Socrates on the Sidelines

Anson Dorrance's teaching methods - along with his passion for his sport and his players - are grooming first-rate coaches for the women's game.

Anson Dorrance, as he readily admits, didn't see much value in being a coach when he was starting out a quarter-century or so ago.

''I didn't think of it as a real job,'' he says. ''I was in training as a lawyer, and I thought that would be a real job. Coaching? That's something to do on afternoons and weekends. I didn't think it had the depth or the value of other professions.''

His primary focus, when in the late 1970s he added the University of North Carolina's women's program to his part-time duties as the Tar Heels' men's coach, was his studies at UNC's law school. What he was learning then - in the classroom and on the field - changed women's soccer forever.

From his players, and his interaction with them, Dorrance discovered how wrong he'd been about the coaching profession, how impactful a coach can be in his players' lives. From his studies, he learned the ultimate manner in which to school his players, in which to provide the basis for a comprehensive soccer education.

The results:

A U.S. women's national team - heavily stocked with Tar Heels - that has set global standards while winning two world titles and Olympic gold;

Seventeen national collegiate championships in 21 years and nearly 530 victories since Dorrance's Carolina women debuted in 1979;

Immense and growing influence on the women's game at all levels, the product of methods that have made North Carolina, if you will, America's premier soccer coaching academy.

April Heinrichs, head coach of the U.S. women's national team, and Lauren Gregg, WUSA talent guru and former U.S. assistant, were Tar Heels. So, too, were Tracey Leone, who guided the U.S. U-19 women to a world title in September, and Marcia McDermott, whose Carolina Courage went from worst to WUSA champion. Throw in another dozen of the finest college coaches in the land, and the multitudes working with high schools and youth teams across the nation, and it's clear North Carolina women's soccer is much more than championship rings and trophies.

''When you go to North Carolina,'' says Angela Kelly, who is quickly building Tennessee's women's program into a national power, ''you get a degree in whatever you're studying and a minor in coaching because of the Socratic way Anson coaches. He always keeps you accountable. That forces you to be very tactically clued in and aware.''

''Days on the bench,'' adds Ohio State coach Lori Walker, ''were like being in a coaching clinic. That was the single greatest gift I took from Carolina: I paid attention on the bench rather than sit there feeling sorry for myself. I sat next to the coaches and was a sponge.''

''Anson would start a lot of meetings,'' reports Leone, who first played for Dorrance as a 14-year-old on a regional team, ''by addressing the team as 'future coaches of America.' [His was] a tremendous learning environment that you take with you the rest of your life.''

Dorrance and chief assistant coach Bill Palladino have for years overseen an intensely competitive and structured environment in which players are given tremendous responsibility - and provided the freedom to be creative. The why is as important as the what, and Socratic sessions - the foundation of Dorrance's method, learned while at law school, where it was ''a forceful way they make you pay attention'' - plants in his players' brains a rare understanding of the game.

''In the Socratic method,'' explains Leone, ''you ask the question first so everybody has to think of the answer. You don't say the name [of the person who will be called upon] first. So everybody has to think of an answer because you don't know if you're going to be called or not. ... It's not like a group answer, where people can hide and not be held accountable. It keeps you plugged in.''

''It's not 'this is what you do,' it's 'this is what you do and why,' '' says Illinois coach Janet Rayfield, who played on the Tar Heels' first team. ''It's the whole why question - holding players accountable and responsible for understanding their role within the game. That philosophic style, that Socratic style, forced players to think about the game. That's the coaching side of the game, thinking about and analyzing the game.''

Dorrance believes such tactics build a bridge for players, if they wish, to become successful coaches. ''The relationship between being a very good player and a very good coach is being able to articulate what you know. The girls who do have a good understanding, if they can articulate their understanding, they can be effective coaches.''

''Meticulous attention to detail, intense, competitive practices that duplicate the heart of the game, studying every possible tactical scenario - at UNC we pride ourselves on being tremendously thorough,'' Dorrance writes in ''The Vision of a Champion,'' published this fall by Sleeping Bear Press. ''This is a necessity of excellence, and the hallmark of what we try to do. ... Everything we do has been rehearsed. No game scenario is left to chance. We dissect the sport: technically, tactically, physically and psychologically.

''One of the benefits of this system to the players is the enormous amount of information we share with them. We give players feedback on everything in practices and games. By the time they graduate, they know so much about the game that each one is prepared to be a fine coach.''

The proof is on display each time the U.S. women take the field, or every fall weekend, when coaches such as Kelly, Maryland's Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, Walker and San Francisco's Pamela Kalinoski lead their teams into battle.

''There's so much of my coaching personality that is derived from the whole experience I had at Carolina,'' says Rayfield, McDermott's former assistant at Arkansas. ''It's not just Anson, it's the experience of the program as a whole: Anson and his philosophy, the demand for excellence, the unwillingness to allow you to settle for less than you're capable of. ... It's influenced not just the way I feel about coaching, the way I feel about the game as a whole and what the game has brought me.''

UNC players often get their first taste of coaching at the UNC summer camps, running sessions for young players.

''The camp system with [longtime assistant coach] Bill Palladino is a coaching school,'' says Walker, a former goalkeeper who got her start in the profession under Heinrichs at Maryland. ''The best way to learn about the game of soccer is to teach it, to break it down and explain it in ways that a 12- or 13-year-old can understand.''

''All these coaches who ascended to greatness in the profession were these people who pursued working camps in summer with us,'' Dorrance says. ''You'd go by and listen to their sessions, and they were captivating. You could see, even in embryo, Tracey Bates [Leone's] potential greatness. You could see just in the way Marcia McDermott organizes a sentence that her capacity to communicate separated her from other people. Angela Kelly was so passionate, you didn't want to leave her session because you were afraid you'd miss something important about life.''

Former Tar Heels now coaching say they've incorporated into their programs much of what they experienced at UNC, everything from Socratic sessions to tremendously competitive training environments, with specific drills and strategies (keeping a public record of how players fare in training exercises, for instance), to lifting bits and pieces of Dorrance's vocabulary - '' 'Ansonisms,' I call them,'' says Walker.

Like Dorrance, they make certain their teams always bring their best effort - a sign of respect for the opponent - and learn to hate losing. Like Dorrance, they seek a deep and lasting relationship with their players. Results are secondary.

''One of the things I learned at Carolina, that I've carried with me in my coaching career, is that it's not about winning and losing,'' McDermott says. ''There's more to it than that. ... You have to focus on the development of players, on reaching a higher and higher level. Winning is a byproduct of that. The hardest thing to control is winning; there are so many variables. You pursue excellence - I think that's a maxim in all sports. You can be very results-oriented, but if you're not taking care of development, two things occur. One, [your success] will be shallow; and second, it will be fleeting.''

Dorrance once believed being a coach was of little value.

''What changed my mind,'' he says, ''was that your capacity to impact and influence makes it unbelievably special. I think what the players feel if we're doing things properly at UNC, they feel valued by us, and I think that connection validates chasing this as a profession.

''What they probably felt when they played at UNC is that this group of people really cared about them on and off the field. I think maybe the memory of that caused them to want to jump in and recreate that for themselves and for the players they train.

''A very powerful bond exists between all of us, a very personal connection. It's not X's and O's, it's not athletic. It's very personal, and it's incredibly deep.''

by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French

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