Football coaches, Soldiers breed winners
January 5, 2013
By David Vergun
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SAN ANTONIO (Army News Service, Jan. 5, 2013) -- "I found that most important lessons I learned in life go back to my high school football days and what my coaches taught me: how to deal with adversity, how to deal with winning, how to deal with losing, how to deal with frustration and how to suck it up and deal with pain," said the man who would not have become a Soldier, were it not for his high school football coach.
That Soldier, Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, addressed about 90 coaches of the nation's top high school football players at the Marriott Riverwalk here the evening before the Army's 2013 All American Bowl East-West championship game.
"My high school coach Bob Shabbah, who played football for the West Point class of 1946, bird-dogged me into becoming a Soldier," he told the coaches.
Cone said he had his sights set on going to the University of Maine, Boston College, or some other university -- but not the U.S. Military Academy, which his coach recommended. But, he said the coach was persistent and picked him out despite being "a lineman who was small and was slow and was dumb."
Soldiers love to watch football, Cone said, providing anecdotes about visiting Soldiers at remote outposts in Afghanistan who stayed up in the early morning hours to watch stateside football games.
In turn, football players love Soldiers, he said, referring to a meeting he had last year with San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, who invited him to speak to his players. Before meeting with the players, Harbaugh and Cone had a discussion about the training and leadership development similarities of players and Soldiers.
"He told me 'we do a lot of things the same, but at the end of the day, you guys are in a life or death business but we're in a win or lose business, so don't push this over the top with my players. Make sure they understand this difference.'"
Soldiers and football players, most of whom are 19 to 26 years old, have a lot in common with each other but less so with previous generations of kids, Cone told the coaches after relating this anecdote.
"This is a different group of youngsters than we've seen in recent years," said Cone, who has served 33 years in the Army.
"You've got to push some different buttons with these kids today," he said, referring to how they learn and interact.
While in Iraq, Cone said he found the best way to get the word out to his Soldiers was not in the traditional "school circle" or formation, but rather by texting them.
"This is that same generation of folks you're dealing with," he said. "We've had to adapt and make some adjustments to our training regimens to deal with that. If you can make it an application, put it on an iPad or make it a game, their retention level for the basic procedural and declarative knowledge domain is very rapid."
A second similarity is that Soldiers learn best through intense and continual practice. "This is critical to success," Cone said.
"We're training people to perform in a hostile environment," he explained. "The only way people perform in those situations is through muscle memory and a lot of repetition."
That practice and repetition is often so intense that Soldiers "are almost to the point where they can't take it anymore" when it finally all sinks in, he said, citing training studies at Fort Irwin, Calif., where he was the commander of the National Training Center from 2004 to 2007.
"After Soldiers fight battles over and over again in training, they see and feel it and the lights come on -- they get it," he said, comparing that to how football players rehearse plays during practice.
Another similarity Cone discussed was not building too much complexity into operational plans or football plays.
"Focus on a handful of things to do well to win. You as a coach or commander have to determine where to put the emphasis."
Soldiers also need to be able to quickly adapt "because no tactical operation goes down as planned," he said, adding that the winner is usually the person who adapts most effectively.
Cone concluded with some thoughts about mentoring.
Developing young people takes time, he said, adding that "the journey is the destination."
"How many of your youngsters will go on to be successful and you get invited back for a dinner in their honor?" he asked, challenging them.
"That's what we share in common; this commitment to developing young people through this tremendous mechanism of football that has so many of the challenges and nuances of life. We can use these to develop these young people to be truly special."
Cone said one of the best moments of his life happened last year at the National Football Foundation's Distinguished American Award meeting, where he was the selectee representing his home state of New Hampshire.
"In the back of the room, I saw these two octogenarians, Coach Shabbah and Coach McDunnough," Cone's high school football coaches. "That's what this is all about; looking in their eyes and seeing them smile."
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