The Competitive Cauldron
Written by Tom Black
Explaining the Competitive Cauldron
There is no improvement without intensity. This is what draws us to the cauldron. If we want our players to improve, they have to play hard. If we want them to play hard, we have to get them to compete. If we want to create a competitive culture, then we need to measure things, record them, praise successes, and hold ourselves accountable for results. The cauldron, as created by University of North Carolina’s soccer coach, Anson Dorrance, gives us a foundation.
The cauldron records statistics for skills and competitive play, weighs each score, and assigns a subsequent ranking to each player. Would it be effective? I believed it would be. My assistant coach, Tom Haight, and myself would spend the next four years experimenting.
Early Failures, One Success
I had implemented the competitive cauldron for about two years before becoming the Head Women’s Coach at UCSD. Before then, as an assistant at USC, I had instituted the cauldron into our men’s program. I was intrigued by it for two related reasons. First, was my exposure to it in a Gold Medal Squared Clinic, and Carl McGown’s claim that the competitiveness created in practice, via the cauldron, was largely responsible for their two national championship runs.
The second was the statement made by the cauldron’s inventor, UNC Women’s Soccer Coach Anson Dorrance, who claimed that a naturally competitive player would be instinctively motivated to find ways to ensure they rise to the top of the list. This made sense to me on a fundamental level, I pitched it to our head coach, and we instituted it.
I consider the two years we had it at SC to be a lackluster success to moderate failure. The success was in the accountability it created. The guys were well aware stats were being kept, and they eagerly checked the door every 11 days to see the rankings. I considered this to be a tangible improvement. There was something pushing them to work hard in practice, to realize every day mattered.
But, there were several aspects that left me disappointed. The first was, the coaching staff wasn’t using it to make any decisions, nor as a teaching tool. We were never acknowledging when people excelled or surged ahead, and we were never calling people in when their numbers dropped.
I was aware Dorrance said he never talked about the cauldron or addressed it specifically, but this didn’t sit well with me. We were taking very specific statistics that directly impacted the outcome of our matches. To not acknowledge improvement, or to seek to fix dips, seemed a ridiculous waste of information to me.
There was one instance that stuck with me. We had an Opposite complain about his lack of playing time to one of our assistant coaches. The coach asked if he had seen the cauldron lately, his hitting efficiency was well towards the bottom. The player replied he didn’t see how this was possible since his errors were relatively low. The coach, in turn, pointed out how he had nearly double the amount of neutral swings as any other outside hitter.
His kills skyrocketed. There was no other coaching involved. He was just more focused every time he attacked, and intent on scoring. There was accountability, and he was responding positively to it. This lonely example stayed with me. Here, the cauldron had been successful. The player was unhappy with his situation. He addressed the coach. The coach provided an objective, non-personal statement, along with information the player could see and understand. The player responded.
But there were negatives. The guys were obsessed on personal statistics, to the point of making sure their block was recorded, while their team was losing in the drill. The losing carried greater weight, and the whining and complaining escalated as a result. The best player on our team would have been the best, and played just as hard without it. The cauldron was doing nothing for him. The worst players also received little from the cauldron aside from the validation they were, in fact, the worst on the team.
I didn’t consider any of these things positive, and I wasn’t surprised in the least to hear off-hand the players were relieved when a new assistant coach came in, and the cauldron was gone. I left SC, still feeling I needed a cauldron with me for the women’s program at UCSD, but that it would not work unless the coaching staff actively made it a part of the training environment, and closely monitored its behavioral effects on the team.
Re-Tooling the Cauldron
Ron Larsen, the current men’s national team assistant, pointed me in the direction of a book he had read by Aubrey Daniels entitled “Bringing out the Best in People.” He said it had deeply challenged many of the notions he previously held true regarding the cauldron. This made me excited to read it, as I was wondering a few things myself. The book was all about measuring performance, determining what rewards truly work to motivate people, what type of performance charts are actually effective towards improving productivity, and above all, how that is tied in to actually bringing the best effort out in those around you. I coupled this book with “Moneyball” the famed book about the success of the Oakland Athletics and their innovative, if not savagely Darwinist, method of statistic evaluation to achieve wins.
The central point of “Moneyball” resonated. Dr.McGown hits on it all the time. The naked eye simply cannot be trusted as an impartial observer. Numbers have to be used to see the truth of things. There are patterns we need to be made aware of, and we simply cannot tell the difference between a .250 and .275 hitter, though we know there is a significant difference between the two, especially over time.
How many times have we put in a less efficient, but more physical, player in the line-up, only to realize after a few matches the player with the less-impressive package was helping us more, (sometimes just by hurting us less)? If we were able to measure this in practice, we might be able to play the right person sooner, and thereby help the team faster.
The points of Mr. Daniels’ book were more profound. He took exception to the statement “what gets measured, gets improved.” Not so, he comments. “What gets measured, recorded, and rewarded, gets improved.” This made sense. Obviously, a high cauldron ranking should reflect in playing time, if the cauldron is truly measuring things the way we want them to be measured. However, there is a more important point here. Daniels, as well as a number of leadership authors, goes on to explain that the negative compels people to do just enough to avoid punishment.
The positive, however, propels people to look ahead and achieve more. This is what the cauldron was for, and was by far the most important “reward” it provided. If we were measuring performance, and did not go absolutely crazy every time a player improved in a key category, we weren’t using it correctly. We weren’t making sure the improvement stuck. We had this great tool in front of us that could really make an impact on a player. Instead of telling Sarah “Hey, Sarah, you’ve done a nice job making that change in your hitting, keep it up.” We can tell her, “Hey Sarah, you made that change we were discussing, and look, you’re hitting efficiency has improved 20 points! That’s a great job, keep it up!” We have measured what was important to us, we have recorded it, and most importantly, we have rewarded it in a meaningful way that will stay with the athlete. This was a profound change for me as a coach.
Can we do the same thing through matches and game stats? Yes, we can, and game stats of course matter more. But, consider holding players accountable for their improvement with the cauldron and then without it. There is a tangible effect occurring by having this objective statistical feedback everyday in our practice gym. Consider how much better our reserves can be now that we have something to show and talk to them about. We can show them, just by taking time to sit down with them, that their improvement and performance matters to us. As Dr. Marv Dunphy explains, every player has the desire to be addressed as an individual. If we measure, record, and reward their improvement, they will get better, and thus our overall quality of play improves, and everyone is being pushed a little harder.
A second point by Mr. Daniels created a dilemma. He stressed that productivity charts must not be competitive. That the point of these charts was to solidify the group to compete against outside organizations, not to create strife within your own. He goes on to explain that every individual within the organization must have a real chance to achieve a top-ranking, provided they do everything expected of them.
My assistant coach, Tom Haight, and myself took to grappling with these issues. Tom had created our cauldron for us at SC, and we held in common our interest of the statistics, and the ability to use them effectively. We had a few central questions:
“What was the ultimate point of the cauldron?”
“How do you reward properly?”
“Will playing time be based solely on the cauldron?”
“How do we post, or present, results?”
Answering the Questions
Of course, finding the answers to the questions is a continual process. There is always a better way out there, somewhere. But after a summer of wrestling with what we wanted the cauldron to do and say, we entered our first season at UCSD with a format we were proud of.
What is the ultimate purpose of the cauldron? Once we answered this fundamental question, the rest became easier. The effect of the cauldron is indeed to stimulate competition, but for us, this is not its purpose. The purpose of our cauldron is to stimulate constant improvement. An intense, competitive, environment is the necessary impetus for this improvement. Players cannot get better unless they are mindful and invested. Accountability promotes mindfulness, and competition spurs investment.
How do we reward properly? For awhile, I toyed with the ideas of making t-shirts and passing them out every eleventh day, but I believe this was missing the point. The principle comes down to the statement Mr. Daniels repeatedly hit home, that if we want something done, we need to positively acknowledge it every time it happens. Too often as coaches, we criticize often, say “good job” when a player finally gets it right, and then leave it alone, expecting it to be fixed forever. This is not the case. We need to reward good behavior, good technique, constantly in order to reinforce it, and hopefully, have it become ingrained.
The objectivity of the cauldron can provide a player with real information they are improving. If bad techniques are being practiced, the cauldron should be reflecting that as well, and we can work to fix them. But when we do so, it’s critical we sit down with the player and objectively show him/her the numbers, with a solution as to how to improve. We never threaten a player with statistics or hang it over their head. We want them to be as enthusiastic as possible to receive this information.
Will our playing time solely be based upon the cauldron? No. It is a very valuable tool in the decision-making process, however, and if a player is ranking top in her position, and I’m not starting her, I better have clear reasons why, and I better communicate them to her. This happened a couple of times. Generally, it was because a particular skill was so low, that our line-up wouldn’t allow us to be that deficient and still be successful (i.e. an outside hitter ranked in the top-6 overall, but was in the lower half in hitting. We already had an L2 who ranked higher than her overall, and the L1 playing ahead of her ranked lower overall, but much higher in hitting. We needed a point-scorer in this position, and the lower-ranked player reflected this, even though her overall score was lower. The cauldron reflected what we knew, that the starter was a worse all-around player, but better hitter. There were clear reasons, therefore, for starting the lower-ranked player and we communicated that to the higher-ranked one. If she wanted to start, she needed to become a better attacker.)
Do we post everybody’s score publicly? This is the one aspect of our cauldron at UCSD, which I believe to be slightly unique. Tom Haight created individual folders for each player that “grab” data from the master sheet, and present each player with only their own information. On their sheets, they will see the following:
1. Statistics in each category: Competition, hitting, serve-receive, serving, blocking, setting, defense
2. Team ranking for each category (Provided they are in the top-8, otherwise, this category will appear blank.)
3. Overall position ranking for this category (Provided they are in the top-8, otherwise, this category will appear blank.)
We believe in this format for a few reasons:
1. “Become, don’t compare.” This is a saying of Marv Dunphy’s that we believe in. These sheets are a way to provide a player with their information and ranking, without them seeing anyone else’s. This keeps the player’s focus on themselves and what they need to do. Not on whether or not they are hitting 5 points higher than Sally.
2. Building on #1, we felt this is the best way to prevent the internal “competition” Mr. Daniel’s discussed in regards to productivity charts. We knew the goal was to indeed get our team as strong as possible to compete against the outside competition. However, there is a dilemma here, because we need this internal competition in our daily practice gym to get to the level we want to be. We need our players to get after each other. 6 of our 19 players are going to start, which is a major difference between a sports team and a business, where everyone is performing. The answer, we feel, is to keep each player’s focus on being as good as they possibly can be, and not whether or not they are better than their teammate. Again, the presentation of the folders with personal information only makes this possible.
3. The printouts are much easier to read than the master sheet. The player’s feel like they are getting something out of them.
4. The printouts present me with an opportunity to write notes in the margins, and meet with players in a positive arena to discuss objectively what’s happening with them on the court. This time is invaluable.
The Cauldron in Action
Our first season at UCSD, we inherited a team with no returning starters, and finished with a 19-8 record, tying for the final play-off position before being voted out by committee. This was a successful year in the eyes of our staff and players, and all involved stated there was an intensity in the gym that had never previously been there before.
There were still some of the negative effects I had witnessed at USC, though to a much lesser extent. There was still some obsession over stats at the wrong time. Many of the girls complained at the end of the year meetings that they were so worried about their
own position, they never felt able to come together during matches.
While I was very concerned over these two complaints, Tom Haight was much more confidant. He pointed out throughout the season that what the team was experiencing was simply growing pains. Anson Dorrance cites his own freshmen’s unease with the cauldron, every year. He stated how these young players are looking for acceptance, and instead, are being told they will have their brains beat in unless they compete and play to win. In effect, our entire team was a group of freshmen learning how to manage their emotions for the first time in an intense competitive environment, and we would most likely only be hearing these complaints from the incoming freshmen class from now on.
Tom’s words proved true. Entering our second season, we built upon the previous year, and finished with a record of 26-3 as well as a national ranking of 5th. Every member of our team reported in their end of the year meetings they felt the team bonded, and functioned, very well on the court. Most players said they liked the cauldron, every player, including the freshmen who were uncomfortable with it, said they would rather have it than not. Nearly every returnee thought the team handled the competitive aspects of it better than the previous year. They felt they were able to negotiate the balance between competing like crazy and being a great teammate.
I spoke with one coach in our athletic department who felt the cauldron was used as a crutch to “do your coaching for you.” This would be a valid point if it were true, and in some cases it might be. For us, the cauldron doesn’t provide us with answers, it provides us with information to make better decisions and to give better feedback. It allows us to get better faster. Faster than we would without it. It doesn’t save us any time, and in many ways, creates more work for us. When I ask the question, though, will this make us better? I answer with an emphatic yes, so we do it.
The final important question might be, do I think the cauldron was the reason we were able to have success? I think it was a reason. I think the character and commitment of our young ladies was the biggest reason. I think the work ethic of our players and coaches was a very big reason. The importance of our cauldron, in my eyes, was we were able to reflect the values and cultures of our training gym in an objective manner that would spur continual improvement. Better than we could have done without it, and that made it worth it.