APFT Scores: Shame and Pride

a soldier doing a situp

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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Keeping the fire burning

soldier bending over while holding a stick
“Are we done yet?”

I’m a little over half-way done with IBOLC. After that will come a short “break” and then more specialized training and before heading to my first duty assignment. So, at this point I’ve been at Fort Benning for about six months, and I’m staring down another five or six before I actually get to the operating force. Talking with a lot of my peers from OCS, many of us are experiencing a degree of burnout.

For them it’s probably worse – they started with nine weeks of basic training before getting to OCS. For our peers from ROTC and USMA, this is there first run in the “real” Army, so they’re riding strong. A lot of the classes we get at IBOLC are the same classes (with exactly the same PowerPoint slides) that we got at OCS. Training environments can be mind-numbing, all the more so when the courses are exactly the same.

Unlike OCS, though, we’re not really competing for anything. At OCS, scoring well and doing your best directly affected where a candidate ranked in the course and their ability to choose their preferred branch. Everyone wants to do well in an Army course, but the rewards for being in the top x % at IBOLC are bragging rights only. I think the Honor Graduate gets a special school slot. The guys who ranks number two? Well, he was number two.

Being stuck in the training vortex can get people down. I remember feeling that same way when I went to Infantry OSUT and Airborne School. It felt like I was going to be in training forever. Like all things, it eventually ended and I moved on to the real Army, and from that vantage point, Fort Benning seemed insignificant and distant. I try to remind my peers that in the scheme of an Army career, this is a blip. In a year’s time we’ll look back and scoff at it all. Things that seem challenging or annoying now will be a joke compared the real problems that we’ll face on the line. That, and the fact that as junior LTs in a training environment we’re essentially responsible for ourselves only (no easy task, mind you). Once we get to a unit, we’re responsible for our entire platoon. This, then, should be easy. “Take care of your three-feet of space” like my old BN CDR used to say, “and the rest will work itself out.”

So how do you keep the fire burning? I remember being in graduate school last year, fantasizing about what it would be like to be back in the Army – to wake up and go to formation, do PT, and be around a bunch of people who all at some point in their lives decided they wanted to do something bigger than themselves, and in seeking that were willing to put it all on the line to do it. I remember thinking about how great it would feel to be able to experience that again – so many of my peers who have gotten out and veterans who I’ve met on the outside can never come back in. I try to remind myself of how much I wanted this when I’m faced with some of the inconvenient realities of these actual situations (standing in PT formation 45 minutes before PT starts in a summer uniform during the freezing winter,  or no coffee for the first six weeks of OCS, for example).

Essentially, to keep the fire burning you have to have a deeper reason to be doing this in the first place. Because it’s “cool” won’t last a week. “Dig deep” is what they say when a guy is sucking on a foot march or a run. If you do this right, there should be a whole lot of mental tumbling going on when a person decides this is what they want to do as a profession. This is a serious business, and it deserves serious thought. Being burned out will happen from time to time. The physical exhaustion of military service, the stress of leadership and the mission, and balancing these with social and family obligations will eventually pile up to a point that overwhelms a person. If we’ve done the mental gymnastics that answer the question “why” beforehand though, then “digging deep” will never be necessary – the answer will always be right there.

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