Captain and Coach

2nd Cavalry Regiment Commanding Officer (2016), LTCOL James Davis recognising achievement at WONCO-A

Has military thinking or practice seen a separation of two intrinsic command functions: the Commander and the Chief Instructor?

This blog expands on an email the author recently received from the newly appointed Commander Land Warfare Centre, pertaining to the enduring nature of command. This blog seeks to generate dialogue, discourse and discussion of pertinent matters raised herein.

An extract of this email, with context redacted, follows:

… far too often responsibility for preparation and management of soldiers is devolved the moment they [trainees] enter the training institution.

Smith and Bradman

The role(s) of the Commander and the Chief Instructor, a single person in this author’s view, are explored through the lens of a sporting analogy. We will use cricket (any US readers may now choose to discontinue reading) and two contrasting approaches to the role(s).

Captain and the Coach. The 2017 Australian male cricket team is captained by Steve Smith (the Commander) on the field. The same Team is coached by Darren Lehmann, a former international cricketer (the Chief Instructor) who is instrumental when the team is practicing but remains remote (in the grand stand) when the team is employed on the field of play.

Captain/Coach. Sir Donald Bradman dominated cricket in the 1930s/40s. Bradman served as both the Captain and the Coach of the Australian Cricket Team. That is, Bradman was both ‘Commander’ and ‘Chief Instructor’ of the team delivering outcomes (beating the Poms at their own game). Bradman trained and mentored the team in the nets and on the practice wicket. Bradman then led the team on the field when play commenced.

The Captain/Coach v the Captain and the Coach Approach – in Sport. Clearly, there are differences in approach—which in amateur & professional sporting codes offer advantages and disadvantages, and synergies, relevant to a particular context. But the desired outcome of the collective (the team) remains; to win.

Of course, Army is also interested in winning. Army, as one component of Australia’s joint Defence Force, is resourced, readied and rolled, to prepare land forces for war to defend the nation and the national interest.

Contemplating what coming second may look like in our ‘game’ (war) is enough to focus the mind.  So is there anything we (military professionals) may learn from this separation of roles we so often see in professional sport? Is this analogy relevant to a professional Army? And if so why, or why not?

The Australian Army in 2017 – Generating Land Force Capability. While already declaring my hand, I intend not to hasten a definitive answer to shut down debate—indeed a purpose of this blog is to promote thought and discussion by enquiring minds and contrasting views. Notwithstanding, it is this author’s contention that the Captain/Coach (the Bradman) approach is militarily, doctrinally and procedurally more sound. This approach best aligns command responsibility with accountability, which of course, cannot ever be delegated. And where a commander fails in his or her duty – the buck rests with that individual. The commander may correctly and properly be found culpable and be removed from command.

Where the Cricket Analogy Fundamentally Breaks Down. In a cricket team, there is, of course, no equivalent to a Regimental Sergeant Major. The role of the vice-Captain, or the team sheriff, is insufficient. Together with the commander, the Regimental Sergeant Major forms the unit or formation command team—an alliance or grouping that is unique to the military. The command team works in unison, as two sides of the same coin. While the buck stops with the commander, the command team succeeds, or fails, as a Team.

The Parent Unit and the Training Institution – Theory. To this author’s thinking, there is no rational reason for a ‘seam or barrier’ to be ‘inserted’ between parent unit and training institution. A seam or barrier only forms where our actions, or inaction, may allow. Is there an actual, procedural or implied seam between the parent unit and the training institution? Does Army, conceptually, organisationally, procedurally or tacitly, ‘outsource’ the function of all-corps soldier/officer training onto the training institution? Is there a view in units that all corps soldier/officer training is the responsibility of others?

From my current vantage point, I am the ‘custodian’ of approximately 2,100 soldiers in Army per annum as they attend one of the four all-corps soldier training continuum promotion courses we run, over multiple sessions in multiple locations, each training year:

  • Subject 1 Corporal Army Course – 8 weeks
  • Subject 1 Sergeant Army Course – 6 weeks
  • Subject 1 Warrant Officer Army Course – 5 weeks
  • Regimental Sergeant Major’ Course – 5 weeks

The Parent Unit and the Training Institution – Practice. I am delighted to report that WONCO-A regularly hosts Army’s best; Brigade COMDs / Bde RSMs, and Unit COs / RSMs, et al, who actively and regularly attend training activities conducted by the Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy (WONCO-A). To see their soldiers, and how they are progressing, while on course. And to understand and complement what is being taught on course.

I am also delighted to report that Army’s most senior soldiers—the Regimental Sergeant Major – Army, and all Tier C RSMs—regularly attend WONCO-A courses. Their involvement is welcomed and encouraged at any time their busy schedules may allow. It is pleasing that these busy senior soldiers are never too busy to observe individual and collective Army training.

Final Thoughts

Many hands can, and do, make light work. Professional sporting teams benefit from external review, the use of technical experts (‘Plugger’ being re-engaged by the Sydney Swans), and mentors. But in the military, these effects must be seen as complementary, reinforcing and extending, vice delegating, outsourcing or bequeathing.

The Captain, in sport and in the military is not only active in play, but has a critical role in training and preparation – to complement the coach. I will leave you with some final thoughts from Commandant Land Warfare Centre:

… we [training institution] have a responsibility during their [trainees] time with us however [a] soldier’s preparation, physically, mentally [and intellectually], prior and post [promotion course] remains the soldier’s Unit responsibility.

Commanding Officers never stopped being the Chief Instructor of their Unit to my knowledge …

About the Author

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Scott is the Commanding Officer and Chief Instructor of the Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy. The views expressed within are those of the author and do not represent any official position of the Australian Army.

About the Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy

The Academy motto is to ‘Lead Mentor Train’. Academy Wings are located at Kokoda Barracks (Canungra, QLD), Gallipoli Barracks (Brisbane QLD), Lavarack Barracks (Townsville QLD), Robertson Barracks (Darwin NT) and RAAF Base Edinburgh (Adelaide SA). For more information on the Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, like on FaceBook or follow us on Twitter (@WONCO_A or @CO_WONCO_A).

One thought on “Captain and Coach

  1. This is a discussion well worth having. Firstly I would note that collective training doctrine is very poor and consequently, the language to discuss these concepts is lacking. The fact is at unit level we train in teams. Anyone who doesn’t think we have something to learn from the professional coaching sphere is either arrogant or just hasn’t thought it through.

    I believe the day of the captain coach is dead. Modern professional sporting teams have moved away from the captain-coach model for various reasons. Just because someone is a good player and a leader on the field does not make them a good coach. The job attributes are complementary but not the same. A coach manages a large coaching and support staff and the analysis required between games is enormous. There are not enough hours in a week for a captain coach to be successful in the modern era.

    My thinking on this is far from complete but in my view unit Commanding Officers might more fruitfully think of themselves as chief instructors (or head coach). Arguably units, and definitely Brigades, are barracks organisations charged with the RTS function. It is the CO’s job to train the various capability bricks over which they have been given command. One of those bricks is the C2 capability and I think this is not trained and coached anywhere as vigorously as it should be. We all like to think we are war fighters but professionally a view of our selves as teachers and coaches is probably closer to the truth. If we were to develop this idea further the organization of units might change markedly.

    I’ve plenty more to say on this subject but that is probably enough for now.

    MAJ Cooper-Maitland

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