5 Mistakes – And 5 Successes – From My First Year As A Basic Training Instructor

By Piers Edlund-Field, MTI Contributor

A year ago I was promoted into the NCO ranks and was tasked with instructing on a Basic Military Qualification (BMQ) course, AKA bootcamp. After one year and three courses, I’ve compiled a list of five of my mistakes – and five of my successes – from that short period. Although my experience is with the Canadian Army, I suspect many of these lessons are universal. 

5 Mistakes 

1. Excessive “Remedial” PT
As a brand new NCO I loved to administer “remedial” PT whenever my recruits screwed up: burpees, isometric rifle holds, plank walkups, gas mask runs, you name it, I did it. I figured it would make them “harder”, and make them respect me more. 

This approach worked – until it didn’t. Recruits would tense up around me, expecting pushups when I was about to deliver a relaxed lesson. They would be unable to focus on the lesson at hand. On top of that, the PT was no longer having a positive effect on their performance – why bother trying if burpees are coming no matter what? I had become Pavlov, and they were my dogs: conditioned to expect physical duress at any moment. I scaled it back, deploying remedial PT only when it was earned (rendering it a more effective tool) and investing more time in positive mentoring. The end result: better, harder soldiers who respected me not just as a PT monster – but as a leader as well.  

2. Avoiding Topics I Sucked At
When I first began instructing, I was far from the experienced NCO I wanted to be. Sure, I could tell you anything you wanted to know about the C7A2 service rifle – but ask me about land nav and I’d freeze up. I knew how to navigate in practice, but was simply not prepared to teach the theory of it. So I absented myself from nav lessons, leaving the burden to other instructors. I felt like a fraud. 

I snapped out of it pretty quick. By avoiding difficult topics I was doing myself a disservice, and I was not the NCO my troops needed me to be. So I hit the books: I read the manuals cover-to-cover, making my own condensed manuals for reference. The best way to learn is to teach, so teach I did – myself at first. After developing my weaker skills, I began volunteering to teach the classes that used to stress me out. In the process of professional development I became a more well-rounded, capable NCO and finally felt like the instructor my recruits deserved. 

3. Enabling Toxic Behavior
Every organization has the “morale vacuum” whose presence instantly kills the mood. One instructor I worked with, “Dyson”, was a relentless asshole for no good reason. 

Walking through one of his weapons handling classes, I saw Dyson teaching a confusing mixture of current and outdated rifle drills. One brave candidate, confused, asked for clarification on a stoppage drill. Dyson lashed out: “pay the fuck attention, troop!”. Nobody asked any more questions and his entire section failed their weapons handling test. To disguise his incompetence, Dyson had created an environment where students were so afraid of his constant outbursts that they simply played along, pretending to learn while falling behind their peers. 

I enabled Dyson’s behavior. As a junior NCO, I didn’t know any better – I thought this was just another style of leadership. Excessive negative reinforcement stifles education and often masks incompetence. 

4. Investing Too Heavily In The “Right” Recruits
As I looked out at the sea of fresh recruits on their first day of basic training, three individuals stood out from the crowd of freshly-shaven faces. “Walker” had the physical presence of a linebacker; “Augustus”, the demeanor of a Roman centurion; “Froning”, the stance and build of a Crossfit champion. From day one I invested heavily in these three, spending my off hours coaching them and mentoring them. I knew that these three would make star soldiers. 

All three were gone within weeks. 

Walker, who stacked up plates like a waiter at Denny’s when deadlifting, dropped out of his first run with a messed up knee. He was gone the next day. 

Augustus, who banged out hundreds of pushups every morning, had a habit of bad-mouthing his fellow recruits and threw around old-timey slurs so archaic they would make my grandma blush. He was dropped soon after Walker. 

Froning, whose MURPH time would embarrass some SEALs, lasted a bit longer. He was a certified PT stud who made morning PT look easy. The only catch: he was a solar-powered soldier. As soon as the sun went down and he got remotely fatigued, he quit mentally. On one occasion – a late night weapons handling competition – Froning got tired and threw down his weapon in a fit of frustration. “I’m tired”, he said, and he was out the door the next day. All my effort on these three studs – whose names were soon forgotten by their colleagues – had been for naught. 

5. Writing Off The “Wrong” Candidates
While I was laser-focused on the three super-soldiers outlined above, I immediately wrote off three recruits – the “Brady Bunch” –  who were much less impressive. They gazed back at me with dull, sweaty, nervous expressions, showcasing untrained physiques and undisciplined postures. I knew these three wouldn’t make it. 

Yet again, I was totally wrong. 

Although the Brady Bunch weren’t as fit as I wanted them to be, they had an edge over the PT studs: whereas the studs quit as soon as they entered the pain cave, the Brady Bunch were in the pain cave from day one. They had to work much harder than the studs and, as a result, developed more resilience. Enraged by their poor fitness, I ignored the reality: these recruits were the clay I had been given, and it was my job to sculpt them into capable soldiers. I spent too much time yelling at them to HURRY UP!, when I should have been helping them get fitter. The Brady Bunch all graduated and went on to be adequate soldiers – no thanks to me. 

5 Successes 

1. Give Them Wins When They Need Them
One morning, my recruits sat  in class awaiting a lesson. They had drilled all night and rucked all morning, a reward for unmotivated behavior throughout the week. As they sat, hunched over in their seats with drooping eyelids, probably crunching forbidden caffeine pills, it was clear that they weren’t ready for the upcoming 4 hour lecture on military law. 

So I decided to give them an easy win. For the few minutes before class I quizzed them on things they’d already learned, lobbing softballs on topics like rifle characteristics and military first aid. I singled out the most beat-down looking troops, and they surprised me – and themselves – by getting (almost) every answer right. The mood picked up noticeably and troops began to sit up straight, drawing strength from their small victories. By giving them this small win – allowing them to display their proficiency in exchange for validation in front of the group – they regained the energy to carry on with the day. 

2. Sharing The Pain
The worst NCO I ever met – “Clay” – wanted everyone to think he was a stud. He packed his ruck with pillows and smoked while the troops dug trenches, mocking their efforts. His troops despised him and followed him grudgingly. 

The best NCO I knew, by contrast – “Slate” – loaded his ruck with multiple 20kg bumper plates and dug trenches right along with the recruits. His troops were prepared to follow him straight into hell. 

Early on, I knew I had to follow Slate’s example. By suffering with the troops – rucking with twice their weight, digging the trenches with them, sleeping on the ground beside them and leading gas mask runs with them – it built up an incredible amount of leadership capital and professional credibility. It showed that we NCOs could walk the walk, not just talk the talk, and it paid off big time: they stopped complaining and attacked their tasks with vigor. It’s not groundbreaking advice, but the troops just know when they’re being bullshitted. 

3. Encouraging Questions & Critical Thinking
My least favorite type of NCO is the one who just tells you to do this and never tells you why. Why should I care about doing something if I don’t know why? 

From day one, I resolved to treat my recruits as adults and give them the answers they deserved. I asked them why relentlessly: why do you think we enforce 5 meter spacing on patrols? Why do PFM-1 anti personnel mines resemble a child’s toy? Why do we use red light instead of white in the field? After every correct answer – and every legitimate question – I’d drop a subtle bit of praise: “good question, Private X”. Others were empowered to join in, in exchange for this small bit of validation. They didn’t always get the answer right on the first try, but we always arrived at the correct answer eventually – as a group. Lessons became more interesting and the recruits retained more of what they were taught. 

4. Scaling Difficulty During PT
On my first course – as with any other group of 30-60 random citizens – there was a wide array of physical abilities. Nobody gained anything from the first run, a 6km trot that left the slow ones injured and the fast ones falling asleep. 

In response, we split up into groups of varying ability: the slow ones worked up from an easy 5km and the fast ones began working on 10km tempo efforts. Everyone suffered, everyone was challenged, and everyone got fitter. In the military there are no accommodations – every soldier must carry the same load, march the same distance, shoulder the same weapon – but there is a time and a place for scaling difficulties based on individual abilities. Everyone will progress more as a result. 

5. Investing In The “Lost Cause”
Private “Dufresne” was, by all accounts, a total lost cause. He couldn’t run, couldn’t drill, and mouthed off to instructors. His weapon handling skills were worryingly unsafe. For his consistent poor performance, Dufresne was dropped on the last day of course – hauled out of the course party and told to pack his bags. 

Dufresne was back on the very next course. The army had told him to do the entire course again or get lost. Dufresne still looked like the “wrong candidate” but his demeanor had totally changed. He wanted to be there, and he put in the effort. 

So we began to invest in him. It was subtle, but it worked: side comments like “course, ask Private Dufresne for advice on this later – he’s good at it” seemed small, but the effect of being praised in front of peers had an enormous effect. Dufresne’s confidence skyrocketed, his performance improved, and he graduated. He wasn’t top candidate, but his and our efforts had paid off. By the end of his second bootcamp, Dufresne had been molded into some semblance of a soldier. 

Piers is a historical researcher and combat engineer with the Canadian Army primary reserves. 

 

 


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