk.

Taking Responsibility

Do you know the kind of player who always finds an excuse when she fails? When something isn't going well, she whines or blames someone else. One of my daughters once came home from high school soccer practice complaining about everything under the sun. I put in all in her lap. If she was expecting any sympathy from me she was going to get absolutely none, because I know how this scenario is played out. From the coach's point of view, this kind of complaining can be unbelievably destructive. So, I threw it back at my daughter. "Listen," I told her, "you can solve problems. You make a difference. If you feel cut off, you reconnect with the coach." That's what it means to take responsibility. When faced with challenges, or problems, look within yourself and decide what you can do to make things better.

You feel someone did something unfair? Is that your argument against taking personal responsibility?  But this is a subjective sport, and besides, the world is filled with injustice. Who promises you justice? Certainly not the referee, whose decisions are irrefutable, regardless of human error. You can't argue away those decisions, no matter how unfair they seem. You only dig yourself into a hole trying.

When I think of injustice, and of the need to take responsibility no matter what, I think of an incident with Cindy Parlow. Cindy is one of the greatest athletes and the finest people I've ever coached. In her freshman year at UNC, we were undefeated, playing Notre Dame in the semi-final on our field, on which we had lost only one game in our entire history up to that point.

A ball was served into the box by Notre Dame, and in an effort to head it out of the goal, young Cindy, a freshman who had left high school a year early, sent it into her own goal. We lost 1-0. We were defeated in the National Championships that year, and we've only lost three National Championships in 20 years.

After the game, I grabbed Cindy as we were heading into the press tent. I knew this was going to be a watershed moment for her. She was going to have an opportunity to demonstrate her character. "Cindy," I warned her, exaggerating a reporter's question just to make my point, "basically what you're going to be asked is, 'What does it feel like to bring down the UNC dynasty on your own?'" Before going into that room, I told her that I wanted her to understand something. "We would not have been in the final if it weren't for you. You're one of the greatest players we've ever had at UNC, and we came into this game 25-0 because of you. There's no way you lost this game for us, but they're going to hang it on you. What you have to do is to take responsibility, and then, in that declaration of responsibility, you are winning an amazing victory." And that's exactly what she did. When someone asked her that question, she started to choke up, and with tears in her eyes, said she took responsibility for the loss. Seeing that exchange, I knew that her whole life she had always taken responsibility up to that moment. And from that day forward, I knew she always would. It was one of the best examples of victory in defeat that I've ever seen in my life.

Learning to Accept Responsibility

Taking responsibility is what Catherine Reddick learned to do in the 2000 season. A high school star, Catherine also played for every age National Team, from U16 to U21. But she came into our program out of shape, and got beat out for her spot by Julia Marslander, a walk-on. This was a lesson for both of them. Julia showed what hard work can do, and Catherine learned the value of that hard work, and of humility. A lesser human being than Catherine might have whined and complained and deserted the team mission when she was relegated to reserve status, risking havoc with our team chemistry.

Did she quit, or become a negative life force? No, she did the opposite. She took responsibility for the fact she was not starting, and began working her heart out. But just because she got fit, did that mean the whole world had to change for her? She had dug herself a hole, and she was not about to get out of it just because she had rectified her initial mistake. She remained a reserve, and had to live with the fact that although she had a chance to start coming into the season, she had given it away to someone else. Regardless, she kept on working hard and supporting everyone on the team.

Catherine learned that she was paying the price for not being ready when the door was open for her. Now the door had closed, and yet she decided to do whatever she could to help the team. When the door was reopened, this time she was ready, and she understood that she was given a new chance. She was not going to make the same mistake again. In the NCAA semi-final, she had a remarkable performance, so we started her in the final--her first start all year. She ended up being a catalyst of the game-winning goal, and winning the defensive MVP in the NCAA tournament, the most important event of the year.

What happened to Catherine is that through adversity she became twice the player she was when she arrived at UNC in August. Part of ascending to greatness is being humbled, and humility is part of your route to the depth of character that I believe is a most essential aspect of your soccer career. Two months later, she had a chance to start for the full U.S. Women's National Team. What an amazing ascension!

Power & Respect

In order to be powerful, you must give yourself permission to be aggressive on the soccer field. Never mind who it is--friend or foe--you play to beat them because that is part of the game. You have to understand the value in doing this (and thus in trying to excel) even if it sometimes separates you from those who don't understand, and you find yourself temporarily unpopular. Popularity and respect are different. Being liked is not as lasting as being respected. You don't want to gain friendship just by being passive, or giving in to try not to offend anyone. That's the way our culture tells girls they have to gain respect. In the long run though, you will gain people's respect, and in a way you'd rather have it, if you go after them on the soccer field.

You're going to gain respect by being a powerful, ambitious player. You're also going to be a tremendously confident and aggressive person who still wants and needs to connect to people, so you should be thoughtful and kind as well. But within the context of the game, I am trying to empower you to tap into that part of yourself that's not afraid of taking physical risks, or even the social risk of jeopardizing friendships. I realize that overcoming negative social pressures can be just as challenging as learning soccer skills. But understanding your priorities will help you to endure the risks, and seek out supportive environments, with people whose goals are similar to yours.

When April Heinrichs first came to UNC, she chewed through her teammates in practice. She ruthlessly pounded them. Concerned over her aggressive personality, some of the other players came to me and asked, "What are we going to do about April?" I answered without hesitation. "Clone her," I told them. I wanted everyone to compete like April. I thought it was wonderful.

Being dominant, aggressive and courageous--that's the powerful part of you. That is the part that is worthy of self-respect, and ultimately, the respect of others.


You are also empowered when you assume a position of leadership. One of the biggest issues in female leadership on the soccer field is that players have to find their voice when they compete. Soccer players need to talk on the field, and loudly. Female players are reluctant to do this. Again, I think it's because of the sociological issues. Typically, women don't like other women to lead them verbally, on the field. They don't want to hear another woman's voice. As a result, most feel self-conscious saying anything to others. This is our annual problem in developing our female leadership in the spring, after losing our seniors. A lot of female players know what to do on the field, but they hesitate to say anything to others, like, "Hey, back off," "pull back," or "get wide."  So they stand there and watch disaster take place, just because they are reluctant to hear their own voice.

This isn't just an issue for young players. This problem exists on the most elite levels as well. The players on my 2000 UNC team are wonderful, but they don't want to talk on the field. We have a bunch of mute zombies out there; as a result, we have absolutely no leadership presence. Even in practice, trying to get them to say something is like pulling teeth. It's such a big problem that we address it in the off-season. We have the players read The Leadership Moment (see recommended reading in the previous chapter). We discuss the book chapter by chapter. One of the chapters is about a smoke jumper who was in a position to save a group of people, but because he is the strong, silent type, he would not say the things he had to in the midst of crisis. That doesn't work in leadership. He knew what to do, but he couldn't communicate it. As a result, he survived, but 13 people died.

Carla Overbeck was one of the few players for us who would speak up on the field consistently, and she also used the correct tone. The voice she selected, and the comments she made, encouraged and inspired the other players, but they were not always positive statements. Sometimes, she was critical, but she didn't irritate or anger them. The right voice is a combination of tone and the manner with which you command a group. More girls and women need to find this leadership voice, and they have to use it. Otherwise, what happens--although obviously I mean this symbolically--is the smoke jumper disaster.

(For more on developing communication skills, see Chapter 14).

The Winning Mentality

While evaluating international teams for CONCACAF (FIFA's regional leadership arm) in the Gold Cup, a tournament of National Teams, I was interviewing the national coaches from Mexico, Canada and China. They told me that what distinguishes the Americans from other countries is their winning mentality. The USA players have an enormous will to succeed, and it is very respected.

This mentality is a description of the strength of your psychological dimension. It involves your capacity to reach down inside and find your inner hardness. It's what happens when you emerge triumphant from any physical duel or combative situation.     The winning mentality is partly optimism, but mostly it's a combination of focus, pride, competitive anger, relentlessness, hardness, fitness and courage--all of the most descriptive words for competitive athletics. This type of mentality is not about your skills or tactics. What it comes down to is intense desire. To get this winning edge, you need to build an indomitable will. This means you must be relentless; you must never give up.

What I love about this mentality is that it's not a talent; it's not part of a genetic code you're either born with or not. It's a choice, a decision you make to develop it. It is not an easy choice, but it is what is going to elevate you from the ordinary player. The question is: can you make the choice to be indomitable?  Of course, having this mentality doesn't guarantee winning, but it's a quality that gives you the incredible strength, power and hardness that is an element in every consistent winner. You are already aware of our emphasis on one v. one at UNC. We use one v. one as the best training ground for developing the winning mentality. That's because it embodies all of the qualities mentioned above.

The winning mentality is the defining aspect of the National Team and UNC players. But that doesn't mean they have this trait as soon as they get here. Our players are still a work in progress. Most young players are. I can see this in my evening talks on the winning mentality at summer camp. This mentality requires a domination in both practice and games. The girls nod their heads yes when I'm talking about this, but I know what most of them are thinking: That's not me.

We joke with our players all the time (remember the importance of a laugh?). We tell them that we know women have evolved to a higher level--they know their relationships are more important than soccer. That's absolutely true, we say, but forget that for the 90 minutes it takes you to win the game!

Transcending Ordinary Effort

At UNC, we talk about transcending ordinary effort. In our girls camps, for example, if you're doing Coervers (individual ball skills), extraordinary effort means you are on your physical and technical edge. On your physical edge, you're just about to wipe out from these break-neck radical changes of direction you are making at top speed. On your technical edge, you're just about to lose control of the ball. Often you do, because you're going too fast to hold onto it.

Ordinary effort is when you're comfortable. That's mediocrity.

A lot of athletes work within their comfort zone, physically and technically. They don't feel like they're going to lose control, or pass out from fatigue. But when you train within your comfort zone, you're not preparing yourself for a match. In a game situation, the other team is trying to take you out of your comfort zone. So, as soon as they do, you're in unfamiliar territory. You panic. You make a mistake, or lose the ball.

The challenge for you as an individual athlete is to find a way to elevate your environment. This is not easy. You likely have to set your own standards of practice performance. You are part of a team sport, in which coaches and your teammates are critical for motivation. It's tough to keep yourself on this edge independently. But this is what sets the truly great players apart. It is their capacity to do what I call "flame on" --to hit a button and just ignite. They can do this whenever, and with whomever.

There is no better example of this than our goalkeeper Jenni Branam. (As a sophomore, Jenni was an alternate on the 2000 Olympic team). What excited me about watching Jenni train in her freshman year was that when she was in goal, every single shot for her was the World Cup. That told me that she was only going to get better every year. And she has.

If you can train like every environment is the World Cup, take it to the most intense level, then your improvement is going to be remarkable. It will separate you from the ordinary.

The Philosophy of Confidence

The greater the artist the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize." That quote, from the art critic Robert Hughes, was given to me by Colleen Hacker, my sports psychologist.

I think its most important for people to realize that confidence is a living, breathing thing. It changes every single day. Its not like you wake up one day and say, I'm confident for the next ten years, and so that's the way you are. It's not like a pill you take. You don't tell yourself, "Alongside my Vitamin C, Ill take my confidence pill."

I think from that standpoint, confidence needs to be nurtured. You should practice it just like you do every other skill, whether its technical or tactical. Confidence takes work. I'm still working hard on it every single day.

Looking back, it's tough to say whether I was confident as a young player. Was I confident in terms of being singled out? No. But to some degree, I had an inner confidence about my abilities. I think I knew I was a good athlete.

As a child, I was probably a more introverted, shy person. Sports were a great outlet for me, and a great opportunity to connect with people. It's what I knew, what I understood, and what I liked to do. I felt a lot more comfortable playing, and competing in sports, than I did in any other aspect of my life.

I don't know if this personality trait is common among my peers. It's not like we've sat down and talked about these issues specifically. I think Kristine Lilly and I probably have a similar personality in this regard, and maybe Joy Fawcett as well.

There's a story that's told about Anson seeing me play for the first time at age 14. He's quoted as saying I ran through the pack and burst up the field. Probably no one would have doubted my confidence if they had seen me on the field as a young girl. But you're different when you're out there. I think when you're in an environment in which you're just playing, you don't think about confidence the way people typically do. If you're going to question yourself, you don't necessarily do it during a game, but before or after. If I had been questioning myself and my confidence while competing, I don't think I would be where I am today.

People ask whether crowds, or the aspect of performing, affect my confidence. Sometimes you're aware of the spectators, but a lot of the time, you're not, because you're so focused on what you're doing. That's the case with me, because crowds have never caused me a sense of panic. Confidence isn't at all affected by spectators, or the type of crowds. I think what has more of an impact on confidence is how you're feeling at the moment you're playing in terms of your present or your past successes--or lack of them--and the environment, or the situation of a game.

Can you be over-confident? I don't know if I'd ever use that word. When I think of someone who is "over-confident," I think of a person who doesn't have respect for the game. If you play soccer, you cant be over-confident, because you understand that in this game, anything can happen.

In everything you do--just as it is for me in athletics--there are varying degrees of confidence and doubt. You have different instances in games that either give you confidence, or put a little bit of doubt in your head. As an athlete, you make mistakes. You try to get past them. Sometimes, you have a series of games that take away from your confidence, and then, you have a series of games that help you build it. It's a lot harder to build up confidence than it is to tear it down. That's one of the reasons why a lot of elite athletes use sports psychologists. These athletes are trying to maximize their potential, knowing that the smallest little thing is going to help, or give them that edge. A lot of sports psychology ties into building confidence, such as positive self-talk, mental imagery, having a routine and visualization. All of these are useful techniques to help you maintain a consistent level of confidence.

Confidence is based on certain incidents, the way you play, and things that are said. So much can impact on your confidence, but as an athlete, you try to control it to the degree that you are able. Colleen Hacker, also the National Team's sports psychologist, talks with us about our circle of influence and our circle of control, and understanding that we can't get bogged down in what we have no control over. If you let that happen, then your focus isn't on what is important--making sure that you're there to play.

You learn to understand that just because you have one bad touch, it doesn't mean you have a bad game. You learn to get over things. I've talked a lot about one of my most important lessons, which I learned in college.

When I went to Carolina, I was in a much different environment than I had been in before. I was still one of the better players, but at the same time, I was surrounded by a lot of good players. There were players who had a stronger psychological dimension than I had--players whom I aspired to be like.

What worked for me in terms of building and maintaining confidence was to change my attitude and expectations. I'm a goal-scorer, and rarely are goal-scorers successful.  Using goal-scoring to determine my confidence would be like a baseball player banking on the fact that he was going to be confident only when he hit a home run, or, a basketball player feeling that only when he scored 30 or 40 points, or had a triple-double, would he be confident. If it's only at times like these that you're going to gain confidence when you play, you're going to be miserable. So, you have to find things in your game that you can have more control over. For me, that's my defensive effort, and my work rate.

I was not going to put pressure on myself by saying, "I know I'm playing great when I score five goals." Instead, I told myself, "You're going to gain more confidence every time you close down a defender, every time you win a ball, or make a great run, or set someone up," because those were things I had control over. What I found was that it took a lot of pressure off of me, and the goals became a lot easier. I felt that I had a better handle on having more of an impact on my confidence.

Gaining confidence is a result of time and experience, but I have also actively worked to improve it. When I was at UNC, we talked about things, but we didn't sit around saying, "Okay, let's dissect the psychological dimension. Let's analyze how we become more confident mentally." We found ways though. A great example was something that happened during the summer of my sophomore year. I was having a rather bad summer in terms of the way I was playing. I was working at UNC summer camp, and everything about my game felt off. I remember talking to Anson, and saying, "I stink right now. I can't do anything. My touch is off. I can't shoot. I'm this. I'm that."

"You know Mia," he said, "it's simply that you're off balance." "Really?" I replied.

"Yes, you're just off balance, in your touch, and the way you shoot."

My feeling was one of relief. "Wow, it's not everything; it's just one thing. Now, if I can just focus on that one thing, I'll be okay." And sure enough, that's all I concentrated on in my training. I told myself, "Okay, now just be on balance on your touch; don't lean back; don't lean too far forward; just be right." The next thing I knew, within a week, I was back to being creative and deceptive.

As athletes, sometimes we over-analyze. We think: it's everything. That's not true. It's just the way we view the situation at that time.

I've actually talked a lot about confidence, although it's not like there's a day-in, day-out cathartic episode-- "Mia's confidence."  With fame, people assume that you are confident. I think it has to do with having success. People may think I go out there every day with an attitude like, "Who am I going to beat up on today?" "Who am I going "to school" today?" That's not the way I am. Not that I sit around and doubt myself either, but at the same time, I question myself. "How do I feel? What do I need to do? Am I ready for this?" because every game brings about different challenges. If you're playing against a physical defense; if you're playing against a tactical defender; or someone who's extremely fast--it's just making sure to be ready, whatever the circumstances.

In some games, you feel you can do no wrong. Every touch is perfect. Every ball you serve is perfect. Then there are other games when you think, "Have I played before? Is this the first time I've ever kicked a soccer ball, because that's what it feels like right now." It's all so difficult. You're thinking about everything. The fact is, your thought process is too complex for what you're doing.

Confidence improves by gaining more experience, and by succeeding to play at higher and higher levels. The introduction of sports psychologists has also helped, and learning more about how to influence your confidence, and how to control it. This control means that your ebbs and flows aren't as great, that your peaks and valleys aren't as far apart, and that you are in a more consistent state.

My final advice on gaining confidence is to come to grips with the fact that you will have monumental days, and you will have days in which you struggle. Focus on what you can control when that happens, and understand that it is part of your soccer experience.

Mia Hamm ('89-'93)
copyright 2002, Clock Tower Press
The Vision of a Championis available on, or wherever books are sold.