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Paper – Building Competition into Training – Lessons from Professional Sport

Introduction

While arguably the Australian Army has done well in recent conflicts, they have been wars of choice against a technologically inferior enemy. The Army has not fought a near peer enemy since the Vietnam conflict (1965-72) or faced a peer on peer conflict since Korea in the early 1950s. Army’s prowess as a fighting force has not been tested in combat at unit level and above for over 65 years. So how do we test ourselves and the quality of our teams before the real shooting begins? How do we know if we are any good when we so rarely face ‘game day’?

Modern professional sport and coaching practices offer important lessons that can be readily applied to collective training. Because professional sporting teams clash with an opponent on a regular basis, they are always being tested. The coaching staff of an Australian Rules Football League (AFL) team must digest the lessons of a match, rectify individual or team weaknesses, analyse the next scheduled opponent, develop the team plan and practice that plan before facing the next opponent, all in just one week. Their learning loops are extremely compressed. Consequently, teams must adapt and improve. Competition drives excellence. As a colleague of mine has noted, professional competitive sports is the only realm in modern western society where winning still matters. It should matter for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as well.

In this paper, I will argue that professional sports offer valuable lessons and insights that can inform the way Army trains its teams. While I use AFL as my example, the parallels will hold for any professional team based competition; soccer, basketball, rugby and American football have all evolved over time to be more athletic and the tactics more refined as teams regularly compete. I will offer a number of observations on teams, coaches and their support staff and attempt to draw a parallel with the way Army conducts its business. I hope this will demonstrate the broad applicability of this line of thinking to our own profession. I will then argue that competition itself is the driver of continual improvement. By building regular ‘game day’ clashes between peers, we as a collective, will be a far more dangerous opponent in the next conflict.

The 2008 version of our capstone doctrine, Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD) 1, The Fundamentals of Land Power, characterised our defence force at war as a complex adaptive system in conflict with others. The intellectual underpinning of LWD 1 was developed in part by Brigadier Justin Kelly and constitutes the argument for task organising; by assembling an organisation from a selection of capability bricks, we build a unit that is particularly suited to a particular mission. Furthermore, as a conflict evolves, the organisation can change by adding or removing capability bricks.

The ADF is not the only organisation that adapts and evolves in response to external influences such as environment and competing peer systems. Consider AFL: an AFL team is an organisation comprised of talented, dedicated individuals who play as members of a team, to a plan developed by the coaching staff to beat an opponent on match day. The coach evaluates their team’s members and develops a philosophy of game play for the season designed to shield their weaknesses and exploit their strengths. Each week a new opposition is examined and the game plan is adapted to capitalise on the weaknesses and counter the strengths of the opponent. Within the environment of weekly competition, the team swaps out individuals and adapts its game plan to overcome an opponent trying to do the same. Seeking similarities in the way Army operates compared to AFL is more than an argument by analogy. If we are serious about winning then we need to learn and apply every lesson possible from other, more frequently tested, peer competitor systems.

Sixty years ago, AFL (Victorian Football League (VFL) as it was then) was a part-time professional league that could often be characterised as a muddy slog fest. Games featured all in brawls, colourful characters, and a ball made heavy by mud. Kicking to contests was a feature and the game was less free flowing than it is today. The game was played with all of the passion we see in the modern game but game-day tactics were relatively primitive. Today the game is a fast, professional, supremely athletic spectacle. Its players are as fit as is possible for a human to be and coaching staff are always on the look out for new and better training techniques. The contest drives the evolution of the game, where the penalty for losing too often is losing your job. Consequently, there is a constant search for a competitive edge, which in turn drives excellence across the entire competition. In terms of complex adaptive systems, I believe that modern professional team sports are a more highly evolved system than the ADF.

 If we accept that both AFL teams and armies are complex adaptive systems, then identifying parallel elements should offer insights and suggest improvements in the way we approach training.

 What we do know (but possibly could do better)

Know your people.
The difference between a good coach and a great coach is that they get inside their players’ heads. Many coaches focus on the science of the sport: kilometres run in practice, disposals per game per player, entries into the forward fifty. The truly great coaches understand that the game they play is a human endeavour. Extracting the most from each player demands coaches focus on the human dimension.[1] Some articles on coaching have described the relationship as a type of love;[2] paternal love, sometimes tough-love, at all times respect for the individual, even if you do not always like their behaviour. It can take the form of having conversations without an agenda or listening to and helping out with problems away from the game. They are constantly striving to get the best performance from their players. Tommy Hafey, one of the game’s great coaches, frequently drove long distances to meet with players’ parents and regularly invited junior players for dinner. We know this, and demand that our leaders, particularly platoon commanders, know their people. War is an art based on science, as is coaching at the elite level of sport. A focus on the technical with disregard for the affairs of human beings is unlikely to produce the winning team on game day.

Action, reaction, counter action.
The enemy or opponent will react to our actions, so be postured to deal with the rebound. A player often finds the play has passed them by on the field. They cannot afford to relax and recover; they must immediately position themself for the rebound. So to, the attack is not complete on rolling through to the limit of exploitation (LoE), it is complete when we have defeated the counter attack. Likewise the ambush is not complete with the enemy in the killing-ground; it is complete with the defeat of their counter ambush drill. We teach action, reaction, counter-action on our professional development tactics courses, but how often do we practice it in the field with our teams?

Train the way we fight.
AFL coaching is moving away from simple team drills and sequences because the opponent has a say. Simple ball handling and disposals are made much harder when an opponent is seeking to disrupt the drill. A modern training session will feature sequences where players must contend with the unexpected and learn to make fast decisions. We have all heard the phrase ‘train the way we fight’ throughout our careers. Yes, we practice our core skills in the field and we attempt to develop drills to cope with friction imposed by terrain and the enemy, but rarely, if ever, do we contest an objective. We do not regularly practice ‘game day’ decision making because rarely do we ‘clash’ with a peer.

What can we learn?

 We do not have to be brilliant at the basics.
The focus on being brilliant at the basics, which has increasingly made its way into commanding officers’ training philosophies, is a drift towards soldier and section training. Moneyball[3] highlights that individual idiosyncrasy is less important than the result on the scoreboard. Ultimately, it is not important how a player lines up for a deliberate shot at goal: as long as the outcome is six points then not much else matters. That is not to say we do not have to be good at our drills and skills, but it is okay if we are not perfect. Remember, that perfection is the enemy of good. Far more important is that before the action comes the decision to act.

We do have to be brilliant at decision-making.
Good decisions sometimes have bad outcomes, bad decisions some times result in a good outcome; however the ability to make good and timely decisions increases the likelihood of a positive outcome. The ability to make sound decisions on the ground develops over a career of game day decisions, and at the elite level it results in feedback and accountability to the rest of the team. We need to develop training scenarios, undertaken on a regular basis and throughout a career, that develop intuitive and timely decision-making. Facing regular ‘game day’ clashes in the form of contested training serials against a peer, or two sided war-gaming, will provide a mechanism to practice post H-hour decision making.

The Role of the Royal Australian Army Education Corps (RAAEC).
AFL teams are increasingly including teachers on their coaching staff. Clubs employ them for their teaching skills and the ability to facilitate player learning. Many ex-AFL players with coaching aspirations are now beginning teacher training as they realise the importance of this craft in obtaining and keeping a coaching job. As professional soldiers, we like to think of ourselves as masters of violence; but we are also teachers. In a twenty-year career we will deploy on operations for two to three years if we are lucky. For the other 17 or 18 years soldiers are training or receiving training. Lately, even our operational deployments have been training missions. We should all be better at coaching, mentoring and instilling the desire to win on match day. Within Defence we have delegated training doctrine to the RAAEC. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis of training doctrine is on individual training, which is well developed and managed via the registered training organisation (RTO) system.

Meanwhile, our collective training doctrine is woefully under developed. Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD) 7.0 Training and Education talks of broad high level principles, including being brilliant at the basics. Land Warfare Procedures – General (LWP-G) 7-0-1 The Conduct of Training is interim doctrine dated 2015, that describes a collective training model as: analyse, design, develop, implement and evaluate. It goes on to outline principles and considerations for unit level collective training but it does not offer much in the way of guidance, examples, best practice or vignettes. In some respects, it repeats individual training principles in a collective environment, without the certainty, checks, and balances that individual training governance provides.

General Service Officers (GSOs) must own and reinvigorate the development of collective training doctrine and methodology. RAAEC could broaden its scope of work to include scanning academic literature in order to identify world best practice in team training. They could then introduce these methodologies to the broader Army through, for example, teaching senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) and officers to be better teachers and coaches. As an Army we should aspire to be world leaders in adult education and high performance teams. Perhaps we could sponsor GSOs to complete PhDs in collective training. Another broader suggestion is to create an officer career pathway that will develop expertise in collective training. At the very least, we could develop a coherent practitioner’s guide to collective training.

The Role of Australian Army Psychology Corps (AAPSYCH).
All elite sporting teams have psychologists on staff or as consultants. Their role is two-fold. Firstly, they seek to instill a winning mindset within the team. This is often a critical competitive edge for a team. Sections and platoons are too often simply the passive recipients of a training program, and are often in danger of developing learned helplessness. High performing teams, on the other hand, are self-actualising; they have a winning mindset.

In edition 43 of Smart Soldier[4], Warrant Officer Class Two Damien Timms wrote of the difference in mind-set between 1st Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment and 2nd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment on the sporting ground, and offered some great tips and tricks to engender a winning culture. High performance team psychology is a well-developed and constantly evolving academic body of knowledge and it should be the business of AAPSYCH to provide this advice to commanders and training staff.

Secondly, sports psychologists help build mental resilience within the team. Teams that crumble when the momentum of a game moves to the opposition are destined to lose. The importance of this function is being recognised in US military circles [5] [6] with the establishment of The Army Center for Enhanced Performance. Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) training has also successfully incorporated elements of resilience training with demonstrably improved training outcomes. [7]

Hand in hand with the concept of mental resilience is mental health. The primary, day-to-day function of the AAPSYCH, is to screen and detect mental injury: a worthy role, however, this is reactive function. The AAPSYCH has an important role in helping commanders at all levels provide effective inoculate to our soldiers of battle field horrors. Why, despite operating in low end spectrum warfare, do we have such high incidence of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? It is in part due to a failure to inculcate soldiers against mental injury.

Defence over Attack.
Across all professional team codes of sport, the evolution of game day tactics drifts to defence over attack, to the point where every few years the game’s administrators have to tweak the rules to rebuild the spectacle.[8] Defence is easier than attack. A successful attack is built on a sequence of prior actions that are relatively easy to disrupt. We acknowledged this, albeit unconsciously, in the way we prosecuted the war in Afghanistan. We patrolled from forward operating bases (FOBs), patrolled to disrupt the enemy freedom of manoeuvre, targeted high value leadership, and sought to remove the opposition’s support from the general population. In short, we sought to disrupt the Taliban’s ability to mount a successful attack. Similarly, the counter-Improvised Explosive Device (IED) teams attack the chain; the sequence of events and resources it takes to lay the IED, not just the weapon in the ground.

Similar lessons for the Australian Army came out of the Vietnam War where the Army fought pitched battles, but this is not our preferred mode of warfare. It quickly became apparent that attack is expensive in lives, especially against bunker systems and fortified positions manned by a determined enemy force, and therefore not politically palatable or organisationally sustainable. Australian forces became expert at ambushing as a mode of offensive operations.[9] Should we acknowledge this in our doctrine as an Australian way of warfare?

Developing a competitive edge

If, as an organisation, we were constantly looking for a competitive edge, we can do no better than emulate the lessons derived from professional sport. We should be using our psychologists and teachers, to enable our  officers and NCOs to be world-class coaches. We should aim to embed the characteristics of high performance teams into our force elements at all levels. We should analyse in detail what needs to be practiced, and build training scenarios to regularly drill post H hour decision making of our command and control (C2) capability bricks, whether in the field or through simulation. Team leaders could better mentally prepare our soldiers as well as increase their level of self-actualisation and imbued them with the will to win.

Having applied the lens of complex adaptive systems to professional sport, I believe the single most important take away is the role of competition itself as a mode of driving increased performance across the organisation. We rarely face a ‘game day’ in our training. As far back as 1972, General Gray raised this gap in our training regime in ‘Infantry Battle Lessons from Vietnam’.[10] In 1988, then Major Justin Kelly recommended contested training serials to develop junior arms corps officers. [11] He identified that contested serials confer the following advantages over more traditional modes of training:

  • teach people the value of reconnaissance and early warning,
  • teach the real value of control measures and practice their use,
  • lead to the development of simple plans with sufficient flexibility to survive contact with the enemy, and
  • practice the use of directive control.

To that list I would add the development of battle cunning (surprise and deception) and regular practice in post H-hour decision making.

Kelly proposed that arms corps officers should contest plans, developed as tactical exercises without troops (TEWTs), against a live opponent through computer simulation. When he wrote this in 1988, the state of computer hardware was bulky and the software required a large learning overhead to operate properly. He noted that the use of war games does have the major drawback that it is expensive in time and resources. Since then of course, simulation has come a long way. Students on Combat Officer’s Advanced Course (COAC) now complete a module where they play a selected plan using JANUS. However, students only practice two or three times, which is only enough to become familiar with the system and to perhaps demonstrate tactical competence of one or two of the better students. I believe we should be doing this sort of training regularly within the battalions.

With the digitisation of our formations comes a tremendous opportunity to conduct this peer on peer war-gaming as part of the regular training cycle of arms corps units. What we need is a good lower control (LOCON) or adjudications system. This could be as simple as a Dungeons and Dragons style system of probability tables and 20-sided dice, or as complicated as JANUS. Interestingly there does not seem to be a commercial off the shelf (CoTS) solution available yet.[12] It is possible that Army could develop a solution, in partnership with a commercial gaming company, that would combine a reasonable level of fidelity without a large learning overhead of a system such as JANUS. Such a system could support a ‘home and away’ season, where for example Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) company command posts (CPs) fight each other at least once, with a finals season to find the champion company HQ team. Regular game days would necessitate the short learning loops we find in a sporting team’s home and away season. After each battalion has completed the CP season, the unit champions could meet in a finale series that could be an arms corps community spectator event.

Some may consider the competitive scheme I have proposed here takes the comparison with team sport too far: maybe it does, however it is also just one of many possible permutations. At the lowest level, navigation training should culminate in a rogaining[13] event, with events scheduled regularly within company training programs. At section level, a patrolling program might be the vehicle used to engineer a patrol clash. Simunition could be incorporated to inflict a penalty when observation, field craft and patrolling skills are found wanting by the opposing section. At the platoon level, classmates could fight their plans against one another in the field; testing their plans and giving soldiers training a purpose. Consequently, I imagine talk of who did what to who would make for lively post game conversation in the messes. It would certainly provide sub-unit commanders and commanding officers an opportunity to mentor and develop young commanders.

Conclusion

I intend to write further on a suggested collective training methodology and modes of competition within that construct. In the meantime, I believe the lessons garnered from an examination of professional competitive team sports are worthy of further examination. The lessons I have identified are not the only ones. I have not included others for the sake of brevity, including the death of captain-coaches in the modern game and the importance of a strong guiding philosophy in winning teams. Undoubtedly, I have missed many more. A detailed examination of complex adaptive systems in other fields of human endeavour will, I am sure, yield further valuable insights for the Australian Army and the way we collectively train.

As things stand, we as a profession do not have a sound mental framework or language to discuss and develop our collective training methodology with any sort of rigour. The under-developed state of our collective doctrine offers an opportunity to revisit what we want from our collective training, to codify what we already know, and to incorporate best practice for those elements we don’t do or do not do well. In particular, we need to build competition into the way we train. Competition drives our soldiers from basic competence to excellence, and testing our teams against each other to create winners and losers applies evolutionary pressure across the whole system. Our sections and platoons must be able to out-think and out-gun their opponents in the field, and CPs must cycle decisions faster and make better decisions more often than the enemy. A system constantly tested will be in a far better position to face a real peer enemy when that time comes. Consider how far the game of AFL has progressed over the past 60 years. Now imagine what Army might look like in 60 years if we have built regular competition into the way we train.


About the author: James Cooper-Maitland has previously served as Second in Command (2IC) School of Infantry, Officer Commanding (OC) Arnhem Squadron NORFORCE and as a Company 2IC at 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. He is currently posted to 11th/28th Royal Western Australian Regiment as the Operations Officer. He has a Master of Arts (Strategy and Policy).


[1] David Wheadon, The Art of Coaching, Slattery 2014
[2] http://whitehouseaddress.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-key-to-coaching-success-love.html
[3] Michael Lewis Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, W.W. Norton and Company, 2003
[4] WO2 Damien Timms Creating a Winning Culture. pp36 Smart Soldier edition 43 Centre for Army Lessons Nov 2015
[5] http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/about/special-interest-groups/military-performance-sig/
[6] http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/milreview/zinsser.pdf
[7] Discussion with WO1 Wayne Weeks May 17 – slide pack on file with the author
[8] Presentation by David Wheadon, author of The Art of Coaching Nov 16
[9] Ross AT; Hall R; Griffin AL, 2015, The Search For Tactical Success in Vietnam, Australian Army History Series, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne
[10] MAJ GEN RA Gray (ed) ‘Infantry Battalion Lessons from Vietnam’ HQ Field Force Command, 1972
[11] Major J.D. Kelly Embracing Manoeuvre Defence Force Journal no 69 March/April 88
[12] NZ Innovations Programme Experimenting with a Commercial Off the Shelf Wargame as a PME Tool via the New Zealand Army, Posted to The Cove 28 Apr 2017
[13] Rogaining is an orienteering sport that tests endurance, decision making and navigation at the individual and small team level. Competitors navigate cross-country after planning a route among checkpoints, each with a different score. Teams of 2–5 people choose which checkpoints to visit within a time limit with the intent of maximizing their score. Rogaining was developed in Australia and is now an international event.

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