Lessons from Building a Championship Team with Josh Merkel
Randolph-Macon Head Coach Josh Merkel shares his insights and experiences on building a championship team. During the 2022-23 season, Randolph-Macon won its first national championship in NCAA Division III history, with the largest margin of victory ever recorded. Coach Merkel has had a remarkable run of success, making four trips to the NCAA tournament and earning the most wins in program history. Let’s dive into what pushed his team over the top and learn from his coaching strategies.
The Foundation of Success
Coach Merkel credits the success of his team to several key factors. First and foremost, he acknowledges the players and coaches who came before him, establishing a strong foundation of excellence. The continuity of great players committed to the team and focused on development has set the standards for future players. This sense of continuity and the high standards have helped Josh Merkel improve in his role as head coach. Additionally, the team’s veterans, including two fifth-year players and two four-year seniors, brought a sense of grit and resilience, not wanting to let their older teammates down. This connection and drive fueled their hunger for success.
Merkel emphasizes that his team never got too confident, always playing with a chip on their shoulder. They recognized the importance of staying grounded and focused, which reflected in their record and approach. This mindset contributed to their impressive run and ultimately led them to victory.
A Unique Coaching Philosophy
Merkel’s coaching philosophy is centered around the idea that every player is different and should be coached accordingly. He believes in individual freedom and choice, allowing players to find their own way on the court. One of his favorite quotes is, “Every player doesn’t shoot the same, so why should every player close out the same?” This highlights his belief in tailoring coaching techniques to each player’s strengths and abilities.
He recalls a pivotal moment in his coaching journey when he realized the importance of adapting his coaching style to support his players. He had a talented offensive player who was struggling defensively, despite putting in the effort and being coachable. It was then that Coach Merkel realized he needed to find a way to help and support this player better. This led to the development of his philosophy of individualized closeouts and the recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every player.
The Power of Player-Led Development
Another unique aspect of Josh Merkel’s coaching approach is the emphasis on player-led development. He believes in empowering his players to take ownership of their growth and learning. This includes allowing them to analyze game film, ask questions, and break down plays during team meetings. By giving players the opportunity to take on leadership roles and teach their teammates, they become more engaged and invested in their own development.
One of the standout moments for Coach Merkel was witnessing his point guard, Buzz Anthony, take the lead during a player-led block session. The other players on the team asked Buzz questions about his defensive techniques, and he broke down his strategies for them. This interaction showcased the team’s strong connection and their commitment to learning from one another.
Leadership Language and Self-Reflection
Coach Merkel believes in the power of language and its impact on a team’s culture. He emphasizes the importance of using specific and meaningful language to convey ideas and expectations. For example, he refers to the scout team as the “studs” to emphasize their value and impact on the team’s success. This language creates a sense of pride and motivation among the players.
Self-reflection is another key aspect of Coach Merkel’s coaching philosophy. He encourages his players to reflect on their performance and make observations about their strengths and areas for improvement. This self-awareness helps them take ownership of their development and become more accountable for their actions on and off the court.
Coaching with Constraints
Josh Merkel believes in coaching with constraints, using specific limitations or rules during drills and small-sided games to focus on particular skills or strategies. This approach allows players to learn and develop within the context of the game, making their learning more efficient and applicable.
One example of coaching with constraints is the “ladder game.” This game involves two teams, each starting from different points on the court. The offense aims to score points by either getting a basket or touching the paint, while the defense tries to prevent them from scoring. This game encourages players to make quick decisions, adapt to different situations, and develop their offensive and defensive skills.
Another drill that Coach Merkel uses is the “2 on 2 appropriate” game. In this game, the offense tries to score by touching the paint, while the defense aims to prevent them from doing so. This drill helps players understand defensive responsibilities, decision-making, and offensive strategies.
The Importance of Feedback and Continuous Improvement
Feedback is a crucial component of Coach Merkel’s coaching philosophy. He encourages his players to seek feedback and embrace it as a means of continuous improvement. By creating an environment where feedback is valued, Coach Merkel helps his players develop self-awareness and become more receptive to constructive criticism.
Coach Merkel also emphasizes the importance of continuous improvement and staying one step ahead. While it’s essential to stick to core principles, he believes in constantly seeking new ideas and strategies to keep the team’s performance at a high level. This commitment to growth and adaptation ensures that the team doesn’t become stagnant or predictable.
Coach Josh Merkel’s coaching philosophy is rooted in individualized development, player-led learning, and continuous improvement. Through his unique approach, he has guided Randolph-Macon to a national championship and established a culture of excellence within the program. By emphasizing self-reflection, language, and coaching with constraints, Coach Merkel empowers his players to become the best versions of themselves on and off the court.
Learn more from Josh Merkel from his All Access Practice Series as he gives you access to his practices and so much more. Merkel is a basketball whisperer, blending passion, precision, and purpose. His coaching philosophy transcends Xs and Os—it’s about nurturing champions, on and off the hardwood. Dive into the heart of basketball excellence with this exclusive series from Immersion Videos!