I have been rewatching the famed HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers. For those who haven’t seen it, the story follows a WWII airborne regiment dropped behind enemy lines the early hours of the invasion of Normandy (D-Day). From there, E-Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, affectionately known as “Easy Company”, pushed the frontline all of the way into Austria. They were an elite fighting force comprised of volunteers, not draftees.
Easy Company is revered for the brutal and agonizing missions they accomplished aiding the Allied victory in Europe. The relationships forged due to these objectives is that of a brotherhood. While friendships were not guaranteed, the soldiers counted on each other; often risking their lives for the man next to them. Outsiders and new additions were outsiders to the family. Which begs the question:
Which came first: Objectives forging bonds? Or, bonds completing objectives?
A key officer focused on in the miniseries was Major Richard “Dick” Winters. A respected leader by his men and command, he was routinely promoted during the Campaign. Major Winters often struggled with his elevated position as he was no longer able to fight alongside his men. I think it is fair to say he felt a certain disconnect in not being able to enact his decisions with the men carrying out his orders.
Bullets certainly aren’t flying but, I have always felt athletic teams weld friendships capable of furthering a team’s potential. As a former collegiate distance runner, now coach, it took some time to overcome the similar feelings Major Winters dealt with. While I am not ordering a squad of men to outflank a Panzer tank, I am the one who believes hill repeats on Wednesday are good for the development of an athlete. (The same athlete who won’t get his or her money back when their lunch inevitably comes up.)
Character building training like hill repeats, tempo runs, morning practice, ice baths, etc. are what makes a first-year runner family in a matter of days. Even without these, I think team members subconsciously give each other increasing levels of respect each day they come back to practice for more. As a coach, developing team culture can be as simple as clear direction, expectations and keep them coming back. Before long, leaders will rise and use the brotherhood to manage little things so the group can focus on important goals.
These same leaders will be the one shouting back to the runner who is hanging 2-3 strides off of the pace: “Stay with us! Only 600 to go!” The leader did not look back to see his or her teammate falling back, they know the sound a pack makes when running together and felt something was off.
Watching from across the field, you, as the coach, can observe the pack of five followed by one become a team of six. The lead runner maintains pace while the following four drop back slightly as to form a bridge between #1 and the struggling #6. You’ll see the sixth runner tuck their chin and take five strong strides to rejoin and together, the six pack up again. No one asked them to do this, they just do, almost everytime, without fail.
The group turns the last corner and you have a team charging towards you with no man (or woman) left behind.