Coaches Corner: Aaron Johnston
The winningest women’s basketball coach in South Dakota State University history, Aaron Johnston in 2019 served as a court coach for the 2019 USA Basketball Women’s U19 and Pan Am Games team trials.
In 20 seasons as the head women’s basketball coach at SDSU, he owns a 492-166 career record (.748 winning percentage), has led SDSU to winning seasons in 13 of the past 14 years and has earned nine NCAA Tournament berths since the program joined Division I in 2004-05.
USA Basketball spoke to Johnston to gain some insight and perspective on coaching.
During this time, what type of coaching duties are you doing daily?
Well, it's been a highly unique time for everybody, coaches, athletes and administrators. We all have personal lives, and we're trying to take care of everything related to COVID-19 on the personal side. So, it's been in some ways very busy, even though we've been more limited than what we typically are. In the past, we'd spend so much time doing summer camps and recruiting travel and things like that they would go into June and July. Some of those things are gone. But I'm probably still as busy with Zoom meetings with our staff and still doing recruiting over the phone, just trying to navigate all the changing information that we get from the NCAA, and so it's been busy. It’s obviously been affected dramatically because of COVID-19, but it’s been really busy just trying to stay on top of all the health issues and trying to do the best we can to stay connected with our team, stay connected with coaches. The relationship piece is probably the hardest, because I just think, you know, in our world of coaching there's a lot about relationships, how you build relationships, connect with people. And you can certainly do that through Zoom and the phone, but it's just not the same. So, I think I'm certainly looking forward to getting back and seeing people in face-to-face interactions again.
What is the most challenging aspect of coaching for you?
I think it's the idea of bringing groups of people together and finding that common vision for what you want to try and accomplish as a team. I don't know if I'd use the words ‘most challenging,’ but I'd say that's the most important piece, probably what we put most of our focus on, or what most of my focus goes on. You have just a lot of different people, and viewpoints, and strengths and weaknesses. And as a coach, you're trying to bring all of these things together to maximize every strength you can, from individuals, from the group, trying to accommodate a lot of different personalities, a lot of different viewpoints. To me, that's really what my biggest job as a head coach is, to bring all of those things together and hopefully make it work and make a real positive atmosphere.
What are the most important things you consider in terms of developing relationships with your athletes?
I think all of us, athletes, coaches, anybody, we want people in our lives that care about us. We want people in our lives who we feel like have our best interests at heart. So as a coach, I think it's important that we build relationships with those things in mind, whether it's with staff or whether it's with our student-athletes, making sure they always know that our No. 1 priority is their well-being and their experience and we're going to do everything we can to help make that a positive one. And so to do that, I think listening is probably the piece that we have to do a really good job of. I think we all as coaches sometimes can fall into the mode of talking, like our job is to express ideas and to be the talker, or the voice. Every year I coach, I find that in my job it’s far more important to listen, and I think that's how you get to know people in a way that that helps them understand that you do care about them and you do want what's best for them. So, trying to bring people in and listen and understand what their point of view is and what they're trying to get done. And then take that information and put it to good use to help them accomplish the goals they have for themselves.
What inspired you to pursue a career in coaching?
That was a long time ago … this is year 21. I would say that's evolved over the years. I think as a younger coach, I was just really competitive. I loved the idea of the challenge of trying to help win or be successful. Certainly, I enjoyed being around people at that time, too. I think now, after reflecting on it over the years, it’s certainly more about trying to put people in the best positions to be successful, trying to help people pursue their dreams, help people accomplish their goals. I’m still very competitive. I still want to win. But I think now, it's just more about trying to understand that everybody's got a vision for where they want to be, and as a coach, you can help them accomplish that vision. That's what really kind of keeps me going and really gets me excited about the job now. Back then, I wanted to be a part of a successful team and wanted to compete for championships, and certainly help people at the same time, but I think those things have probably slipped a little bit in my priorities.