How The US Women’s Team Got So Tough

Anson Dorrance is the University of North Carolina Women’s soccer coach who has helped develop many of the US National Team’s best players over the past several decades. He’s gotten more (well-deserved) attention in this World Cup cycle than he seems to have gotten in the past. One topic that regularly comes up is the mental toughness of the American players and how it’s admired around the world. He is often credited with setting that standard back in the 1970s. The story really starts with a young recruit in 1982 named April Heinrichs.


Before Heinrichs captained the first US Women’s team to win the first Women’s World Cup In 1991, she was a high school star being pursued by Dorrance at UNC. Up to that point he had coached the men’s team and was used to making the recruiting calls, offering some scholarship money, and getting a grunt for yes. He figured he was pretty good at it. When he started to call on Heinrichs, she’d always extend the conversation without giving a commitment and ask, “Coach, how does your team get along?” He was starting to doubt his skills, not being able to close the young star down. 


Over and over they’d talk about the program and her career, she’d ask the question, and Dorrance would brush off the answer. He kept calling, she kept asking. He finally broke down and told her they got along great. He explained how when he played, he liked his teammates well enough but it wasn’t like he had to marry them. If the forward had bad breath and the defender was rude – fine, so long as they got it done on the pitch. He assured her his team got along great, they were the team for her, and she accepted.


When Heinrich arrived for preseason training, she immediately informed her fellow freshman that she was “the alpha recruit,” surprising them all. In practice, she proceeded to blow out the freshman, dominate the sophomores, and embarrass the juniors. It wasn’t long before Dorrance had the entire team in his office complaining about her. He realized why she had so badly wanted to know if the team got along. On every team she had played for up to this point, she had never been accepted for the hyper-competitive spirit that she was. Dorrance realized she was never going to tone it down and accept being wonderfully mediocre, so this was his opportunity as a coach to change his team’s culture for the better. 


Dorrance believes “You don’t develop players in the recreational arena, you develop them in the competitive cauldron.” What we think of as the mental toughness of the American players today stems from changing the culture of that UNC team and then the first Women’s National team to raise their intensity to Heinrichs’ level all of the time. He explains how we aren’t hardened by winning, but from losing. True toughness comes from being so intensely hammered and hardened during practice that it explodes out of a team at the critical points of their critical games. If he refused to ease up, if Heinrichs refused to let up, then everyone else could choose to step up. And they did. For years now.


Practice matters. Working through the hard times matter. Professionally, we’ll find plenty of critics and peers who won’t want to push forward or step up to the challenges. What counts is that we do. It’s like the Randy Pausch quote, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Like Heinrichs’ teammates when they went to Dorrance’s office, they didn’t want this experience. Dorrance showed them how if they wanted to be great they’d have to embrace the stress. Heinrichs joining the team was an opportunity to make them all better and they ultimately chose to step up – posting a record of 3 losses, 3 draws, 85 wins, and 3 Championship titles over the next four years. 


So, when Alex Morgan scores the go-ahead goal against England and pretends to sip tea in celebration, or goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher saves a penalty kick with minutes left in the game to preserve the lead, we should think back to April Heinrichs and Anson Dorrance. How does the team get along? They’re tough, but they get along fine. Just fine. 

Want more culture and strategy lessons from the Women’s World Cup? See this post on Tobin Heath and this one on Megan Rapinoe.