Coaches Corner: Q&A with Duke Head Coach John Danowski

Fresh off guiding the Duke University men’s lacrosse team to its first national championship, John Danowski recently sat down with Championship Productions’ editor Adam Warner for an exclusive interview. Now entering his fifth season as head coach of the Blue Devils, Danowski reveals some of his favorite drills, dishes out advice for young lacrosse players and talks about his squad’s title run in 2010.

Championship Productions: The Duke men’s lacrosse team toured Washington D.C. and visited the White House for a special ceremony on September 13.  Did you ever think you’d get to meet a president in your lifetime?
John Danowski: “No, not at all. We were invited as part of a sports reception honoring recent NCAA champions and student-athletes who have given back to their communities. Just to be there among the other teams and President Obama was quite an honor.”

CP: What did you learn most from your championship season?
JD: “Just recognizing how small the distance is between being successful and not. You really learn to appreciate it. Last year, winning validated what we were doing when we lost, when we told ourselves that we were just a goal away. When you win, you don’t over-analyze things or keep thinking about the ‘what ifs?’”

CP: What was the difference in breaking through this time?
JD: “There was less pressure. I also think we tried too hard in the past. This time, it was more about simply defeating our next opponent.”

CP: What advice do you have for athletes and coaches on how to handle pressure situations?
JD: “It’s all about competing and being in the moment. Our guys will cherish that last month we were together and we were all on the same page. It’s not about one player. It really takes a team effort and that’s the truth, from the guys who play every day to the guys who don’t play. There are so many things behind the scenes that play a big role.”

CP: With that in mind, take me behind the scenes of a college lacrosse program and tell me what exactly goes on during the off-season months.
JD: “September is about the individual player. We lift and run three days a week from 8-10 a.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we do individual work where the goal is to teach three or four fundamentals that the kids can carry with them for the rest of the year. We recently had Greg Dale, a Duke professor of sports psychology, speak to the kids about the multitude of challenges they will face in the year after winning a championship. In October, we begin our fall practice and go four days a week. It’s more team-oriented and there’s a particular emphasis on strategies and schemes.”

CP: Can you recommend any drills for young players during the off-season?
JD:: “The key is to improve the athlete in general, especially with regards to running and lifting. Skill improvement is one component. The better you can pass and catch, the better you will be in the game and more confident overall. It’s important to get a lot of ball work with a lot of reps, being creative off the ball and just being accurate, position by position.”

CP: Can you name a specific drill you’ve done for most of your career?
JD: “It’s called the ‘Shoot as Hard as You Can Drill.’ It’s an offensive drill and we use it during pregame warm-ups and even run it three or four days a week in practice. We get the guys right out in front of the cage and we teach them how to shoot as hard as they can without worrying about where the ball goes. We try to get in a lot of reps, focus on keeping your hands back, your momentum going towards the shot and having the players fall into the crease.”

CP: Can you recall a favorite drill of your players?
JD: “It’s called the ‘Scrapping Drill.’ We run it at the beginning or end of practice with the emphasis on picking up ground balls and keeping focused while under pressure. We’ll get two teams together with a goalie in net and have two players going up against one. The team of two has to figure out how to score. It happens very fast and is over sometimes in three or four seconds. It’s a high-energy and high-tempo drill that gets the guys amped up and often has consequences at the end of practice for the losing team.”

See the Scrapping Drill in John Danowksi’s new DVD, All-Access Duke Lacrosse, Volume II: Individual Skills and Full Field Drills.

CP: How important is off-season conditioning at any level?
JD: “I encourage kids to play as many sports as they can. You can be the star or ride the bench, it doesn’t matter. It’s about leadership and competitiveness. You only get one shot in high school to play. If you like to play a sport, then play it, because what you learn will carry over to lacrosse. Guys who want to be good will still find the time to pick up a stick.”

CP: What’s the best advice you can give for a young player?
JD: “Love and honor the game. If you do, there’s a place for you. There are so many places to play now at the next level and the game can provide so many opportunities and chances to meet new friends. If you have a passion for lacrosse, it will take you to places you never dreamed of going.”

John Danowski has partnered with Championship Productions and has produced eight instructional lacrosse DVDs.  The DVD titles include:

All-Access Duke Lacrosse, Volume I: One-on-One and Team Drills
All-Access Duke Lacrosse, Volume II: Individual Skills and Full Field Drills
Becoming a Champion: The Defenseman
Becoming a Champion: The Attackman
Becoming a Champion: The Midfielder
Shooting Technique & Drills for Championship Lacrosse
Offensive Techniques & Drills for Championship Lacrosse
Speed, Agility & Strength Training for Championship Lacrosse

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