APFT Scores: Shame and Pride

APFT

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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Platoon run wearing full ACUs, body armor, and pro-masks while carrying logs

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Earlier this week I wrote about the power of scoring a 300 on the APFT, and in that post I linked to an older post defending the APFT as a good, easy to administer measure of baseline fitness. I actually don’t write about physical training that much, because it is one of the things that are hard to talk about in the military because just about everyone thinks they’re an expert.

Since physical training seems to be the theme on the blog this week, I’d figure I’d write about something I’ve noticed since being back in the Army in regards to PT. I’m prefacing what follows as being completely anecdotal – although I’ve confirmed it over and over with NCOs and officers who have been in for awhile.

First, it seems that the physical fitness of soldiers today is lower than it was a decade (+) ago when I was enlisted. This reflects in lower APFT scores (than I remember) and a general lack of enthusiasm for fitness. This is not to say that platoon’s don’t have their physical fitness monsters. They still exist and mostly blow the other soldiers away in terms of physical fitness. But the fitness of the soldiers who only do PT when they’re forced to do PT seems to be lower than it was before. Of course, this can have a lot to do with leadership and good PT plans – no question. And in fairness, the time requirements placed on soldiers today and the number of tasks that need to be completed in a given day also seems to have increased over the last decade as well. PT is often the first thing to fall off of the training plan out of necessity.

At the same time, we’re living in a wonderful time in terms of knowledge and understanding of physical fitness. The past twenty years has seen an explosive growth in what we know about the human body and how to maximize performance. Whether you hate it or love it, CrossFit has reinvigorated the art and science of exercise performance. Companies like Military Athlete (now StrongSwiftDurable), which studies how exercise correlates to actual tactical performance didn’t exist before. The internet allows this information to be shared and accessed instantaneously and at extremely low cost.

So while the general fitness of Americans has decreased, so has the fitness of the incoming generation of soldiers. At the same time, the top level potential of those interested has increased. I’ve seen the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs during the same time period.

Which brings me to the strange article title.

Part of the problem, as I can see it, is that because PT often falls off training plans and getting everyone together to do PT on a regular basis is becoming harder and harder, well-intentioned NCOs and officers often try to do everything all at once. At my current post, it isn’t uncommon to see an out of shape platoon wearing full kit and pro-masks running down the street carrying logs. Half of the platoon, of course, is 100 meters behind, struggling just to keep up.

There’s a tendency – especially among junior leaders who are good at PT – to try and “break off” their subordinates during PT, either as a way to “get it all in” or simply to establish that they are indeed good at PT. A commander I served with wrote about this last year, as a great lesson learned.

One of the hardest things to do as a leader during PT is train down to the lowest common denominator. A leader who is good at PT most likely got there by training hard, almost certainly on his or her own time, outside of work. What is hard to understand is that many soldiers – if not most – only do the unit PT they’re forced to do in the morning. This, after experiencing PT as a punitive event in basic training. What is right for the leader who is also good at PT probably isn’t the same for the young soldier who rolls out of bed dreading it every day.

There’s a way to get that soldier on board, but I guarantee you that a platoon run in full kit and pro-masks while carrying logs is not it.

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The Power of Scoring a 300 on the APFT

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After an Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), leaders always want to know two things: 1) who failed, and 2) who scored a 300?

The fastest way to get recognized (in a good way) in the Army is to score a 300.

I’ve seen it over and over: a soldier who is generally the gray man scores a 300 on the APFT and becomes an instant superstar. That soldier suddenly bubbles up to the top of the list for favorable actions – leadership positions, increased responsibility, promotions.

To score a 300 means that the soldier achieved the maximum points for each of the three events of the APFT; push-ups, sit-ups, 2-mile run.

Scoring a 300 is not a terribly difficult physical fitness goal to achieve, but it does require a measure of dedication and a more rounded physical training plan to accommodate  both muscular endurance and cardiovascular ability. In most units I’ve been in, only a handlful of soldiers hit a 300 on any given APFT.

Soldiers often scoff at the praise others receive simply for being in good shape. This goes for officers and enlisted alike. Just because someone scores high on the APFT or can run doesn’t mean they will be good at leadership – or anything else.

But there is evidence out there, although scant, that there are positive relationships between physical fitness and leadership, or at least, perceived leaderhship ability.

In my experience, good leaders tend to also be in good physical shape. That’s not to say that they are good leaders because they are in good shape. The two just seem to go together. Likewise, I’ve seen good leaders who aren’t in good shape and bad leaders who are – but I see those types less than the first.

Scoring a 300 on the APFT receives the praise that it does because it is one of the common denominators across the Army. All soldiers take the APFT, regardless of job or duty position. The standards are understood across the force and for most soldiers, you can’t really stumble into an APFT and knock out a 300 without some base level of fitness and effort.

And for those who knock the APFT as a poor measure of physical fitness, I’m not arguing with you. That’s also not the purpose of this article (see here if you really care).

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Army Myths: Road guards are the second person(s) in the far left and right rank

Ask anyone who the default road guard is during a movement formation where no road guards have been designated and they are likely to say that it is the second guy in the far left and right rank.

I’ve seen it at every unit I’ve been in. We’re marching somewhere, the cadence caller shouts “Road Guards, Post!” and there is a short delay until some salty Team Leader yells at the soldiers in that second spot, telling them that they are the default road guards. Then those two soldiers will run to the intersection, getting there moments before the main body gets there and while nearly getting themselves killed in the process.

Well, this isn’t doctrine.

It’s not a regulation. It’s just a standard operation procedure that appears to have been pretty much adopted Army-wide.

Reference to the practice cannot be found in TC 3-21.5 (Drill and Ceremony) or FM 7-22 (Army Physical Readiness Training). The best I’ve been able to find are some Air Force ROTC videos that reference the practice of assigning dedicated road guard prior to the movement (you know, the ones that get to wear the reflective vest or carry the flashlight).

True, this really isn’t a myth, but I’ve watched NCOs lose their minds when that second person didn’t react instantly to the command of execution of “POST!”

Best practice would be to assign road guard prior to any movement than relying on a shaky Army-wide standard operating procedure.

Also, related.

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Injury Management

Soldiers – infantrymen especially – are going to collect injuries throughout their career. Human bodies are fragile, and the nature of the job means that those fragile bodies are going to come crashing against a world of hurt. As I get older, I’m discovering that part of a good physical fitness regimen is having an injury management plan. At any given time, I’ve usually got one to three injuries that I’m dealing with. These aren’t show stoppers -nothing that I’d need to go to sick call for and take a profile. Rather, these are nagging injuries that could develop into something worse if not addressed.

I’ve always had a nasty habit of ignoring my small injuries and training through them or around them. While I was out of the Army and just going to college, this didn’t matter much, because I completely controlled my personal training. Now that I’m back in, I don’t always have control over my physical fitness regimen – I’ve got to do what the Army asks me to do. If I hurt my ankle or shoulder, I can’t just stop training until it gets better. Instead, I have to find ways to continue to train while doing the best to 1) prevent further injury, and 2) heal and rehabilitate the injury.

The biggest problem I’ve faced in trying to manage my injuries is remembering which injuries I need to manage. I need a constant reminder of what I’m working on. My solution was to buy a wooden doll from the local hobby shop. These are used as models for artists. I keep it on my desk and I attach little slips of paper onto the doll with a note on the injury. I see this thing everyday, and it serves as a reminder to go easy on those areas.

Reminding myself that I am carrying injuries isn’t enough though. As part of a weekly review (if you’re not GTDing, you’re missing out) I ask myself “what are my injuries and what have I done to mitigate them?” I should be able to answer that question with concrete responses. The goal, is that over time, I will be able to remove the slips of paper from the injury doll.

Injuries are a part of training. Managing injuries is just as important as following a good workout routine and eating a healthy diet. Unfortunately, too often we only address the injury when it reaches a point where it hinders performance.

All that said, if you’re hurt, go to a doctor and get fixed. But if you have a manageable injury, do everything you can to manage it. Research it. Talk to buddies. Actively do the things that will make it better. Otherwise, that injury will nag and grow and eventually win. Don’t let it win.

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My new training ruck

Once I realized that I was going to rejoin the Army, I started reaching out to old Army buddies to help me develop my training program. Specifically, I wanted to concentrate on foot marching, something I had trouble with when I first joined (I’m going to write a longer post about foot marching soon). A friend of mine from the 82nd Airborne who went on to Special Forces recommended I ditch the giant North Carolina tick and instead attach a 45lb plate to a rucksack frame and go with that. True, it’s not the same as having a giant ball on your back that you can stuff the world into, but it is easier to pick up, put on, and go than the alternative.

When training, I’ve found that one of the easiest excuses to pick up and walk on an early morning is not having an adequately packed ruck. “Oh, man, I forgot to pack my ruck last night. Ah well, I’ll just ruck next week.” With this, there’s no excuse. I never have to pack it or unpack it. It’s always the same weight.

What do you think? Am I missing out by not being able to cram in more weight?

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The 3 things you can’t talk about with military folk

PT, shooting, and combatives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND

When I first got to a line company in the 82nd, my 1SG called me into his office to give me his in-brief, and fill me in on his philosophy on how to be successful in his company. On his desk, he had a GI Joe action figure (one of the big ones). The GI Joe was wearing all the gear: body armor, kevlar helmet, web gear, and he had an M16 strapped to his chest. The GI Joe was sitting on top of a jar, and taped to the jar was a a white piece of paper with the bold black words PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND. He caught me looking at it, and said “SPC Gomez, what does that say?”

Me: “Psychological highground, 1SG.”

1SG: “And do you know what that means.”

It didn’t matter if I knew, he was going to tell me, so I shook my head no.

1SG: “It means being the baddest dude in the room. What would you do if someone came busting into your room with all that gear on? You’d probably crap your pants.” (he didn’t say dude or crap)

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

1SG: “Part of being a successful infantryman means being intimidating. When a 6 foot tall (me: neither of us were over 5’7”) monster comes crashing through your door, you’re going to pause, because he’s achieved the psychological highground by looking intimidating. In that pause, is where you win.”

I nodded in agreement.

1SG: “But that’s just one part. SPC Gomez, to be successful in my company you’ve got to be good at three things: PT, shooting, and combatives. You’re an 11B, so 300 is where you start. You will qualify expert, and you need to be ready to fight another human being and win.”

Nod.

1SG: “PT, shooting, and combatives. Take care of those three things and you’ll be golden.”

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

He was right. If you keep yourself out of trouble and do those three things well, you can be a pretty successful infantryman. But, as the title of the post suggests, these are the three things you can’t talk about with military folk.

This is something I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve recently been reminded about it as I’ve dived into reading the comment section of blogs, and occasionally joining in.

Recently, the Army banned the use of Vibram Five Finger (VFF) footwear from use with the Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU). From what I understand, the reason they were banned has to do with the way VFFs look (like gorilla feet), not their utility as a running tool (simulating barefoot running). Over at Kings of War, a blog out of the War Studies Department at King’s College that usually discusses issues of grand strategy and big picture, highly intellectual stuff, they posted a short piece on the situation, which as of this writing garnered a whopping 78 (78!) comments. Heated debates ensued over what the ‘best’ or ‘most professional’ PT program is. I left a couple of comments on why I thought the Army made the decision they did, and was chided as being weak-minded for being easily distracted by footwear (true). Similarly, over at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure, a post about the coveted Reflector Belt resulted in the same craziness.

Post a picture of a target with your shot group on Facebook, and rest assured, your military buddies will jump in to tell you how much you suck, the production history of the weapon you used (and why it is inferior to the weapon they prefer), a detailed ballistic report from the grainy BlackBerry photo, and then reiterate again that your shooting sucks, at least in comparison to theirs.

I won’t get into combatives too much. Everyone who trains in a martial art believes they are training in the best martial art. And to settle the debate, this is the best martial art.

The point is, these three things evoke an emotional response from military folk, probably because these three things are at the core of what we think the military is supposed to do, and be good at. Everyone in the military does PT, shoots, and probably does some form of hand-to-hand combat training. The civilian world certainly expects that we do all those things. So when you bring up your new PT routine with military friends, you are sure to get some unsolicited advice on how you’re doing it wrong, or how you should forget everything you know and adopt his/her eccentric-flavor-of-the-weak fitness regimen. Think you know something about guns? Well you don’t, and your military friends will remind you. And your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no match for my Krav Maga which is no match for his Sambo or her Muay Thai.

So, like politics and religion, I try not to talk about these things, to the best of my ability. And if I do, I just let everyone else be the expert.

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