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Leading By The Military's Example

By Jason Butt | May 09, 2014, 10:25 a.m. (ET)

USA Basketball Women's National Team head coach Geno Auriemma joins other NCAA basketball coaches at the Hoops for Troops “Commitment to Service” event at the Pentagon on May 7, 2014. Auriemma spoke on a panel at a Sports Leadership Seminar with ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas and college basketball coaches Jamie Dixon, Tubby Smith, Kevin Ollie, Jay Wright, Geno Auriemma, Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim.

WASHINGTON - Geno Auriemma has a simple message he likes to tell his players.

“Figure it out.”

In a day and age where players, he said, want too much information, the USA Basketball Women’s National Team coach prefers the approach of giving his players just enough advice to get them through. That way, they're learning what to do instead of being told.

During USA Basketball’s Hoops for Troops “Commitment to Service” presentation Wednesday at the Pentagon Auditorium, Auriemma told the story of a player at Connecticut who took her defender to the basket during a game for a lay-up. Moments later, the player ran up to Auriemma on the bench, asking if she could drive to the basket again.

“What, you don’t think I want you shooting lay-ups?” he quipped.

Auriemma, who coached Connecticut to its ninth NCAA championship this spring and led the U.S. women to gold medals at the 2010 FIBA World Championship and at the London 2012 Olympic Games, added that players in today’s game often times are looking for reassurance after a great play or game. He said the responsibility of his coaching staff to give them the tools to become better players.

Auriemma hopes to continue to do the same as he works with the U.S. women’s team in its quest for a sixth consecutive gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

Citing the military as an example, Auriemma said he will speak with his Connecticut team about worst-case scenarios when it comes to losing a game. Whereas in the military, there can be serious consequences if one makes a mistake, if athletes lose a game, the results are not nearly as tragic.

“I say, ‘Kids your age all around the world are in the U.S. military. If they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, when it’s supposed to be done, it has serious consequences — not just for them but for their team, for their families,’” Auriemma said. “When you start taking every single thing you’re doing as serious as those kids your age take their job in the military, then you’ll understand what passion is and commitment to detail.”

Auriemma was the only women’s coach on a seven-coach panel that also included Jim Boeheim (USA Basketball Men’s National Team assistant and Syracuse men’s coach) and fellow college men’s coaches Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Kevin Ollie (Connecticut), Tubby Smith (Texas Tech) and Jay Wright (Villanova). The coaches met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The panel discussion was streamed live to U.S. military members around the world.

Wright made it a point to add that while his coaching staff at Villanova often uses the military as an example when teaching leadership values, much like Auriemma, he refrains from linking basketball to warfare.

“We never say that game was a war or a battle ever,” Wright said, speaking to the military members in attendance of the leadership discussion at the Pentagon. “We talk to our team about this all the time. It’s exactly what Geno says. It’s for respect out of you. We use you guys as examples all the time to our players. We always stop and remind them, ‘Don’t say that game was a war. Don’t say that game was a battle. We’ve got guys and girls your age out there really battling.’”

One topic Auriemma stressed is accountability, noting how important it is in the U.S. military. In practice, Auriemma teaches his players to depend on one another in every facet of the game of basketball. But unlike a real-life situation in the military, a mishap during a game will result in nothing more than a loss on the score sheet.

“Here, you can make mistakes,” Auriemma said. “But if you accept making mistakes because it’s a game and nothing bad happens, then as you go on in the rest of your life, and the stakes get higher and things get tougher, the only thing you’ve learned is how to make mistakes and excuses. We talk about that almost every day.”

In his role with USA Basketball, Auriemma said he still applies these same teaching principles to the national team. And at this level, the players are often receptive to the kind of coaching he offers, since they are all after a common goal at an elite level.

“We always feel like coaching the best players is something we aspire to do,” Auriemma said. “That’s why we’re in this room. We’re dealing with the absolute best people. You’d be surprised at how much the ones that are the best are the easiest to coach. They know how they got to be really good and want to be even better, so they’re very receptive to coaching. You just got to lead them in the right direction.”

Jason Butt is a writer from Washington, D.C. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial.com.