Training the Part-Time Soldier (Reservists)

Canadian Reservists at weekend drill.

By Stephen Oliver

I have been a member of the Canadian primary reserves for over fifteen years now. I have had the opportunity to move around the country serving with different regiments, deploy to Afghanistan and instruct in several schoolhouses developing specific soldiering skills. My career to date has included several years with Psychological Operations, where I had the privilege to work with some highly motivated and committed professionals. I have worked extensively with US and British forces both in training and on deployment.

I have most recently completed training a team for an international patrolling competition, one which required a high level of both physical and mental fitness. This was a different challenge than that of training a team for deployment or prolonged exercise, we had no full-time workup opportunity, completing training entirely on a reserve schedule.

This article represents some of the lessons I have learned over my career and tested over the eight months training my team for that competition.

I break down these lessons for those interested as follows:

  • Don’t waste time
  • Set the right example
  • Push hard during training

For those with little exposure to the reserves, there are specific challenges to training reservists different from the challenges in the regular (full-time) force. A normal training rhythm is usually one evening a week, around 3 hours of training and regular weekend training which is generally in the field or garrison and focused on a specific training event (ie. Shooting ranges, patrolling, urban operations etc.). Generally, a training year includes one or two focused longer exercises and concentrations but the remainder of a reservist’s time is spent in the civilian world.

For myself, the civilian world means my positions as a project manager in urban planning, hardly an athletically demanding career. Soldiers that are also LEO or Fire services obviously have the second pressure to maintain athletic standards, but my soldiers are just as often students, office staff and trades workers.

Longer contracts for reserve soldiers are often rapid opportunity, a soldier can be picked up with only a few days warning. When I have trained in a full-time environment we benefited from a battle rhythm, time spent knowing an event, perhaps a large exercise or course, allows us to ramp up. I have found that physical fitness, in particular, is challenging to get right, and the solutions in the reserves are different than one may expect.


Time is limited; don’t waste it.

Perhaps the most obvious and critical element of training reservists is limited time. Obviously, this is time meant for skills training and equipment service, any time spent doing physical training is not spent practicing weapons skills or any of the other roles and duties the article don’t let fitness training get in the way of technical practice helps with that conversation. In my years I have worked in units that have weekly physical training sessions, one unit, in particular, we spent nearly one full hour a week on physical training. Other units bury the needle in other direction, spending no training time on physical training, relying on “big boy rules”. From this approach I should point out every leader should read your article “big boy rules rarely work”, it certainly resonates with me. However, between these two positions, I have found that leaning towards the less PT during training makes sense, with my exceptions below.

There are a few contexts I have found that organized PT makes sense; first and foremost, suffering through a hard workout as a team is good team building. A 30-minute metcon can do a lot for learning who on the team is going to put their shoulder down and push through. My training plan for the patrolling competition I used this approach early in our schedule, using intense sessions, each focusing on something, in particular, to help identify areas they should be working on their own time. But as soon as it started getting in the way of technical skills I dropped it.

These cannot be full sessions, you do not want to punish anyone who is on a good program schedule has likely already worked out that day and will hitting another in the next day. The objective is to sweat and make sure every troop sweats and is seen using the verity of fitness skills they should be improving on their own time (cardio, strength, mental fortitude, etc.).

The other context I find fitness training useful is a solution for when the training plan starts falling apart. Keep a workout plan in your pocket which requires only a little equipment or skill, I recommend AMRAPs with as much bodyweight work as possible. Sandbag work and farmers carries are useful as well, especially if your unit will let you keep them readily available on the corner of the parade square. You will always be asked is if the troops can get changed; answer simply, “nope no time”. A simple solution is just to carry a spare shirt to training. Everyone in the military has seen a random O-group screw up their training plan, this drives me particularly nuts in the reserves as time is such a commodity. As soon as you realize you will be standing around for 15 minutes, put the troops to work. If it really drives your leadership nuts, they will stop screwing around with your training plan.


Setting the right example.

For those reading the articles from Mountain Tactical Institute, I am sure that setting an example of professional approach to fitness hardly needs to be said, especially true for those who answered the survey Leaderships roll in a unit’s fitness culture? I have found there are minor differences in how to set an example in the reserves, instead of supervising I work out with my troops whenever possible, someone else can hold the stopwatch. In my exposure, this approach is more familiar to higher performing units and less to line units.

Early in my development as a leader I had a platoon commander explain that I should aim to be better than 80% of my troops at everything, and be willing to test that. You will have troops who are mutants, good at one thing not at another, as a responsible professional athlete you have to be well rounded and capable of setting a consistent example. I make sure they see me sweat and enjoy the training.

I have found the PT as punishment is particularly devastating to young reservists, the troops must enjoy the success and the personal skill because they must take responsibility on their own time. I congratulate every one of my soldiers that finish a workout, especially those that do better than me. In short order those that have more to work on will start to ask for help; if they do not, I find they tend to have several character traits that need to be adjusted not only their approach to PT.

When the soldier starts asking, this is where your example as a leader is key; I have found that they need to know I am married, I work overtime in my civilian job, I have a busy social life, I do not miss military training and I workout five times a week.

Reservists do not get an hour off from their civilian job for PT, and rarely have access to a fitness facility without forking out personal cash, so the responsibility is on the soldier alone, help them understand how you do that. I hardly look like Mr. Clean, and sometimes I think that helps me when mentoring young soldiers, it opens the conversation about what fitness means in their profession. I keep the article advice to a young tactical athlete around and ensure all my troops take the time to read it when they first report to me. The library of training plans that I have accrued over my career is useful to share some knowledge but never as a blind dump, just an indication of places they should be looking.

I make it clear I am not their coach, I quickly found I did not have the time to take on this level of attention no matter how much I wanted to. They should understand how you made the commitment, and your example should be enough that the troops start asking you how to improve.


Push hard, really hard, during training.

My last point is always the one that costs me friends, good thing as a reservist I have civilian friends. Senior leadership is always preoccupied about pushing troops too hard on a weekend, often seen as a reason why attendance is lower than desired, or the myriad of other lame excuses units let this absolutely crucial skill go unproven.

The onus is on those leaders that can to be the counter-voice, especially at the platoon level. Troops do not want you to be easy on them, they must know the job they are doing is hard because down range it will be. You must hold them accountable as this is the only way they will invest personal time to improve. Lean in and push to make the physical side training harder, when doing a patrolling exercise try to make sure the trace is a little longer than actually required and going over a hill or two does not hurt. The debate about taking rucksacks, be the voice at the table proclaiming that you should and they should be loaded with every piece of kit you might need.

Someone at the table will give the “we haven’t done the workup training” argument. The answer to this tired thinking is obvious: “they should be!” The limited amount of time you have in the field must reinforce the importance of fitness in their job, and that if they do not do the work on their own time when the larger events come up they will not be able to perform.

This only works if you do the work with them, and if it justifiable for the job. We have all been working for the leaders that get this wrong, troops doing burpees in the field for no reason is not helping anyone.

On a field exercise, there are a lot of small decisions that get made making an exercise less physically demanding, be a voice on the aggressive side of that scale. The greatest advantage of a weekend exercise is it can be intense because rest will come soon.

There is a fine line between screwing with the troops and leaning hard on them. Find that line and set up camp, it will serve your soldiers in the long run.


Final thoughts

Hopefully, some of this insight is useful to those in a leadership position and junior leaders developing their leadership style. Never treat your soldiers as though reservists are part-time soldiers. In order to be successful in their career, they will invest hours of personal time on administration, studying skills and if you have done your job properly working on their fitness. We have to use “big boy rules”, help the troops understand how to be successful. Make the opportunities to hold them accountable and smoke them in-field training. It takes a self-motivated professional mentality to be successful as a reservist, help your troops understand what that means and set them up for success.


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