Marines work with the LSU women's basketball team, emphasizing the importance of teamwork and leadership to success on the court — and off. (Steve Franz / LSU)
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Marines exhort the Lady Tigers as the work to complete a Combat Fitness Test. (Steve Franz / LSU)
When Nikki Caldwell heard Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds speak at the 2013 Women’s Basketball Coaches Association national convention in April, she was inspired — and intrigued.
Caldwell, head coach of the Lady Tigers basketball team at Louisiana State University, a perennial Division I power, listened attentively as Reynolds talked about the Marine Corps’ emphasis on leadership and teamwork — the same traits she wanted her team to apply on the court. And she couldn’t have heard the message from a more authoritative source. Reynolds is intimately familiar with both worlds.
As the commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., where all female recruits attend boot camp, Reynolds’ daily life is devoted to the effort to turn young men and women into Marines. And she is a former Division I basketball player herself, the captain of the U.S. Naval Academy’s 1985-86 team.
Later, Caldwell got in touch with Marine recruiters and officer selection officers in Baton Rouge to enlist their help in teaching her players about the importance of good teamwork and becoming better leaders. When other LSU coaches saw the beneficial effects of the Marines’ involvement, they began asking Caldwell how they could get Marines to train with their teams, she said.
“We really loved how they took on leadership,” Caldwell said. “They came in and gave us a briefing, but then said, ‘How about we take it a step farther and go out and train with you?’ ”
The training included having the team run a pair of combat fitness tests, from sprinting to ammo can lifts, Caldwell said. The first time through, the Marines told the coaches not to encourage or instruct the players. The second time through, however, they coached them through it and encouraged them to stay motivated, and the team members saw what a difference that made in their performance.
“It’s something that I feel really set a tone for who we are and what we want to represent this year as a women’s basketball team,” she said.
Capt. Adesina “A10” Aladetohun, an OSO who was involved with the training, said he could see the team come together at the end of the practice.
“During the event, we took note of the team's flaws and reflected these issues back to them during a break in action,” he said. “I particularly enjoyed watching the team coalesce.”
Caldwell said the Marines related their ethos as warriors to what the basketball players do on the court. The Marines want to win the nation’s battles, and her team wants to win on the court. And just as the Corps seeks to create quality citizens, LSU wants to make quality student athletes, she said.
“When they started showing us the parallels between the two entities, I think it was very moving for our team to see that,” she said.
The Marines were focused on strengthening the team’s will to win, Aladetohun said. Their success was due to their pride and desire to strengthen their team in the face of adversity, he said.
The team has continued to apply the lessons Aladetohun and the other Marines taught them, Caldwell said. Before every practice, players are responsible for motivating the team and themselves with Marine-based principles. Each player was given a guiding principle based on her particular personality traits or circumstances.
For example, one player who tends to get the most media attention starts the practice by saying, “Set the example.” Since she’s in the spotlight, Caldwell said, it’s important that she remember to set a good example.
Other Marine principles tailored for the players’ use on the basketball court include:
■ Keep your Lady Tiger family informed.
■ Know your Lady Tigers and look out for their welfare.
■ Be technically and tactically proficient.
■ Ensure the task is understood, supervised and accomplished.
The principles work, she said, because the Marines convinced the players to buy in, Caldwell said. Now when they’re said before each practice, she can tell the players believe in what they’re saying.
“I feel like this jump-started us,” Caldwell said. “It has put us at a level where we know we have to be better than last year. We got to a Sweet Sixteen, our goal is to get to a Final Four. And starting with having that mental toughness ... I feel it’s going to give us an edge.”
It’s certainly not the first time that Marines have shared their expertise with college athletes. Earlier in 2013, they teamed up with members of Southern University’s football team in Baton Rouge. Like Caldwell, their head coach, Dawson Odums, saw great benefit in teaming with the Marines as they trained.
“When it’s time for us to do a job, it requires our mental fortitude,” Odums said, according to a Marine Corps news release. “We needed to be put into adverse situations so we could overcome things [when] we were put in combat.”
Caldwell said she hopes to have a Marine come in as a guest coach before a game to give them more of the kind of mental preparation they received during the preseason training. And other coaches at LSU continue to express interest, she said.
“I feel like this could take on a life of its own,” she said.