US Lacrosse just recently announced that John Danowski will be the new Head Coach for Team USA, and from where I’m sitting, it’s a fantastic selection. Sure, Danowski is a winner and the success he’s seen at Duke is undeniable, but there is something much more nuanced about his approach that will make Team USA stronger moving forward.
John Danowski is a leader of men, but he’s not a top-down tyrant. He’ll come right out and say this himself, and if you’ve ever seen him speak in person you know he’s self-effacing, gracious, and honest, almost to a fault. “Almost” is an important word here because Danowski walks the line gracefully, and in the end he just comes across as authentic and caring. I always wanted a coach who seemed to genuinely care about his players. Watch the below video and tell me you don’t believe how much John Danowski cares:
John Danowski on Coaching
Now, John Danowski was talking in generalities above, and many of things he was talking about seem to have little relevance to running a national team on their surface, but when you look at things holistically, it shows a man who finds strength in strength just as well as he finds strength in weakness.
His comments about field space are a fantastic example of the above laid out attitude. While he says people need to fight for space, and be “sharks” when needed, people also need to know how to make anything work. Danowski wouldn’t complain if a field weren’t available, he would simply throw the guys out in the hotel parking lot and get some work done. This kind of attitude, where function is valued above form, is a key aspect to Danowski’s approach.
I’m of the belief that this is just what Team USA needs if they want to reclaim the gold medal from Canada in 2018 when the games are played in Manchester.
Back in 2010, you had a player’s USA team, led by Ryan Powell and Kevin Cassese. Mike Pressler was the Head Coach 5 years ago, and while he certainly brought a lot to the table, he wasn’t a top-down, chain of command kind of guy. The players took leadership roles, worked out their differences, and bonded strongly under a common goal. The focus was on winning and playing hard for your country, but having fun was also a priority. Pressler knew the value of a truly bonded team, and he let the 2010 captains and older players lead the way towards that end.
Team USA played aggressive, at times risky lacrosse, but they played together and with passion, and they walked away proud, with gold medals around their necks. Lacrosse was treated as a player’s game, and the USA guys rose to the challenge nicely, defeating an extremely tough and talented Canadian team in the finals. Canada played a similar style, but the US was better on the day.
In 2014, things changed drastically as Richie Meade took over the men’s national team. Players leading the way was a thing of the past. Relaxed atmospheres gave way to strict dress codes. A long tryout period was extended even longer, and players were left wondering where they stood throughout much of the process. While the atmosphere was still collegial at tryouts and camps, the overall tone was much more serious, and a lot less forgiving. Team USA was not going to Denver to have fun, they were going to put in work. They still wanted to win gold, they were just going about it in a different way.
To be fair, this is a valid approach in many cases, and in many situations. While I don’t think the approach in 2014 was the right one, it certainly can work with college teams across many sports (lacrosse included) and it has worked for certain national programs, both here in the US and abroad. The idea is to force TEAM onto everyone, and in many ways this is a good thing, unless you have a group of players who won’t respond well to this kind of treatment. In the lacrosse world, many players simply react poorly to that kind of treatment more often than not.
Not only do many of the players currently play for looser pro teams, but a lot of them come from college programs where things weren’t quite so buttoned down. To find yourself in the middle of a very regimented process can be disorienting for anyone. As far as I can tell, organization never scored a lacrosse goal. Only players do that. Of course the top-down approach does work in certain places…
For example, the top-down approach works well at the military academies. It also works for guys like Petro at Hopkins, Kevin Corrigan at Notre Dame, or Bill Pilat down at Roanoke. Overall however, this top-down approach is relatively rare in lacrosse, and programs like Syracuse, Albany, Tufts, Duke, RIT, Stevenson, and many others show how varied this approach can be.
What one thing is common between all those schools? The players LOVE playing lacrosse for their coach. They love their team, and the atmosphere, and they can’t wait to join in the day’s activities. Even if it’s work, it’s fun and players want to be there. THAT is what John Danowski will bring back to Team USA, and that is what could take the US national team back to gold medal status.
Canada put together a great team in 2014. Their roster was stacked with athletic and skilled guys, and they came together in a remarkable way. Randy Mearns was their coach, and he was about as loose as you could get. He let the players relax, and focus on playing, and he never snapped the reins tight without a very good cause. The pro players responded to this well, and the younger guys followed their lead. The US has done this before, and they need to do it again.
John Danowski consistently finds a way to get the most out of his players. His goal isn’t for things to be done his way, as long as they are done the best way. He takes advice from other coaches, he listens to players, and he is going to let the best players in the world do their thing a lot more than we saw in 2014. Danowski is a no-nonsense kind of coach… his nonsense is just a little bit different than the rest of ours.