U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Spencer

How Hard Should You Train?

Friday during the torrential downpours in New England, I slipped and fell while trying to navigate a puddle. In good paratrooper form, I locked my feet and knees together as quickly as possible and pulled my arms to my chest to minimize the risk of damage to my wrists and arms. I fell awkwardly but not catastrophically.

Because I haven’t been a paratrooper for years, and the habits of falling don’t take everything into account, it didn’t occur to me in the moment to protect my head, which, unprotected by a helmet, bounced off the pavement, producing on the side of my face a cut above my eye, and a scrape on my cheek. I also learned at the doctor’s office a bit later that I’d sustained a minor concussion.

Thinking about the training that led to my reaction when falling, and also about concussions, I recalled the only time I’d lost vision from a blow to the head. Not playing lacrosse, not during the innumerable games of unpadded tackle football my friends and I played growing up, but during the clinch drill for Army level 1 combatives. 

In the clinch drill one is permitted to offer token protection to one’s head while trying to “clinch” or grab a boxer who is beating you and attempting to evade a clinch. As I was flailing around the mat trying to catch my quarry, he caught me instead with a cross to the head. My eyes went black. It was like someone turned off the lights. I was still on my feet, but that part of my consciousness was on hold. In a moment, my sight returned, and I was able to complete the drill.

How hard is too hard in training? One of the other people in the drill had their orbital socket fractured. Another suffered a broken nose. I don’t remember thinking much of it at the time, but looking back: was that necessary?

My feeling is: yes, hard training is necessary. There need to be guardrails and expert-level oversight. But that’s how one prepares most effectively for war and for serious hardship. Nothing like that is available in life, save through accident or misfortune. Having a process by which to push people’s limits — understanding that this will in extreme cases result in injury or even very rarely death — is the best way to understand what those limits are on a case-by-case and unit-by-unit level.

Most or all of the training for individual soldier skills, such as the clinch drill, ought to be conducted before moving to unit drills when and wherever possible. Individual skills are the precondition on which unit training becomes possible. Knowing that a person cannot march 5 miles in the heat carrying 60 pounds of equipment is crucial if one is to begin training a forced march preceding a movement to contact. 

The better the training is, the deeper an impression it will make. In such a way, 20 years after jump school, a man might still remember to keep his feet and knees together while experiencing a PLF.


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