Anson Dorrance: 'Coaching is stealing best practices'

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Twenty years ago, Anson Dorrance coached the USA to victory at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. During his 1986-1994 national team tenure he coached the USA's first generation of great female players, including Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs and Kristine Lilly, who also played for him at the University of North Carolina, where Dorrance is aiming for his 22nd national title. We spoke to Dorrance upon the USSF’s unveiling of its "U.S. Soccer Curriculum" for youth coaching.

SOCCER AMERICA: What differences do you see in the players coming to college soccer compared to 10, 20, 30 years ago?

The top players are similar. But the average players right now are so much better than they were.

While the average player is much better, I would be hard-pressed to tell you that players coming into college are more effective than April Heinrichs, or Michelle Akers, or Carin Jennings-Gabarra. The truly elite player we had back in the day would still, if they were young enough, be able to compete as starters on our full national team today.

SA: What about their attitude?

We have a psychologist at the university come in on a regular basis and describe the generation we’re coaching to keep us abreast how this group wants to be treated.

And it changes regularly, every five, 10 years. All of us who coach are making adjustments with the current population we’re working with. …

I’ve had to change the way I communicate with my players, so now I’m attached to my BlackBerry, text-messaging, hoping I’ll learn how to type faster on that thing!

SA: Alarm bells have gone off about American women’s soccer because other nations have caught up and are producing more skillful teams than the USA. Looking back 20 years, what should we have been done differently?

Trust me, if we had done what’s being put in place now, [a curriculum] for Zone 1, the U-12 level and below, and Zone 2, the teenage level, there’s absolutely no question in my mind we’d be at a different level.

SA: So you believe the “U.S. Soccer Curriculum” that Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna created will have an impact?

What I like about what Claudio has done is he’s designed it for our unique soccer culture. Elite coaches will benefit from it. But it’s also something you can hand to a parent coach at the U6 level without any soccer knowledge at all – and just by following this recipe, this cookbook, we’re going to be developing soccer players at a faster and higher level than we’ve done with our traditional methodology.

So I absolutely love the document. I love the way U.S. Soccer is presenting it. I love the fact that the Academies are going to use this as their player development bible. I love the fact that we’re trying to finally coordinate the entire country underneath a collection of soccer principles that are viable and proven worldwide.

SA: What makes “The Curriculum” so valuable?

There’s nothing in the document that I think is particularly profound. From Barcelona to Arsenal to Tahuichi, I don’t care where you’re from, these are principles that we all agree on -- and Claudio has done a great job assembling it for all of us.

Coaching is stealing best practices. All of us steal best practices from great teams or whoever our mentors are. That’s what I like about this document. This is almost a collection of proven best practices from all of the elite player development platforms in the world. It’s assembled in a document an educated coaching population can follow.

SA: No doubt there’s much to be said for Barcelona’s playing style, its philosophy, and the success of its youth academy. But Barcelona also employs scores of scouts and the players who enter its program arrive with exceptional skills, such Lionel Messi, who was already a terrific 13-year-old player when he entered La Masia …

We’re not going to slough off the responsibility for developing great players by saying the raw material at Barcelona is so much better so we’ll never catch them.

Back in the old days, the European basketball coaches used to come over to this country and see the Dean Smiths and all the great coaches. They’d ask, “What should we do in our practice sessions?” -- and Dean Smith would tell the European coaches, “Work on the fundamentals. … dribbling, shooting, etc, etc.”

So these European coaches went back within the confines of their unique player development environments -- which were not like the American playgrounds. And they developed players who are now complete players in the NBA.

I think we have a similar potential. Our potential is to steal some of the stuff Barcelona is doing and inject it at all levels of our culture. We’re going to take responsibility for our development.

SA: Why are the U.S. women’s and girls national teams no longer as dominant?

We’re not as slick as we should be. We’re not as technical as we should be. We’ve relied on the classic American mentality and American athleticism because our genetic pool is so large, but we’re just not as polished and not sophisticated enough.

As a result these other countries, who could never get on the field with us, like a Mexico, now actually can steal a game from us. We have to get back to work.

SA: Perhaps there wasn’t enough criticism of how the U.S. was getting results so we ended up with a playing style that relied too much on athleticism rather than skill …

Part of our evolution as a soccer culture is to be self-critical. That’s the first step and it’s starting to change. I genuinely feel a lot of what’s going on right now is tremendous for us and in the next eight years we’ll see a significant difference in the way Americans approach a game.

On the men’s side, too, it’s no longer good enough just to get a result.

We still want the result, but we want to dominate more of the game, have more of the ball, play a certain way. Our expectations are changing in a very positive way.

SA: It seems to me that relying on size and athleticism to win seems to be an even bigger problem on the girls' side than on the boys’ …

Yes, it is. And a part of the reason is the girls don’t watch the game. And honestly not too many of their coaches do either.

And the game they should watch, in all deference to where ever our top women’s teams are, is the men’s game. The men’s game is the university for the women’s game. We should be studying the men’s game the way anyone would study at an institution of higher learning.

We’ve got to learn from the men and part of the way to learn is to watch. But we don’t and as a result we lack sophistication, we lack problem-solving, we lack ideas in the final third.

And the way we survive in the women’s game is with raw athleticism. We overpower another player and blow it into the goal -- and that’s not going to cut it anymore.

SA: Have you seen an increase in women coaches in recent years?

I haven’t really seen an enormous change, but I’m convinced that U.S. Soccer hiring April Heinrichs [Technical Director] and Jill Ellis [Development Director] will make a difference.

The model I’m using is Germany, where they now have 17 full-time people within their own federation who do nothing but the development of women’s soccer in Germany. They’re hiring former full international players, from Tina Theune-Meyer and Maren Meinert on down, who are responsible to develop their age group.

Now that we’ve hired two full-time people who are embedded in U.S. Soccer you’re going to see some changes. Women will see there’s a career option for them when they see full-time people whose entire commitment is women’s development.

Now, an athletic director at the collegiate level will always try to hire a woman first, but unfortunately not enough of our elite women players are staying in the game as coaches. Women have to see this can be a legitimate lifetime profession for them.

SA: What's the difference between coaching males and females?

We could go on forever on that. ... You want a sound bite?

SA: Sure ...

I hate giving sound bites, because everyone will take exception, but I’ve been taken exception my whole life so why make an exception now?

Basically women are easier to coach but harder to manage. Men are more difficult to coach but easier to manage.

Without giving you my book report on it, it basically boils down to those cliches.

(Anson Dorrance, a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, is in his 33rd season as women’s head coach of the UNC Tar Heels, with which he’s won 20 NCAA Division I crowns and one AIAW title. He was coach of the UNC men’s team in 1976-1998. He was coach the U.S. women’s national team in 1986-1994 and lifted the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991.)

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

5 comments about "Anson Dorrance: 'Coaching is stealing best practices' ".
  1. Luis Arreola, May 18, 2011 at 3:34 p.m.

    Mexico is beating USA now because USA is getting worse and Mexico better. Why can't these coasches say it like it is?? The reason? He is right about the style of play of USA relying on Athleticism. Mexico has improved because it now has some Mexican descent players that played in the USA format while keeping their Hispanic style of play. These are only a few players. Mexico does not have a girls youth program, so USA should in no way be losing to a few players. Maybe there should be more Hispanics on the USA team. That would work for sure.

  2. Brad Partridge, May 19, 2011 at 9:47 a.m.

    As a nation and as coaches we seem to recognize and admit that we need to develop more technically advanced players, yet we continue to focus and emphasize tactical and physical development. The latest U.S. Soccer Curriculum like Project 40 is missing the boat. The saddest element is in the first part of the document under Style of Play:
    “Quick transitions and finishing:
    Speed of play, avoiding over-dribbling, looking for an organized and quick movement of the ball and finishing will be encouraged in all age groups.”
    This translates into training players to play vertical soccer. Vertical soccer promotes playing forward all the time and discourages players from holding or dribbling the ball. It also encourages and emphasizes getting rid of the ball as soon as you receive it. And to make matters worse they encourage this for all age groups.
    Ok, so what should we do? In our youth programs U12 and under we should have coaches emphasize, recognize and reward players that can control the ball. Specifically we need to encourage players to take an opponent on and beat them with the ball. Moves with the ball, feints and trickery should be our mantra. Small sided games: 1 vs 1, 2 vs 2, 3 vs 3 and 4 vs 4, should be the competitive format for encouraging this development. Tactics should be kept to a minimum of teaching players to recognize and maintain basic shape: Height, Width and Depth. All players should play in every area of the field: Defensive, Central and Offensive and need to be encouraged to exchange positions during the flow of the game while maintaining basic shape.
    Messi and Marta did not develop their unique abilities by being encouraged to pass the ball and avoiding over-dribbling!

  3. Rick Figueiredo, May 19, 2011 at 10:40 a.m.

    There are very few futebol "gods" for me in this world. Anson is one of them. I place him up there with John Wooden as a teacher who opened up the doors that locked my mind from higher learning. Not just about "soccer" but about life. I will need time to digest this interview. Also time to study Claudio Reyna's ideas on how to change the course of futebol in the USA. The key of course is to understand how the american can adapt the sport to their natural cultural and personal characteristics. As Sebastiao Lazaroni of Brasil once told me "Study each players characteristics first and use them, don't try to change them. Develop them in their natural direction." Mike - thanks for the interview and please talk to Anson some more!

  4. beautiful game, May 19, 2011 at 12:16 p.m.

    Michelle Aikers, Hamm and Lilly were icons of quality and passion. I don't see any of these same qualities on the current USWNT.

  5. Brad Partridge, May 19, 2011 at 2:16 p.m.

    I am a firm believer in the fact that we need to have a curriculum and a style of play in the U.S. We also have to constantly reinforce and encourage players to understand and apply the principles of the game. We need to develop players who have mastered and become exceptional in using fundamental skills. This needs to be accomplished well before we ask them to develop a style of play. Look at Anson’s answers:
    “We are not as slick as we should be. We are not as technical as we should be”.
    “We lack sophistication”
    As I mentioned previously the efforts for our youth players U12 and under needs to focus on fundamentals (Moving with the ball, Receiving the ball, Redirecting the ball and Moving without the ball). As a culture our players are not likely to work on these skills by themselves let alone watch professional games on a consistent basis. So we as coaches need to create an environment an opportunities for young players to be required, rewarded and reinforced when they work on and master the fundamentals. While not every player will want to become exceptional we need to provide a place for those that do.

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