Coaches Corner: Q&A with Salisbury head men’s lacrosse coach Jim Berkman

In this week’s edition of Coaches Corner, Championship Productions’ editor Adam Warner sits down with legendary Salisbury head men’s lacrosse coach Jim Berkman. Now in his 23rd season at Salisbury, Berkman – the all-time winningest coach in NCAA men’s history – talks about his tenures as a lacrosse, basketball and soccer coach, details some of his favorite practice drills, and also reveals what keeps him motivated each season after already winning eight national titles.

Many lacrosse fans may not know this, but you also have quite an extensive history playing and coaching other sports – basketball and soccer to be specific.

“I was playing all three sports growing up in high school. It’s who I was. The one regret I had was that I didn’t pursue soccer. I had the skillset, but I just played basketball and lacrosse. When I look back on those days, I think I could have done it at St. Lawrence and I sometimes regret it because I enjoy the sport so much.

As for coaching all three sports, I was in situations when I was a young buck on the block trying to find a job and a new profession and back then you had to do a lot of different things and show other skillsets so that you could make yourself noticeable and the athletic department could thrive. At Potsdam, the basketball coach was also the athletic director and he knew he needed someone good at basketball to help him out, too. That was also a way for me to get my foot in the door.

Then I came to Salisbury, and it was about coaching lacrosse. But two things happened. Six weeks into my first semester, the athletic director came in and said that he needed a huge favor and their search had failed for the women’s basketball coach. He told me that he needed me to take over the program for the first year so they could continue their search. So I did that for one year. And then in the mid-1990s with Title IX, the school needed to start a women’s soccer program and they ask me to start it up before they could secure the money and resources to hire a new coach. I remained as coach for seven years. It was a neat experience to start a program from scratch. We went to the final four in my last game as coach and was able to take the program from nowhere and build it into a contender. That was exciting and I think it’s made me a better coach.”

You’ve won eight national titles as coach and achieved a number of coaching records over the years. What keeps you motivated each season now?

“It’s always a new group. There are always some returning players and some new players and you must mold them into a team and develop the players to get better. It’s always a new challenge. This year, our attack has been a work in progress. I have spent a lot of time working with the attack unit in practice. We’ve had to move around some player positions and we’ve had some injuries to deal with, and we’re trying to mold and teach them the game. I think we’re getting better because of the work. It’s a different make-up each year, and that makes it fun.”

What do you consider your greatest achievement to date as a coach?

“I always remember that first championship. That was the last year that Hobart was in Division III and we beat them 15-9 on the last day before they went Div. I.  Also, I think our 2008 team that won the title was one of our better coaching jobs. We had lost every player on defense from the year before, including two guys that went on to play in the pros. But we came back and went undefeated the next year even with a tremendous turnover at personnel.”

Do you have any particular coaching habits or superstitions?

“I believe in our style and system. As soon as you get off the bus, we’re going to guard you and try to score as many goals as we can. We also have a set core of drills we use. We’ve been doing them for quite a long time now. It comes automatic at practice and we don’t waste time. We get a lot of reps in that way.”

How would you define your coaching philosophy?

“We want kids who want to find out how good they can become. That’s one of the first requirements we have. You must try and make people better and be open. We have been fortunate to get a lot of good players over the years, but they aren’t necessarily the best of the best. They have some dents in the armor and may be why they might not go Division I. Our philosophy is about getting a lot of lacrosse reps, from shooting and passing and wall ball and getting those dents out of the armor. Each year, a few Div. I coaches will say, “How did I miss that guy?” I pride ourselves on motivating them so the can strive to become the best and continue improving.”

What do you think are the key components to building a contending program year after year?

“It’s about knowing the game and knowing how to get the most out of each player. It’s about getting the players excited about the game and having fun so that they want to come back and do more. I believe that repetition is the key to learning. You can’t take the fun out of practice. Create your drills and style of practice and make it your favorite part of the day. When you do that, the players will prove it and will be your best salesmen. You must have good knowledge to set that up and give others confidence around you if they see that you make people better. It’s about believing in what you are instilling and being consistent in the fundamentals.”

Can you take readers behind the scenes a bit and explain what happens during a typical week in season with Salisbury lacrosse?

“If we usually play on Wednesday’s and Saturday’s, throughout the day, a group of guys will come in and lift. We lift throughout the season. Everyone on starting defense and defensive middies were in the weight room yesterday on their off day, three months into the season. They know the importance of strength training in-season.

We practice from the 3:30 to 5:30 slot. As for film study, guys are open to come into the office and watch at any time. Depending on the opponent, we can get film from a coach about a particular player, let’s say a face-off guy from another team. But the film has already been broken down for them, and it’s part of our repertoire. Before games, we’ll have a shorter practice. We have good, hard practices on Monday, with Thursday is more film and scouting reports and not much of a killer practice. Friday is another pre-game practice, and that’s the cycle.”

Talk about one of your favorite drills to run as coach over the years.

“It’s not brain surgery here, but we like to put people in tight spaces, especially around the goal. We’ll go 3-on-2, 4-on-3 and 5-on-4 a lot, not necessarily 40-yard sprints, but around the goal and have to move the ball under pressure and make good decisions. It teaches how to protect and stick handle and make quick passes in tight spaces. It’s teaches defenses to slide and rotate and I think it makes them better overall when it comes to on the field during a game.”

Is there a certain drill that your players get particularly amped up for or really enjoy?

“It’s called Full-Field Scramble. It goes from 4-on-3 to 5-on-4 the other way and then 6-on-4 the other way and then finally 10-on-10. The guys like that one because of the transition components. It’s good for conditioning and then ends up being a full field situation where the kids must make good decisions. They also must learn to fast break and then defend in the box and then come down and make the appropriate cuts and then defend 6-on-6 and clear on the other end. It forces guys to make a lot of different decisions and really enhances the lacrosse IQ.”

For a new coach out there, whether at the youth or high school level, what’s some of the best advice you can give them?

“Get as many reps in practice as possible. It’s practice for the players, not the coach. Some coaches talk too much. Your instruction should be to the point and then get the players back into drills. Make sure each player gets a lot of touches. It’s not brain surgery, but better passes and shooting makes a huge difference.”

Talk about the 2011 season a little bit. What’s different about this team than previous squads?

“Attack-wise, it’s a work in progress. We’ve got new players in new positions and some injuries to deal with. So we are going over the little things people take for granted right now. We posted double digit goals in our last three games, so I think we’re going in the right direction. With a bunch of off days coming up, we must get guys heeled and get in some good fundamentals this week and back to the basics with no scouting reports and just get up and down the field.”

Jim Berkman has teamed up with Championship Productions to produce a number of exclusive lacrosse DVDs. Click here to check out the entire catalog.

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