On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Coach Anson Dorrance, head coach of the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina. He has one of the most successful coaching records in the history of athletics, leading his team during a 101-game unbeaten streak and coaching 13 different women to a total of 20 National Player of the Year awards. On this episode of Bring It In season three, Anson sat down with Sam and discussed ranking your players, setting standards and core values, and surrounding criticism with love and care.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Dorrance shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: First question. I have the perspective that the best managers aren’t just leaders, but they’re coaches, which I think is true. When you hear that, what comes to mind as we talk about how the best managers are really coaches?
Coach Dorrance: Well, I think what you’re trying to do within the context of what you’re talking about in the work world, but this applies in our stuff incredibly. I’m trying to drive every one of my kids to their potential. We’ve got all kinds of missions, a part of the mission is the athletic one, but believe it or not within this culture of a university context, it’s actually the third most important.
Our primary mission is to develop the character of the young women that we’re training. The second priority is their academic success. Then finally, it’s their soccer success. And so what you asked earlier about this cauldron thing, we have three basic tools that we use that I think separate us.
One is the cauldron. And what we do with a cauldron is we’re trying to figure out a way within the context of our practice to get everyone to compete like there’s no tomorrow. We follow the philosophy that steel sharpens steel. So if you want to develop elite athletes, you don’t develop them in a recreational environment. You develop them in an environment where they’re competing like there’s no tomorrow. And so there are two advantages to me, competing in a training environment. One is that I am going to improve by trying to beat everyone to death and every single minute of every single practice, but also the other kids will benefit from that because in order to deal with me, they have to raise their competitive level as well.
So here’s what the cauldron does. Every aspect of almost every practice, it’s a competition. At the end of that exercise or drill or game or race or this or that, or the other thing, everyone is ranked. If I have a 30 player roster at the end of every night, I have three analytics boys that are getting degrees in statistics here, convert that day’s practice into data and they’re ranked, they’re ranked from one to 30.
So here’s the advantage of this. First of all, they get immediate feedback, but the other advantage is, they want to get to the top and they will know if they’re not pushing hard enough or working hard enough. They’ll know if their preparation isn’t good enough coming into the session. And so what this motivates all of them to do is to compete.
Now, how did I sort of stumble on this stuff? We’ll all be completely honest. I’ll be transparent; Dean Smith. When I was a young coach, Dean Smith, the legendary former basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, who was Michael Jordan’s college coach. When I was this young coach came up to me one day and said, ‘Anson, if you’re bored one afternoon, please let us know. And we’d love for you to come watch us at basketball practice.’
And I was thinking, this is incredible. I get to watch one of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport run his sessions. And so I go into the session, I’m invited there with every one of my staff members. And as we come into this session, obviously we’re there early because we don’t want to disturb the practice. There’s a certain part of the stadium or arena that we’re sitting in so we don’t get in the way, we’re sitting there a little bit early. And then all of a sudden five minutes before the practice session begins a manager of the team comes up and hands us a practice outline of what’s going to happen.
I looked down at this thing and I was stunned. To the minute, it’s telling me what’s going to happen in every single second of this practice. And then sure enough, we’re following it, and it does. And here are the other things that impressed me, under every single basket in the gym is a manager with a clipboard and he’s recording whether or not a guy hit or missed a shot, whether or not he boxed out for a rebound or failed to. If it’s the two bigs against two other bigs, they’re having a little two V two competition underneath the basket.
This stuff is recorded. The three-point shooting is recorded. The three V three scrimmages are recorded. So are the four V four and five V five, everything is recorded in this practice and I am just stunned watching this. And then all of a sudden at the end of practice, and they’re following this protocol, a buzzer goes off and they go from one drill to the next. Another buzzer goes off, they sprint to the water and then another buzzer goes off 30 seconds later, they’re done with their water break. They sprint to the next thing they’re doing. They are sprinting all over the place going from one session to the other, there was no break.
And all of a sudden, at the end of the practice, the assistant managers with their clipboards sprint to the scores table, and there at the scores table is the head manager, and he’s grabbing this stuff from all of his associates. And now he’s compiling that day’s practice data. Dean Smith is now addressing the troops at the end of practice. And at the end of his address, he turns around. By this time the head manager has ranked every player in practice from one to 15, ranked. Everything has a different quality. Here’s your three-point shooting percentage for the day. Here’s your free first shooting percentage, here’s whether you box out or failed to, here’s whether you won or lost, everything is there.
And now you’re ranked from one to 15. Dean Smith now has the sheet of paper that the head manager handed him. And now he’s reading off the names. First five guys, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and practice performance. They leave to shower immediately. Next five line up on what I call the N line, whatever you call the edge of the court in basketball. And now it’s the free throw line and back, mid stripe and back, other free throw line and back, end of the court and back. And now they are doing these frigging sprints. So those five, I’ve done those for a while in the last five, I assume we’re doing these sprints until the end of reported time.
And I loved it. I love the accountability of it. I love the immediacy of the feedback, and all of a sudden we stole that stuff. We took into our environment. We soccerized it, and we took it to a completely different level. That’s what we call the competitive ballgame. At the end of every single day in practice, you’re going to get an email ranking you in that practice.
By the end of the season, we’ve got a cauldron rank in every single practice for the entire year, and it dictates where you’re going to go. The top 10 are basically starters, the top 16 basically playing every game.The top five end up signing pro contracts. The top three in my program ended up winning gold medals in the Olympics, and ended up winning world championships in the United States. And so this data collection is critical because what we can project, we can project where a kid’s going to go based on this fundamental principle of the cauldron. Fight like hell, be the alpha and win everything.
And we develop such an incredible mentality. It is produced basically now because I was the first coach that took the United States from nowhere to the top of the world. The United States has won four world championships and four gold medals. A lot of those championships and gold medals were won with players right out of my program. We have won 22 national championships. All of this has been done through the cauldron.
So that’s one of the functions that has made all the difference in the world, but it’s not in my opinion the most important one. The most important ones are our core values. Our core values are our character. I want my kids to develop principle-centered living. I want them to basically treat people with extraordinary compassion and kindness. I want them to basically be wonderful leaders, and the principles of our core values, or what we try to drive everyone in the program to live. In the old days, because I love reading business books, I’ve read all the business books of best sellers and I’ve read them all. And honestly, I knew that what you had to do with them, like your culture, wants to get people to do extraordinary things, to live the culture.
And so I had all these things, fundamental statements like, ‘we work hard’ or, ‘we don’t whine,’ basically all the principles to try to create this great culture. And I’ll be honest with you, nothing seemed to work and all of a sudden I am reading this thing out of the New York Times magazine. And it’s an article written about this woman that attended Columbia University, and she was sent there to study for a Ph.D. in Russian literature and Russian poetry. She’s telling me the story in the New York Times, and I am captivated by it. And here’s what she tells me. She says, you know what? When I went to Columbia, we had just hired a Russian exile poet by the name of Joseph Brodsky.
Brodsky comes into Columbia. He assembles all of us in a room, all of the Ph.D. candidates and masters candidates and says, ‘Okay, I want all of you people to memorize reams of Russian poetry and Russian literature.’ And now these students are looking at each other and they can’t believe it. They leave the room and they get together as a cabal and they say, ‘oh my gosh, this crazy Russian doesn’t know what he’s doing. We are some of the best students in the world. And this is one of the world’s great universities. We are not going to go back to elementary school and memorize poetry for this man. I don’t think he understands who is in the room. Let’s go back and tell him that he’s crazy. We want to be educated the way a Columbia student should be educated. We’re not going to memorize poetry. That’s too far beneath us.’
They go storming back into Brodsky’s office. ‘I’m sorry, professor, but I don’t think you understand where you are. We are some of the best students in Russian literature and poetry in the world, and we are not going to memorize poetry for you. That’s what elementary school children do in the United States.’ Brodsky looks at all and says, ‘Okay, you guys don’t memorize this poetry and this literature, and none of you guys get your PhDs.’ And with tails firmly tucked between their legs, they went out of his office and got to work. This woman said this was transformational. For the first time in her life, she felt what it was like to be in a Russian winter. The first time in her life and all of her conversations she had at her fingertips Russian poetry to recite to a colleague as they were discussing this poem or this short story or this novel. And it changed, it changed her cerebral fabric. It changed everything about her appreciation for the poetry and literature that she was studying.
And I was thinking, okay, this stuff I’ve done for years, none of it has worked. I’m going to try it. So we took every one of our principles and we attached a motivational quote that every kid in our program had to memorize. One of the most destructive things in athletics are the whiners. Behind the coaches back, behind everyone’s back, they’re whining to their parents. ‘They should be starting. The coach hates me.’ They’re just whining and whining about everything under the sun. I mean, I absolutely hate it. So here’s what every freshman has to memorize before they get here to follow the principle that we don’t want. This is a George Bernard Shaw quote, and it goes like this;
“Be a force of fortune. Instead of a feverish selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” That is my George Bernard Shaw quote about not being a frigging whiner. We hate whiners in the program. We have 13 different core values that every one of our players has to live by.
And every one of our players, basically, as peer evaluation, evaluates every kid in the program. And this is something I learned from Jack Welch because I spent several years working for FranklinCovey and he was our keynote speaker. I was one of the warm-up bands along with Stephen Covey and Hyrum Smith. Hyrum Smith’s is the Franklin side of FranklinCovey.
And we would give speeches and then Jack Welch, the famous CEO of General Electric, would get up there on a stage and sit in a comfortable chair like I’m doing now. Sitting next to him in a comfortable chair would be some editor of Fortune magazine or one of the big journals in the industry. And this person would ask him questions.
My favorite moment, every time I would hear him speak, was when he would tell everyone in the room that every single year fire, the bottom 10% of your workforce, everyone in the room would gasp. And all of a sudden their hands were in the air. ‘No, no, no. Let me tell you something Mr.Welch, I’m sorry, but I took a guy that was a substandard salesman for me. I’ve worked with him and a year or two later, he was the best salesman at the company. I’m sorry, but I completely disagree with what you’re saying.’ And he would be very patient and he wouldn’t debate them and he would just nod and let them finish.
And he would say, ‘you’re not a sociologist. You don’t have to save everyone in your company. You’re a businessman. Your function is the bottom line. And I promise you if you took that energy that you’ve poured into a substandard salesman and you poured it into the top people in their company, your bottom line would be better. Your moral imperative is not to save that man or that woman, your moral imperative is for that widow that bought stock in GE, to make sure that every single year, that dividend was the maximum figure because she needs to pay her rent. She needs to live. That’s your job, your job isn’t to save people. And let me tell you something. When you fire these people, they are going to hate you for the rest of their lives, but they don’t want to work for you. If they wanted to work for you, they would not be in the bottom 10%. And let me tell you this, when you fire them, what you are hoping for them, they can find a place they want to be for a company they want to work for. So you’re doing them an extraordinary service.’
And I was thinking, this is incredible, because for years I tried to save everyone. And then after I had a collision with this player and her family that had me involved in a ten-year lawsuit, a girl I should have cut in the preseason of her freshman year and it would have solved all kinds of problems a couple of years later, when I finally did cut her, I’ve now learned it. I’ve learned the lesson that some people just don’t want to be in my culture. So there’s a line we draw. If they are below the line and they’re on scholarship, I try to get them to transfer. If they’re below the line and they’re not on scholarship, I try to get them to quit.
And this was extraordinary. We want our kids to live our core values and if they don’t live them, I have now learned that I have to get rid of them. That 10 year lawsuit was a part of it, but also Jack Welch, one of the great business people of all time, convinced me of this as well. So that’s the second principle.
So obviously let’s change the order. The most important thing is what I just addressed. The second most important thing is the competitive cauldron, and the final thing is my other function is to take everyone’s personal narrative to the truth. Here is the problem, especially now in our modern culture. Under some delusion that these parents have, they think that by trying to raise their children with this idea of self-esteem or their praise for everyone, which is a part of the culture where everyone gets a trophy, they have eliminated standards for their own children. So these kids I’m coaching right now come from a culture where their parents think they’re God’s gift or whatever.
We had a sociologist, our preeminent sociologist on campus come to speak to us in 2012. I loved him speaking to all of the athletic coaches on the campus. And what he was telling us is who we are trying to recruit, and who we are trying to train right now. To be honest, he spoke for an hour. I didn’t need an hour. The first slide he showed was all I needed, and here was the first slide. The first slide had the year 1969 on it. And I loved having that year on it because that was the year I graduated from high school. This kid is coming home from school. This kid is now there with his parents and he’s got all F’s on his report card.
You see, in this first slide, the parents are screaming at the kid. Then he shifted the next slide, to 2012, the year we were in. The kid has come home from school with all F’s on his report card. And the parents are now screaming at the teacher. Back in my day, we were accountable for our grades and our parents held us responsible for our performance. We had standards in the way I was raised and I knew what was right and wrong. And now what’s happening is we have all gone to the dogs. Now, the way we raise our kids, as we spend every single day ass-kissing all of them, they have no sense of authority because they know their parents are full of crap. They have no standards because everything they do is remarkable.
Their parents love them out of this diluted feeling that, ‘I’m going to build my kids’ self-esteem by telling them how wonderful they are when they’re not.’ And now all of a sudden, I have to deal with these kids. Basically these human wrecks, because the parents have absolutely spoiled them. No standards, no respect for authority. And so that’s where we are right now. So every kid comes in with a personal narrative that protects them from pain and accountability. What’s my job? My job is to get them to the truth as fast as possible. Because as long as every kid I coach has an excuse for why they don’t start or play or travel, they will never be able to change their place.
And so that’s my main job. My first meeting with every kid in September of their freshman year is to get their personal narrative to the truth. And it is a wrestling match because they’re not there yet. Why aren’t they there? Because they’ve been filled with absolute garbage from their parents and often from their youth coaches. And my job is to get them to the truth because where do I want them to go? I want them to win gold medals in the Olympics. I want them to win world championships. I want them to win national championships. I want them at the end of every single day with my three statistical analytics guys at the end of practice, they’re going to get an email and they’re going to see where in that practice from one to 30 they ranked, and they have to have the resilience to look at it and say, ‘yep, I am 26. I am never going to make this travel roster unless I change.’ And now all of a sudden they’re going to become responsible for everything. And then once they do, once they start to finish high, once they start to play, they understand that everything’s in their full control, including winning and losing matches at the highest possible level.
So those three fundamental things, basically the core values, which is character construction, the competitive cauldron, which is basically mentality construction. And then basically getting their personal narrative to the truth and my opinion, those are the three most critical things about what my responsibility here is for these wonderful kids I get to train.
Sam: Coach, I think there’s a lot of stuff that any business owner could take from what you just said, especially the getting them to the truth part. I was just talking to a restaurant owner who was struggling to find the right mix of workers for whatever reason that might be.
And people are thinking about how do I find workers, get them onboarded, develop them, keep them, get them performing. Part of that is hiring more coaches to do that. I mean, in your career and experience, what’s different from developing players to developing coaches? What have you found on the developing coaches side that maybe would, if I was a business owner out there thinking about how do I build my senior leadership team? Any advice to share on that front?
Coach Dorrance: Yes. First of all, what everyone has to embrace is that everyone is different. There’s no cookie-cutter route to creating the people you want. So the first thing you have to embrace is that everyone’s different. And if your particular leadership voice or coaching voice doesn’t work with this person, you’ve got to change your voice. If this button doesn’t work, you’ve got to find a different button.
A part of being able to lead anyone, especially now is to win their trust. Especially if it’s a woman, if a woman doesn’t trust you, I don’t care how competent you are and insightful you are and inspiring you are. It’s not gonna work. So the first step in leading anyone is to win their trust. How do you win their trust? You care about them. You get to know them, you get to find out how to lead them and you have to embrace the fact they are different.
They have to get a sense of their relationship with you that you appreciate the fact they are different. And as a result, your relationship with, it’s going to be a different relationship. It’s not a sort of thing you can lead through a memorandum. So it’s not an email you can send out to your 6,000 employees and hope to lead them. Or if you have a collection of small societies with the six people you’re leading and your restaurant group it’s cookie cutter where yeah, we all do this. No, everything is different. Every person is different. Everyone is motivated differently and you’ve got to get to the core of who they are. So part of this is you as a leader, investing the time consuming, but I’ll tell you an incredibly rich thing about relationships.
I am a member of a conservative church. Every one of my church teaches. I loved the introductory course that we were given to learn how to teach in our church. Here is the first principle of teaching in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Here is the first principle. I took this right into my coaching profession. And this has served me better than any other piece of advice I have ever been given in leadership and coaching in my life. The first principle of teaching and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, is love those you teach. If you love those you teach, if you love those to coach, if you love those you lead, they’re going to feel it. Now, does this mean in loving them, you don’t set standards for them? No, this just means if you love them you don’t critique them or criticize them, or basically try to get them to the truth.
Now, some of this could be very aggressive, but if you love them, they will sense it. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given by any player I’ve ever coached was a kid of mine that was playing in the pro leagues. She called me up one day. She was so frustrated with her professional coach. And she said of the incident, ‘I can’t believe it, this guy is just, I hate playing for this guy.’
And then she said, and this is a wonderful backhand compliment, she said, ‘you know, after I played for you, I felt like a play for anyone. In other words, you were so incredibly demanding. I didn’t think there was a coach in the world that I couldn’t play for. Cause you know, all you did for me is tell me this wasn’t good enough. That wasn’t good. You criticized me here. This wasn’t good enough. I mean, I thought I could play for anyone. But when I played for you, I could feel the love between the criticism and around the criticism. I could feel the love.’ And my ego after that conversation or soaring like a hawk, she could feel my love. And yeah, there were a lot of things she didn’t do to get on the field for me.
But she said basically between your criticism, I could feel your love. You cared about me and you still care about me. And that’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received, even though it’s sort of framed as a backhanded compliment. Because I rode this kid, I knew what her potential was and if she has this extraordinary potential now, ‘Anson I’m the best on the team at this,’ and you’re not happy. I said, there’s another level in you. There’s another level in you. You just want to be the best on this team. I thought you wanted to sign a pro contract. Being best on my team is good enough for where you want to go. You want to sign a pro contract. This is another level. And so I really appreciated that. So all these things are critical. If you want to coach or lead in any environment.
Sam: Last question for you. The girls you get to coach, and across college athletics, all the players that come through programs are going to move on at some point and join a workforce and work their way through and hopefully become leaders. Right now we’re talking about future of work. What’s your hope for the future of work?
Coach Dorrance: I just finished reading a book and I’m going to recommend it to all of your listeners right now. Arthur Blank, who is the co-founder of Home Depot. He also runs the Falcons and he runs Atlanta United, which is his MLS soccer team in Atlanta, came onto campus last week.
Our chancellor met him at the airport and then for some reason, and I was so flattered, he and his executive staff wanted to hear basically what I’ve just shared with you. And that was wonderfully flattering, so I prepared a presentation for some of the top people that work for Arthur Blank, including, by the way, his head coach of the Falcons was up here as was the president of Atlanta United, their MLS team.
And in preparation for making the presentation, one of my athletic directors, Rick Steinbacher gave me a book he wrote called Good Company. And again, as I mentioned earlier, I read reams of business books. This is one of the greatest business books I’ve ever read. And what I love about its ultimate theme, it’s basically doing well by doing good. And he believes in creating community, he believes in treating people exceptionally well. He believes in basically having an impact on all the things I’m talking about; the construction of character, giving back to your community, involving the community.
And I absolutely loved everything in his book. And even though, basically I made the presentation to him and his and this is executive staff like I’ve made to your listeners, I learned more reading that book, and what I loved about it is getting back to the principle of loving those you lead, loving those you coach, loving those you, teach because he clearly does.
I had a kid that I recruited but I actually lost to Wake Forest, a wonderful kid that worked for him. And I called her up to sort of vet him. And she said, ‘Anson, this is the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met in my life. Everything you read in his book is absolutely true. He’s an unbelievable man, but he’s incredibly demanding.’
So please don’t be confused about this man. I mean, he’s incredibly demanding and yet you can feel his love for you. And sure enough, if all of your listeners would buy and read that book, they’re going to get a sense of what their moral imperative is. And it’s certainly not just the bottom line. It’s not just the Jack Welch speech. It’s what business can do for America.
So here’s my dream, and I’ve stolen this entirely from Arthur Blank, so I want to credit him before I start bloviating about it. Yes, don’t just be a leader in the business world, be a leader in your local community, certainly a leader in your family. Be a leader in your neighborhood, be a leader in the people that you contact and approach every single day. Be an incredibly positive life force. Here’s what’s happening right now, and we’re seeing it. It’s unrolling itself out on a world stage. There’s a call right now towards authoritarianism. There’s a call to basically what’s happening in Russia, where they control industries. And basically you have a strong man running everything.
And we had alerts towards authoritarianism, and it was Donald Trump. And basically what he is trying to tell me. what Arthur Blank is trying to tell me is no. Can business save America in a very positive sense? Yes, but not through any sort of authoritarianism. But through this love, love of family, love of neighborhood, love of community, love of the people that work for you and the people you serve, the customers, because he’s also a free enterprise, this unbelievable man, Arthur Blank is. And he explains all of this in this book. So I think, yeah, business can save the world. It can save the United States, but it has to be done in the right way. And so I want to sort of leave that with all of you, but I am not an authority on this, please, I am just a women’s soccer coach at the university of North Carolina. So please grab Arthur Blank’s book and read it and then take it to heart.
Sam: Coach, thanks for taking time.
Coach Dorrance: My pleasure.
Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Coaching, Leadership, Soccer, Student Athletes, NCAA, Parenting