Leadership Lessons from West Point
What exactly does the U.S. Military Academy at West Point do to earn the reputation of being one of the world's top places for leadership development?
As a follow up from last month's article on the Mental Training techniques used at West Point, we'll explore some of the Leadership strategies used to train cadets - and how you too can apply them in training your athletes.
CHALLENGE, SUPPORT, ASSESSMENT, REFLECTION
The overall structure of leadership development at West Point revolves around four primary areas: challenge, support, assessment, and reflection. As a coach, you too can apply these same principles in developing your players' athletic skills and leadership skills.
People only grow when they are pushed beyond their comfort zone. This holds true on the field/court, in the classroom, in the weight room, or as a leader. The Army provides cadets with a variety of physical and mental challenges including rigorous classroom work, physical tests, obstacle courses, battle simulations, etc. Instructors intentionally create distractions, delays, and other problems to see how well the cadets can handle them in an effort to push leaders out of their comfort zone.
Similarly, as a coach you should be continually challenging your players out of their comfort zones. Be sure that your practice plans focus on areas that stretch your athletes skills. Use drills that force them to meet a certain standard of excellence before moving on. Are you providing your athletes with enough challenge to stretch their capabilities?
While challenge is necessary to push both cadets and athletes, support is necessary to sustain them. The Army provides support through mentoring both from senior officers and peers. Like athletes, cadets receive a great deal of coaching to build confidence and maintain optimism.
In the athletic world, athletes must feel like their coaches are in their corner. Jody Adams, a former point guard for Pat Summitt puts it this way. "Pat knew when she should push you, and when she needed to reel you back in." Successful coaches know how far they can challenge their athletes, then are willing to support them before they get to the breaking point.
Cadets are continually provided feedback on their performances in virtually every context. They are graded on their performance in drills, simulations, and exercises. This feedback-rich environment helps them clearly know where they stand.
Carolina men's basketball coach Roy Williams and his assistants continually chart practices as well as grade films immediately following games. They too grade their players on such small yet meaningful things like the quality of screens they set for their teammates. The players receive their feedback within 24 hours of the game, while it is still fresh in their minds. The objective feedback helps them to identify their strengths and focuses them on any areas to improve.
It takes some time for the lessons of training to sink in. Therefore, cadets are often asked to reflect on their experiences to glean important lessons in their development. AARs, or After Action Reviews, allow cadets to reflect on their decisions, learn lessons, and grow as leaders.
Similarly, we have our Emerging Leaders in the Carolina Leadership Academy write a leadership reflection paper at the end of the program. The reflection paper focuses on critical lessons gained throughout the program. The paper helps the student-athlete synthesize their learnings during the year - and helps us see what they gained from the experience - and how they plan to use it.
ARE YOU SENDING THEM BACK BETTER THAN WHEN THEY CAME?
Colonel Bob Johnson says, "We're here to build leaders, not people who call home crying every five minutes. We will be fair, and we will be hard. We will teach him to be responsible, we will teach him to solve problems; when he gets home you will see a change in his demeanor. We'll send them back to you better than you sent them to us."
West Point makes a commitment to results. They have to because lives depend on them. They trust that their training forges leaders.
As a coach, can you too commit to parents that their children will be better after spending time with you and your program? Of course, they should be better fundamentally and sport skill wise after a season. But the real key is - Will they be better people after spending a season with you? Will parents see a positive improvement in their kid's attitude, confidence, commitment, and character? Beyond sport skills, what are the biggest life skills you teach your athletes?
HOW TO TEACH RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
"New cadets are allowed four responses: 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' 'No excuse, sir,' and 'Sir, I do not understand.'" It takes a couple of tries before the neophytes learn the codes. It will take a little longer for them to stop trying to explain things. In that phrase, "No excuse, sir" (or "ma'am") is an early, critical lesson. Take responsibility for your actions. Always. No matter what the consequences. It is a lesson they will hear repeated for four years. Most of them will get it." (Ed Ruggero in the book, Duty First)
West Point knows that all leadership begins with self leadership. If a cadet cannot lead herself effectively by accepting full responsibility for her actions, she will never have the respect of her peers or supervisors.
Similarly, if you want your athletes to be effective leaders and people, you must first teach them how to effectively lead themselves. Hold them accountable for simple things like showing up on time, being prepared, and being respectful. You also must hold them accountable for more complex things like their attitude and focus following mistakes, and taking on life's challenges independently, rather than letting mom or dad fight their battles for them.
READY TO STAND ON A STREET CORNER IN BOSNIA OR BAGHDAD?
When training cadets, Colonel Olson keeps this one sobering question in mind: "Is he ready to stand on a street corner in Bosnia (or now Baghdad) in a few years?"
The staff at West Point has the awesome responsibility both to the country and the cadet to make sure the person is properly prepared to eventually handle the demands of leading in battle conditions.
Because lives are on the line, they can't afford to slack on the intensity of the training. They cannot in good conscience send someone into battle who is ill-prepared - for their sake and the entire unit.
Colonel Olson's question is one that continues to echo in my head. And I hope it impacts you too...
Yes, our athletes will not likely ever be in Bosnia or Baghdad. Yet the challenges they will face some day will still be critically important to them and the people they lead. We owe it to them to properly prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead.
For more insight into leadership training at West Point, I highly recommend the following books:
Duty First by Ed Ruggero
Leadership Lessons from West Point edited by Major Doug Crandall