Erik Johnson

There is No Magic Drill from @BC_CoachJohnson

I, along with fellow site blogger Chris, recently went to a Coaches Classroom put on by the WBCA at Merrimack College. Thanks to the Merrimack Girls Basketball Staff of Monique Leblanc and Heather Stec for organizing and their players for showing the drills. You can check out other Coaches Classroom’s or Membership here.

In his talk at the WBCA, Boston College Coach Erik Johnson (@BC_CoachJohnson) referred to a popular Ted Talk by Simon Sinek about the question of Why.

The philosophy here is that most coaches focus on communicating the What and How with their players. They come in with a scheme or philosophy and all the actions and drills to teach the scheme but they fail to truly communicate to the players why they are doing it. The ultimate reason for the what and how they can achieve the goals set forth.

It’s a good reminder as coaches that while we might geek out about new plays, schemes, actions or other basketball plays, our players probably won’t. They will instead care about how those new philosophies will help them achieve their goals of a successful season and personal growth.

For Coach Johnson, before delving into x’s and o’s his primary motivation and the answer to why he coaches is to teach values. With every new generation, the way that values are taught cannot be the same as it was with the last generation, but values still need to be taught. The analogy that Coach Johnson used was that this generation still needs to drink water, but they are drinking it out of a bottle when other generations might have drank it out of the sink.

What Are Coach Johnson’s Values?

Coach Johnson did not quite spell it out, but there were three examples that he alluded to on the basketball court.

He had the chance to see UConn practice during Breanna Stewart’s senior season. At the end of the practice, he went up to Geno Auriemma and proclaimed it was the first drama free practice he had ever witnessed. Players communicated, there were no eye rolls or negative body language, and the firey Geno that he had expected to see was very calm and observant. How did this happen? Geno told him that of course the banners will help increase trust for any program. Past that though, players were strong enough leaders to correct one another. At one point Stewie stopped and coached the team midway through a drill. Coach Auriemma did not stop practice, Breanna did. Auriemma also told Coach Johnson that Mariah Jefferson could get her ear chewed out for making mistakes and all she would ever do was say, “Ok coach.” Players sought feedback and valued feedback.

In the audience was former BC guard and current Northeastern assistant Kindyll Dorsey who played for former BC Coach Kathy Inglese when Erik Johnson was an assistant at BC. In Johnson’s first experience with the team at a summer camp, Inglese had the team run a 3 on 3 competitive drill. When she had finished explaining, all the players repeated the directions to her without being cued. A simple example of a team that possessed a baseline level of respect and focus.

And then there was a more recent example of Kelsey Plum. Coach Johnson heard a story from a coach that worked her out recently where she was doing an individual drill. At one point she was instructed to get a drink and then move on to the next part of the workout. Plum refused. In her mind, she had not done the initial drill well enough to give herself this allowance. Great competitors set standards higher for themselves than those around them.

It’s Not The Drill, It’s What You Bring to The Drill

Continuing with the theme of why he coached, Coach Johnson spent most of his time continuing to answer a why question, but this one was more directly related to coaching on the floor. He wanted to emphasize it’s not about what you do (meaning drills or schemes) but why you do those drills.

He wanted to make a point that his drills weren’t special and wouldn’t transform your team just by doing them. What makes them special is what you emphasize and what you don’t allow in these drills that gets your player’s to buy in to your team, your philosophy, and your identity.


Teaching (Skill) and Competition (Scrimmage) Days

Coach Johnson also provided an interesting perspective on how he puts together his practice plan to ensure that the What and How don’t get in the way of competition for his team. To do this, he breaks his practice plan into two types of days:

  1. Teaching Days, which focus on individual player skill development
  2. Competition Days, which focus on players competing against one another

He will look to balance these types of days with his game schedule but he does not tell his players what days will be which before the practice. He does this as it enables him to get the most out of both days as he realizes that he can talk too much when teaching and wants to ensure he consistently has competitive practices in the practice plan.

Using Phrases to Get Attention

The other thing that I found really interesting when watching Coach Johnson are the phrases he used to get player’s attentions during the drills.

Definitive Statements: When teaching each new drill to the Merrimack players, he said “You’re going to want to know this” when explaining the scoring of the drill. I liked the tease here for the players to get them to listen to the explanation. [Side note: every drill run at the Classroom included scoring of some kind.]

Player Timeouts: For an outlet transition drill, he continuously was giving encouragement and instruction while keeping tally of the scores. When he saw a few possessions not run well, he singled out a player and said “you have a 30 second timeout!” The players all got together and discussed how they could do the drill better. Once they started the drill again, they executed much better. This is definitely something I’ll look to bring to our drills.

What You Allow: Coach Johnson talked a lot about emphasizing your why but he also talked about what you allow in your drills and in competition. Throughout each drill, he consistently harped on the elements of the drill he wouldn’t allow (i.e. ball to hit the floor on the rebound) and made note of the elements of the drill (i.e. an extra dribble when appropriate) that he allowed because it was in the spirit of the drill and they were upholding the points of emphasis. This is a crucial determination for any coach and something Chris wrote about in What You Can’t Live Without blog post.

At the end of his talk, Coach Johnson invited everyone in attendance to come to any of BC’s practices. I have attended a practice in the past and intend on getting back to BC at some point in the future.

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