EVERY PLAYER ON YOUR TEAM IS SIGNIFICANT TO YOUR TEAM
Late every fall, Anson Dorrance, the legendary Head Women’s Soccer Coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a tradition within his storied program as his team closes out their season, usually in pursuit of a National Championship. He writes what he calls The Senior Letter; a thank you, of sorts, to those who are playing their final games in a Tar Heel uniform, but on a much deeper level, a very heartfelt tribute expressing what each individual senior has meant not just to Carolina Women’s Soccer, but also to Dorrance, personally.
Whether it was Mia Hamm, who is arguably the greatest women’s soccer player of all time, or someone who played sparingly in four years, every single senior was given a letter by Dorrance, and upon reading it, feels like they left a significant mark on the program at UNC that was far bigger than them. The words in these letters are incredibly powerful and impactful.
But The Senior Letter isn’t just about the seniors. Dorrance also uses it as a motivational tactic to get just a little bit more out of his girls who aren’t seniors; just prior to playing in the title game, he’ll ask all of the seniors to leave the locker room at which point he will read each Senior Letter to the underclassmen. By the time he’s finished reciting them all, everyone in that room is chomping at the bit to play for those who won’t be playing that much longer and help them graduate as National Champions. The Senior Letter makes everyone on that team know what those seniors have meant to the program that was on the verge of greatness. In Dorrance’s mind, those letters were his final push to make sure that greatness was achieved. And evidenced by his 22 national championships, most times, it did.
What struck me most about the Senior Letter was the very personal and individualized nature of a gesture that included everyone, regardless of their status on the team. In Dorrance’s mind, every player was important to the overall success of his program, and he wanted everyone to know it, especially the ones who, on the surface, might seem irrelevant on the stat sheet.
If a player has a uniform on a team, that player serves some sort of role on that team. And every single role-not matter how big or small-bears some kind of impact. Many times, players are in roles they don’t necessarily like; only ten guys play on a baseball field at one time, and on the college and professional levels, there are always far more on the bench watching than actually in the game playing. The larger the roster, the more roles exist where players have limited opportunities to play, and an increasing likelihood of some carrying a feeling of insignificance to their team. It’s our job as coaches to make every single player who wears a uniform to know they are, in fact, an important cog in our club, regardless of how many at bats they may get or innings they might throw.
There are countless ways to make a player feel like they actually matter. Sometimes it may be simple recognition for something seemingly miniscule, like a hitter who advances a runner or a bullpen catcher who enthusiastically catches any pitcher who wants to throw. Many college football programs award scholarships to walk-ons who might never line up for a single down, and Anson Dorrance has his Senior Letter.
As for me... my 2017 Greenville Drive facilitated the creation of The Championship Thank You.
The Drive, the minor league team I was privileged to manage, won the first South Atlantic League title in the 12-year history of the franchise. It was an incredibly special season on so many different fronts; a season that I wouldn’t soon forget. On my long drive home from South Carolina to New Jersey, I got a chance to reflect on the five-plus months that made our year as rewarding as it was. It was during this drive, thinking about countless moments that made us who we are, I realized something pretty remarkable about our year.
We had 49 players come through Greenville during the season. That was, by far, the most I ever had in my four years managing the team. Every single one of those 49 guys did something that helped us along the way. From a guy who literally played in just a single game, to the ten guys who were with us from start to finish, to everyone in between, I could see very clearly in my mind specific moments that each one of those individual players did over the course of the year that helped us on our road to a championship. Every single guy had their own individual championship moment, if not many.
And I wanted to make sure they knew that I genuinely appreciated the part they played in us winning a ring, no matter how big or bigger. There was no small among the 49 players who wore our uniform.
The Championship Thank You began in the form of a form letter, commending the collective group on accomplishing something that had never been done before. In it, I also detailed a personal routine of my own where before every game,I would print out four lineup cards, three of which come out to the field with me to give to the umpires, as the extra one would just go in a pile on my desk to later be used as note paper whenever needed.
In the envelope with the form letter, I enclosed one of those extra lineup cards.
Whatever lineup card I decided to send to each player was not random by any means; it was a specific lineup card from a specific game where they had one of those aforementioned moments. On the blank, back side of the lineup card, I started writing, sharing with each player the significance of their own moment, while also explaining to them how each one of those individual moments embodied one of the many things that we were as an entire team; one of the many reasons we won a championship.
It was relating the resiliency of a player who gave up a game tying home run in the 8th and got back up to continue to get outs to give us a chance to win it in the 9th, to our ability to bounce back as a team after the handful of tough losses that truly shaped our season. It was showing how the hustle from one helped bring out the hustle in all. It was even commending a player for getting ejected for defending our team, an example how we were truly a team that was one for all, and all for one. Each one of these 49 individual moments created some pretty unforgettable team moments when all was said and done.
Who knows how The Championship Thank You resonated with our players? Some may have tossed it in the garbage without a second thought, while others might have framed it as the keepsake I originally intended it to be. By time they finish reading that hand-written note, I simply wish for each of the 49 guys to understand the part that they played in helping us win the whole thing, and to know that I sincerely valued them doing so. My hope is that at some point down the road, whether it be in baseball or not, that their personal Championship Thank You will make them always know, that they always matter.