Don Meyer's Mission
By Michael Austin, Senior Editor
Early in Don Meyer’s 37-year coaching career, he attended Bobby Knight’s Coaching Academy…and came home with 145 pages of notes. There are a lot of words to describe Meyer, college basketball’s all-time leader in victories, and current head men’s basketball coach at Northern State University (Aberdeen, S.D.), but “Prepared” might be the best one.
Meyer credits legendary coaches like Knight for providing him with so many useful coaching ideas but he also credits him for showing coaches that it’s important to share those ideas with their peers. The 145 pages of notes Meyer took helped pave the way for many victories during his career at Hamline University (St. Paul, Minn.), Lipscomb University (Nashville, Tenn.) and now Northern State. Maybe more importantly, however, is that those notes led Meyer to establish his own coaching academy 19 years ago.
“I would have been out of coaching if it hadn’t been for Bobby Knight’s Coaching Academy. He helped me stay in coaching and was open about sharing all the knowledge he had…he didn’t hold back. So, I wanted to do the same for other coaches,” Meyer explains.
Since Meyer’s first academy in 1990, the clinic has grown to one of the most popular in the country. And while having one of the most-recognizable names in coaching circles doesn’t hurt, Meyer says any coach has the ability to establish and run a successful camp.
“Big names are a great draw but some of the best coaches I’ve ever listened to at clinics have been high school and even junior high coaches,” says Meyer. “People might come to your camps to see the coaching rock stars but make sure you have plenty of solid coaching topics from a variety of coaches. Our first six years of running our academy, we just used our staff to instruct. No matter what, make sure your purpose is to help coaches, provide good materials and get campers to learn something new.”
Meyer says his advice for coaches who are attending camps and clinics is to have an open mind so they don’t become overwhelmed.
“Right now, there are so many great clinics and great ideas out there, that sometimes you go and get too many good ideas. Remember, anything you learn at a clinic needs to fit you, your team and your personnel. Don’t just pick up something at a clinic and mindlessly try to plug it into your program,” he cautions. And while Meyer has been in the clinic business for 19 years, he’s been coaching twice as long. His practice-planning routines are legendary, his motion offense has produced the top-scoring team in the country five times and the way he evaluates every detail of a game provides him with a clear vision to improve his players for their next game.
Practice PlanningFor Meyer, there are two things that are going to happen at every practice: players are going to have their notebooks with them and they are going to sign into practice to provide pertinent information about themselves for the day.
Meyer is a stickler for notes, which is evident by the notebooks his players are required to carry with them at all times. The notebooks contain basketball-specific information about plays and drills, individual skills that need to be addressed in practice, leadership materials and motivational strategies.
“We are big on using notebooks. It keeps players organized and it keep you (as a coach) organized,” says Meyer. “By carrying a notebook, it forces players to concentrate more on what you’re saying and it forces them to get your ideas down on paper. It also makes a coach be more simplistic in what is being told to the players. You know they are writing things down, so it slows you down when trying to make a point.”
Meyer also uses the notebooks to give players specific responsibilities, such as something to address at the next practice. He says this lets the coach know who is responsible and who is not. Initially, make the players responsible for remembering a simple task, such as asking someone to remind you to run extra dribbling drills next practice. It almost acts as a test for the player and it is one less thing you have to remember (as long as you have responsible players) heading into the next practice, according to Meyer.
The sign-in process at practice for Northern State requires players to write down their resting heart rate, provide recent test scores and the dates for upcoming tests. They also mark off their class attendance for the day. On the sign-in sheet for each player, Meyer also leaves short notes for players if he needs to get in direct communication with them.
After signing in, Meyer wants players to get taped, then move on to stretching on their own. Sometimes, they will stretch as a team on the court, but, unless you are coaching at the Division I collegiate level, court time is precious. There always are other sports and basketball teams jockeying for practice time on the court.
Once the “official” practice starts, Meyer’s teams go through a progression of individual skill work and drills. By keeping notebooks, players mark down what skills need more work according to the coaches, so, at that day’s practice, players team up and work together on a specific skill. For example, if two post players need extra time on finishing layups, they immediately head to an open basket and work on in-close shots until the coaches blow the whistle and move everyone into team drills.
“For your team drills, give them the big-picture reasons for the drill first so they can see how the little things relate to what you’re doing,” Meyer says. He wants his players to understand why they are running a drill and what is going to be accomplished. And, he doesn’t spend an elaborate amount of time explaining his drills because he keeps them simple (see sidebars with shooting games and dribbling drills).
“Your drills don’t have to be masterpieces,” he explains. “Keep it simple to get the most out of them.”
He wants his drills also to have a dual purpose in that there is a primary emphasis and a related emphasis.
If you are running a defensive drill, Meyer contends there still is an offensive element to it, which needs to be coached. However, he does not stop a defensive drill if an offensive player makes a mistake. He rotates out the offending player and has an assistant speak to that player about what he did wrong while the team continues its work.
Another element of Meyer’s drills is that they are run at an “uncomfortable pace,” meaning at game-speed. This helps players work on conditioning while sharpening their on-the-court skills. Meyer doesn’t believe in a lot of running simply for running’s sake.
“We try not to do a lot of sprint lines when players do something wrong,” Meyer says. “The whole idea is to condition them when they have a ball in their hands so it’s a game-like situation. If we wanted them to run track, we’d have them put on track shoes and go outside.”
In addition to the sign-in sheet, notebooks, keeping drills simple and conditioning while playing, Meyer says there are three things his teams must do at every practice.
- Concentrate. “Players need to be there physically and mentally. And, I want them there (practices and games) early,” Meyer says. “The veterans need to set the example for the rookies in terms of how to come prepared to practice.”
- Communicate. “A quiet team is a scared team. I want my players talking all the time,” he adds.
- Compete. “Players need to dive after loose balls. They need to practice like they’re playing in the playoffs,” Meyer says. “If they do those three things, then we’ll have consistency.”
Motion MasterMeyer certainly didn’t invent the motion offense and he’s not the last one to add his own wrinkles to it either. But, he did use his motion-offense principles to help lead Lipscomb (where he coached from 1975-1999) to national scoring titles in 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1995.
“The most important part of my motion offense is to fast break every time you get the ball to put pressure on the defense,” Meyer explains. “Sometimes we’ll run a straight 3-out, 2-in set with a simple post exchange but we also change with our personnel. If we have a post player who is a great three-point shooter, we’ll run a 4-out, 1-in look. In a sense, it’s the players who end up telling you how you’ll run the offense.”
While the methods might change from year to year, Meyer says his motion offense is based on 16 principles.
1. Spacing. Meyer wants as much spacing as possible on the court and says “spacing is offense; offense is spacing.”
2. Angles. The posts constantly must seal to create better angles for the ball to be fed into the block. The perimeter players must move to create better angles for which to feed the ball.
3. Momentum. Drive the ball against the movement of opponent’s momentum and at mismatches. Ideally, Meyer wants his players penetrating in the middle of the floor. He adds that pass fakes, shot fakes and skip passes are great ways to move the defense in one direction while looking to attack from another.
4. First Open Player. Pass the ball away from the defense to the first open player.
5. Rim, Post, Action. On every caught ball, the player must look to the rim, then to the post, then to create action.
6. Ball On Top Twice. The ball should make its way to the top of the key twice in a possession to create space. Four passes creates a good shot. Five passes makes for a great shot. Seven passes typically results in a great shot and a foul.
7. Top Feeds. Have guards hold the ball a little longer when they are at the top of the set. Meyer says the best feeds into the post come from the top of the key regardless if you are playing against a man or zone defense.
8. Go Inside. “We want to go inside, inside and inside some more,” says Meyer.
9. Read Defense. Players must slow down and read the defensive player while making a cut.
10. Basket Cuts. Instruct players on how to use basket cuts to score or whenever they don’t know what to do on the perimeter. “Players should stick their head under the basket, read the defense and space to the appropriate area at the NBA three-point line.”
11. Post Seal. Meyer wants his post players constantly sealing defenders in the post rather than chasing the ball around the perimeter. He adds that post players who are in a position to show their uniform numbers to the ball should receive a pass every time.
12. Fast…But Not Too Fast. The ball needs to move quickly and crisply around the perimeter in Meyer’s offense, but slow enough so players have time to see the “rim, post and action” of Principle No. 5.
13. Move With A Purpose. When players cut and when they screen, they must move with a purpose. “We don’t need a quantity of cuts and screens. We need quality cuts and screens,” Meyer explains. He says you should designate a few players as the “screeners” in your offense so only a few athletes have to master the proper way to screen.
14. Open, Rhythm Shots. In Meyer’s Motion Offense, an open layup is the best result, followed by an open jump shot, then a decent shot by a good shooter.
15. Offensive Board Coverage. Crash the offensive glass with 2-on-1 rebounding advantages on the weak side.
16. Transition & Talk. On the shot, make sure two players retreat to mid-court to stop the ball going the other way. You don’t want to give up layups or uncontested three-pointers. Have the other three players hitting the glass, then busting their butts to get back on defense.
Evaluating The Game: When the final horn sounds, you need to find a way to evaluate what just took place on the court. Sure, you may have had a fantastic set of practices leading up to your game, it may have seemed that your players took good shots and that you controlled the tempo…but did you really play a great game?
“Many times, the scoreboard is a poor judge of your team’s performance,” Meyer says.
Meyer uses a 10-point strategy to determine where his team excelled and where they fell short. After evaluating the game with this system, Meyer then identifies specific skills that need work in practice.
- Turnover Margin: As the coach, you must determine prior to the game what are your goals when it comes to turnovers.
Some coaches might want to have a plus-5 margin while others might always want to have fewer than 10 turnovers while forcing at least 15. Set your goals, then evaluate how you did afterward.
- Rebound Margin: “Using a rebounding margin is a good barometer of how well you competed on the glass and is probably better than measuring your rebounding effort with absolute numbers,” Meyer explains.
He says establishing a goal of out-rebounding the opponent by more than 10 boards is more realistic than wanting to grab 50 total rebounds in a game. The number of rebounds available per game always is changing, so margin is a better way to judge how you did on the glass.
- Field Goal Attempts: Meyer says that if everything is equal, the team that gets the most and best shots wins.
- Field Goal Percentage: Two rules Meyer wants coaches to think about for their teams are that the best shooter should have the most shots in a game and the worst shooter should have the team’s best field-goal percentage as that player only should be taking layups and wide-open shots.
For Northern State, Meyer grades every possession with a scoring system ranging from 4 down to 0.
4= Wide-open layup; 3 = Wide-open shot by good shooter; 2 = Contested shot by good shooter; 1 = Terrible shot; 0 = Turnover.
- Free Throw Attempts: Make more free throws than your opponent attempts.
- Free Throw Percentage: Great teams make their free throws…plain and simple (check out the free-throw-game sidebar to make shooting from the charity stripe more fun and competitive at your practices).
- No One With More Than 15: Use 15 points as a barometer to keep individual players in check. Do not let anyone on the other team score more than 15 points in a game. Help-side defense, rotations and an overall effort by everyone on the floor are necessary to keep a big-time scorer in check.
- 3-Point Game: Your team must make open three-pointers on offense…and, your best shooters need to be taking those shots. On defense, do not allow a player who shoots more than half of his or her shots from behind the arc to get a standing look at the hoop. Force that player to dribble to create space to shoot.
- Floor Game: This involves getting to loose balls, taking charges, saving the ball from a turnover, etc. Make a team goal of taking two charges per game or getting to 90 percent of loose balls.
- Assist Game: Try to have an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2 to 1. Also, look at how many made baskets came from assists. And, try to subjectively track assists by recording “screen assists,” which is when your team scores due to a teammate’s screen.
Of course, all of this information is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Meyer is willing to offer. He says to email his assistant coach, Matt Hammer, at email@example.com for additional information on things such as perimeter play, post play, extra motivation, faith in coaching, getting the most from your players, etc.