Part II: Anson Dorrance about sports psychology and the revolution in women’s soccer

How important would you say is mental health or sports psychology for your work? Cause in my eyes, the US are much better than Germany and it has been like Jürgen Klinsmann has brought it from the US to Germany in 2005 and everybody in Germany was like ‘Oh, what is he doing?’. He installed a sports psychologist, fitness coaches and so on. In my eyes, it was like: ‘Oh, let him just try’ and then Germany reached the 3rd place – which was such a great achievement – at the World Cup 2006. So, how important is it for your work and how did it develop from the time you started as a coach until today?

Well, I generally think all the great coaches are sport psychologists. Even if they haven’t studied it and even if they don’t profess to exhibit it. Because, obviously one of the most critical elements on the highest level is man or women management, the way you teach your players.

And that’s a form of sports psychology. Because what we have to understand is that everyone is different and everyone has to be treated differently which is why the cliché is a very accurate one. Yeah, most players that are average do want to be left alone. And there are good players who do want to be coached. But you have to be careful HOW you coach them. So your ability to assess how you are going to relate to each player because each player is different is a critical measure of your capacity to understand each player’s circumstance. Which is sports psychology.

We have a wonderful sport psychologist here at UNC. When I was hired in 1976 to coach the men, we did not have a sports psychologist here. We didn’t talk about it much. So, who was the sports psychologist? Well, I guess I was. With no training. I had an English and philosophy degree.

But some of the guys on the men’s team I actually played with. Because I was hired so young. I was actually coaching guys that I have played with two or three years before-hand. So for me, initially, in our profession, I think we all start as a form of sports psychologist.

But clearly there are those that are so good. Because they studied it. And we have those people now. And we have one wonderful sports psychologist by the name of Jeni Shannon that meets with my team once every couple weeks and the whole team loves her. She is very good with everything. She is good with the elements that we are playing with in our game. But she is also very good with other struggles that our kids would have during this pandemic. This is a different strength for kids to come to college with. Because in the old days, college was about freedom for the first time. They get to leave home, their parents aren’t there to wake them up and send them to class. Or tell them what to eat or when to go to bed. So now, for the first time in their lives, they are the captains of their own ships. And of course, when you are young, what you end up doing with that ship half the time, well, you end up having it run into the ground because you are an idiot.

Anson Dorrance thinks UNC’s sports psychologists do a super job.
Photo: Athletic Department, University of North Carolina

What you are doing is learning to manage yourself slowly but surely through trial and error often times. But also, if you do have a good value system and even raised properly, you can slowly adjust governing yourself. But this is where the sports psychologist comes in. Because they came in here with this pandemic going on. The mental health thing is a serious issue. And these professionals are so much better at handling it than I am. And I give Jenni Shannon and the sports psychologists here at UNC and my assumption is, across the country, and across your country as well, I am sure they are doing a fantastic job trying to take these young women and young men to the promised land. And not just a promised land of the player performance, it’s the promised land of adjusting to the real world, maturing into adulthood and all these different things that are obviously our challenge for all of us growing up.

Is Jenni Shannon a part of the training sessions or does she have an office and every young woman or man who has some struggles or problems can go to her and talk to her? How does it work?

Yes, that’s one way it happens. They can schedule appointments with her and she can meet with them privately. But the way it also happens here is every couple weeks at the end of practice we come together. We have a gazebo which is an open shelter, and she would meet with them there. So if it is raining she can still speak to the entire team. We don’t have practice on campus. They don’t have to jump into their cars, drive somewhere and meet with her because she is willing to come right to them. So she comes to the team.

Obviously during those moments, what she is telling them is about general issues. But everyone knows that – and she tells them this: ‘Please, if you have a personal issue you can’t bring up into this meeting, and you want to speak with me about it personally and privately, please know that my door is always open. Please email me and we’ll find a time that is mutually agreeable for both of us and then you can meet with me privately in my office.’ So, for us, it is both things. She meets with the team and she meets with the kids who want to meet with her privately.

Wow, that’s great. Cause in my impression, in Germany, it goes very slowly that they really all accept this topic. Especially in men’s soccer or youth men’s soccer – in the best leagues, they also partly tell like ‘Oh, they are crazy. Sports psychologists – I am not crazy’. Lots do not understand the real sense behind in my eyes. Well, let’s talk about another topic.

‘Basically, at my school here, the University of North Carolina, they treat the men and the women the same.’

How did women’s soccer develop in the last decades, when you have started until now? Do you think you have got the best training facilities – I looked it up on the Internet. So, you have a great training ground, you have a great stadium… Is there still something missing or is it like perfect work and have got all what you need for the training sessions and all facilities?

Basically, at my school here, the University of North Carolina, they treat the men and the women the same. So everything the men get we get and vice versa we play in the same stadium that we also share with the Lacrosse teams, by the way. So we have a men’s and women’s lacrosse team here. They play in the winter and spring. We play in the fall.

That’s a dream for Germans. Does not work the same way here. Maybe you know about Germany, now, more and more women’s teams come to the men’s Bundesliga Clubs. They start women’s teams. But very, very slowly… It’s 2022.

Obviously, we have a different economic platform. The economic platform is totally supported by two teams. It’s supported by the American football team and by men’s basketball. And those two teams make all the money for all the rest of us. So, there is no reason to discriminate, to have the men’s football team, soccer team, get more money than we do. No. So, we all basically sort of divide up the revenue from football and men’s basketball and it is shared equally.

In Germany, your model is different. You have the club model. This one is a model where the more money that is spent, the better you have to be. So, the top teams in Germany, obviously, if they want to buy a player, they want to spent a maximum out of money. And so these clubs that are making lots of money don’t want to share it. And it’s understandable because there is a direct correlation between the amount of money each club spent in Germany and their success. So, one of the things which threaten hierarchy in Germany for the men’s teams is if they decide to splurge on the women’s teams. Because then obviously, the amount of money they are spending on the women is money they are not spending on the men. And the women are not making money.

That’s the problem.

Yeah, that is the problem. So, basically, I appreciate that you are bringing this up. Because what I tell my girls all the time, because there was a lawsuit here (Cindy Parlow the US Soccer President helped settle it), where the US women’s national team sued US Soccer for equal pay. And of course, what they want – because our women’s national team is much more successful than our men’s team – they want to be paid like the men.

I read about Megan Rapinoe, I really like her so much! She is great.

Yes, she is in on the fight for equal pay. The element that Rapinoe doesn’t understand yet is that for equal pay you gotta have equal revenue. And right now, at a professional level, and at a World Cup level, there is not equal revenue. So, it’s gonna be impossible to structure equal pay everywhere without closing the gap with attendance.

So I told my girls this all the time: We have a professional team within 25 minutes of us. They are called ‘The North Carolina Courage’. And what’s really interesting is this is unlike the men: The men’s players here, and these are all college kids, they are all amateurs – what they do all the time is nothing but watch football. They are watching the EPL, they are watching the Bundesliga, Bayern is a great team to watch. They watch the Champions League, but also, Borussia Dortmund because they have success for the American players. So, these are teams that the men watch all the time.

Do my girls watch anything? Absolutely not. They don’t watch anything. So I tell my girls all the time: ‘If I hear you, basically, bloviating, about equal pay, I’ll call you a hypocrite. Because while you are here at UNC, you never turned on a football game. And you never went over and paid money to watch the North Carolina Courage play. And now that you are even playing on the Carolina Courage, don’t want you to have that hypocrisy to now pretend that everyone should come watch you play, when you never went over to watch them play?’

So, part of what I am trying to change is that culture of women’s football. And I am trying to get our culture close to the men’s game. So what does the men’s game have that we don’t have? Men’s game has people that are supporting. So, all these people that want equal pay on the women’s side, well, what you have to do, is to figure out ways to get people to watch your game.

So, that’s what you have to do. So though I have huge admiration for Rapinoe, she doesn’t embrace the business aspect of this. She doesn’t embrace that fact that Bayern Munich would lose their position in the Bundesliga. So, they don’t understand that 15 million dollars a year on a women’s team would be 15 million dollars lost for the men. They could steal another left-back from Borussia Dortmund etc etc etc. So, this has to be somehow reconciled.

In my eyes, it’s a pity but it can’t be changed cause it’s too hard. It’s much more developed.

No, no, no, I mean you can develop. The best thing to do is not to whine about it but to do something about it. And the way to do something about it is to have people watch more games and build our gate like Barcelona with over 91,000 in attendance for two games in a row recently.

I like it so much, watching the women of Bayern Munich. It’s so crazy in the stadium, I really like it. It’s so familiar, you can come together, also the players with injuries who can’t play, they’re sitting on the tribune, they write autographs, take pictures with the young fans and you could never expect something like this at a men’s game in the Allianz Arena. Wouldn’t be possible. Never.

That’s because the men don’t have to do that. Women have to. And, by the way, that`s going to be a revolution. A revolution has to be the way to embrace our communities, we are going to do it here with our stadium. And I’ve spent a lot of money to promote women’s football in my stadium. And we actually outdraw the men. So we get more attendance than the men and there is a reason for that because I kill myself to pack the stadium. I used to use a lot of my personal income to pay for marketing for our team. I understand that there is another step that has to be taken. And what’s that step? We got to have equal attendance.