I had the opportunity to speak with Merrimack head coach Monique Leblanc and her assistant coach Heather Stec last week for about an hour. I have attended Merrimack practices for the past four seasons and have developed a great deal of respect for the way that they go about their practice routines and the culture that they have developed. In my first visit back in 2013, I had seen UConn practice only a few days prior and I remember coming away from the Merrimack practice thinking that their energy and enthusiasm was actually better than the eventual National Champ from that season (not that UConn had bad energy either).
Here’s some of the takeaways from my discussion with the Merrimack coaching staff including their thoughts on improving in the off-season, shot selection, and timeouts.
After the Season Is Over
The rules in Division 2 allow the coaches to meet with players for only two hours per week. They divide this time up carefully to do three things: individual work outs, position work outs (grouped by point guards, wing players, and post players), and three on three controlled scrimmages. The controlled scrimmages put a heavy emphasis on dribbling with a purpose (do not dribble in place or take comfort dribbles) and screening away from the ball.
Before they met with the players they had individual discussions. The coaches emphasized that in their experience it is more productive to call this a discussion instead of a goal setting meeting. Coach Leblanc said that players would have goals that were unrealistic. For instance players would say that they wanted to shoot 50% from three point range when the player and any player in the league for that matter was not close to that mark. Or other players would suggest that they wanted to work on an element of their game that was nonexistent the season before. “Why work on your floater when you didn’t shoot a floater all year?” Coach Stec said they want players to put their energy behind getting better at what they already do well.
One of the things that I struggle with is telling players when they take a bad shot. The last thing that I want a player to think before a shoot is will coach call me out in film tomorrow. The Merrimack staff relies heavily on data to teach their players about shot selection.
In practice for instance, they go with a 300 threes drill in which players must make 60% of their three point shots in order to be justified for shooting those types of shots in games. Obviously this threshold can be adjusted for a team’s ability and clock situations. As the players get into a made shots threshold that the coaches are comfortable with, players are challenged further by having to make contested shots (many times it is the coach that is doing the contesting) at a percentage that is somewhere between actual game shots and uncontested shots. The coaches take all these stats and post them in the locker room. As players see how good or bad their teammates are in different spots, the numbers dictate with perfect clarity who should be taking what shot. If a player wants to start taking the shot that they should not be taking in the game, they have to earn that right at practice.
The numbers game is especially important because they have had players that look the part of a good shooter, but when the numbers come out, they do not always support these types of players. The flash in these players games causes them to take more difficult shots than they need to be taking. Coach Leblanc did acknowledge that this flashy play has its uses as these players possess the ability to create their own shot.
For teams that do not have the data capabilities of a college team, Coach Leblanc suggested not necessarily confronting the player that might be taking a poor shot, but asking a probing question. “Do you feel confident that you will make this shot? What makes you feel confident?”
The shot selection topic led right into how to improve a shot. At Merrimack, the best way is the most predictable for getting improvement – shooting. By the time that the players get to Merrimack, the coaches said they are not looking to make many tweaks to the technique (with rare exceptions). The biggest adjustment to the shot that they have to emphasize with players is developing a quicker release as these players struggle to adjust to better defenses at the college level. Their most impactful way of teaching is done with filming on the iPads that every player on the team has. As players see their shot in slow motion, they know that the film is not lying, and the coaches have seen immediate results once players watch their shot.
Coach Leblanc admitted that she is currently struggling with having a hard and fast timeout rule. They had a game this year in which a team had multiple 6-0 runs, so to call a timeout after every 6-0 run would be a hard rule to follow given how important timeouts can be at the end of games – particularly with the new rules in Women’s NCAA games that enable teams to advance the ball as they do in the NBA. She also has said that she does not want to give teams the gratification of forcing her to call a timeout and allow them to celebrate when they are playing well. She wants her team to have the mentality that they need to respond to another team’s score by going down and scoring themselves. And yet, she also acknowledges that is how a 6-0 run can turn into an 8-0 run.
My big takeaway here was that Coach Leblanc will laminate plays for any situation and keep them in a binder on game days. The plays that she is more likely to call that game (based on scouting reports) are at the front of the binder. By putting the play already drawn up in her binder, it enables kids to see a second or third part in the series of a play instead of having to draw multiple arrows, dribbles, and screens on a single marker board. She said she will still draw the play too, but giving players both looks at the play only adds to the likelihood that players can comprehend it correctly. The one thing that she has taken for granted even after both of these steps is taken is timing. Instruction has to be explicit when trying to draw up a play on the spot, which is why it is critical that players are exposed to these plays in practice as often as possible.
Coach Stec provided several resources that she has leaned upon. Among them:
Coach Leblanc shared the Robert Slopek newsletter and the Mike Neighbors newsletter (of which I’m a huge fan). She also said that there will be a Whiteboard Session on May 24th at Merrimack College with more details to come.
The eurostep was described as a normal lay-up, but instead of taking the first step vertically it gets taken horizontally.
When asked for their regrets as coaches, Coach Leblanc just said that while she has learned so much since she first started, in the moment she has not regretted much and she acknowledged that she still has much to learn including how to get a better grip on what to do about timeouts.
I also asked the coaches what they believed their greatest strength was. Both of them had trouble answering what their own greatest strength is but were able to point out what the other does well. They mentioned that the day after a game, every practice feels the same. Coach does not carry bitterness or negativity into the next day’s practice and the players follow their coach’s lead in how they practice. They also stressed being detail oriented. In running a drill, Coach Stec wants to know exactly what she is looking for so that she can give a player specific feedback into what they need to improve.