APFT Scores: Shame and Pride


My first squad leader was a fan of using shame and pride as a means to motivate soldiers, especially when it came to physical fitness. He built a wooden board and painted it black and yellow and hung it up in the platoon hallway. Along the top of the board were score ranges: 200 and below, 201-230, 231-270, 271-299, 300+. Under the score ranges were labels. The only two I remember were “Stud” and “Dud,” labels for the 300+ and below 200 scores, respectively. Under the scores were little nails. On laminated strips of paper, the platoon’s soldiers’ names were printed and your name would hang underneath whatever score you ranked. Over time, you might move up or down the board depending on your score.

How soldiers performed on the APFT was not a private matter – it was platoon business. And in the eyes of that Squad Leader, the shame of doing poorly and the pride in doing well were prime motivators.

It worked for me. I’m not sure which was more powerful – the fear of doing poorly or the ambition to do well. Like most things, it was probably a combination of both. Shame and pride.

Since then, I have always believed in publicly posting APFT scores so that everyone knows where everyone else stands. It seems there is only a small percentage of soldiers who are motivated by this to the extent that it actually has an effect on their physical performance. While most soldiers will go and check the scores, I don’t see them doing it with the same rabid curiosity I had.

Maybe times have changed, I don’t know.

Shame and pride can be motivators, but they’re double-edged swords. While leaders should never fail the APFT, it happens. Having that information displayed publicly can undermine the authority of a leader rapidly in an organization that places such a premium on physical fitness. Of course, it is the leader’s responsibility to maintain physical fitness, and it is easy to brush this off as a complete non-issue. “He failed himself, he has to deal with the consequences!” But the reality is there are often many more things you need that leader to do than just pass the APFT. Undermined authority in one area bleeds into all areas.

There’s no question that physical fitness is a personal responsibility, especially among leaders. Failing an APFT is unacceptable, but I’m also aware of the realities that leaders face across the force. For many leaders – like Stanley McChrystal recently wrote about – physical fitness happens to be their chief hobby. When the thing you love to do the most is working out, it isn’t difficult to stay in great shape. Conversely, there are plenty of leaders who hate working out, and in an environment that demands more and more of their time, maintaining physical fitness might fall off the calendar in lieu of something they actually enjoy.

What’s really challenging is finding the right mix of shame and pride and everything in between to properly maintain the physical fitness their jobs require. The fear of being labeled a “dud” and the pride of achieving a top score worked (and still works) to motivate me. Of course, there’s the intrinsic motivation of being healthy and physically fit. That mix works for me, but not others. The best leaders will figure out how to get the tough ones going.

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