Ch. 19: Bill Aris’s Truth: Happiness and Success in Sports and the Military

In school, in sports, and in the Navy, respect for the uniqueness of the individual opens portals to breathtaking success.[1]

Nobody believes Bill Aris.

People ask Bill, over and over, how his Fayetteville-Manlius High School (NY) girls’ cross country teams have managed to win the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) an amazing ten times. (NXN, where the nation’s forty best teams compete, is the de facto national high school cross country championship.)

Bill graciously shares his methods. He patiently explains how he trains his runners. And the other coaches suspect he’s signifyin’, as they say in the Ozark mountains.

Surely he’s pulling their legs. At the very least, he’s got to be holding something back.

Coaches fall off their chairs when Bill explains that he spends relatively little time designing his runners’ workouts.

“I spend 80 percent of my time on psychological and emotional considerations of each kid,” Aris says. “I put 20 percent of my time into designing the training. I spend most of my time thinking about and trying to get to the heart and soul of each kid, to both inspire them and to understand them. I’m always trying to figure out what keys unlock what doors to get them to maximize their potential.”[2]

Other coaches believe there’s no way Aris can produce national champions, year after year, without huge numbers of kids trying out for the team, and without recruiting.

In fact, Fayetteville-Manlius High School has 1,500-2,000 students, yet just 25 runners turn out each fall for cross country. And Aris doesn’t need to recruit, because his methods turn talented kids into champions.

Bill Aris. His methods are simple and profound.

Aris’s boys’ teams won NXN in 2014 and 2017. They’ve placed second several times, plus a third and fourth. To put this in perspective, it’s a tremendous achievement just to be among the forty teams invited to race at NXN. Consistently scoring in the top five puts the F-M boys in the absolute stratosphere of high school cross country.

At the library recently, I picked up a wonderful book. At first glance, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy would seem to have little to do with training high school runners. Yet Bill Aris and former U.S. Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff have a lot in common. They’re both renegade thinkers, in professions where the safest path to career advancement is to keep one’s head down and do things the way they’ve always been done.

Abrashoff describes what happened when the Navy gave him command of a deeply troubled ship with bottom-scraping efficiency ratings.

In the Navy, officers are expected to either get ahead or get out. If they aren’t being regularly promoted, they risk being seen as damaged goods—losers—and shunted off to posts where they can’t harm other officers’ careers.

It’s a system that breeds a paranoid management style, where the highest priority is to avoid looking bad. It encourages officers to micromanage their subordinates, to get results that will look good on their resumes.

Unfortunately, it’s an approach that ultimately produces mediocre results and has a terrible effect on a ship’s morale. When Abrashoff took over Benfold, most of the crew members told him they couldn’t wait to leave the ship and get out of the Navy.

What Abrashoff did was amazing. As I read the book, I laughed, smiled, and occasionally wiped a tear. Abrashoff decided to apply the lessons he had learned during a two-year stint as an aide to Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. He would put the crew’s welfare first—just as Bill Aris does with his runners.

Abrashoff spoke personally with every one of Benfold’s 310 crew members, asking them about their backgrounds, their life goals, what they hoped to get out of their time in the Navy, and what they felt was wrong with the Navy’s way of doing things.

Above all, he invited their suggestions for improving procedures in their own departments. And he implemented them, even if it meant bending the Navy’s rules.

Within six months, Benfold was winning at-sea exercises against ships with much stronger ratings.

How did Abrashoff turn Benfold around? By adopting a simple guiding principle.

“I decided that on just about everything I did, my standard should be simply whether or not it felt right. You can never go wrong if you do ‘the right thing.’ ….

“If it feels right, smells right, tastes right, it’s almost surely the right thing—and you will be on the right track.

“If that doesn’t sound very profound or sophisticated, in the Navy, in business, and in life, it really is as simple as that.”

Let’s add: “In sports training, and in the classroom.”

We know when we’re doing the right thing in sports, and when we’re truly reaching the children  in the classroom and helping them improve at their level—because it feels right. And we know, just as clearly, when we’re screwing up—ignoring the child’s reality in a headlong pursuit of test scores—because it feels subtly wrong.

It’s simple. Do the right thing as an athlete and your training will go well and you’ll enjoy it. Do the right thing for every child at school—get to know each student and work with their individual differences—and you’ll find them becoming amazingly enthusiastic and engaged, and loving it, because they feel respected.

Few believed that Abrashoff’s expansive leadership style would work—until Benfold began garnering a reputation as “the best damn ship in the Navy.”

Assigned to the Persian Gulf during the second Gulf War, Benfold became the go-to ship whenever commanders needed things done fast and correctly. When other captains wanted to improve their ships’ performance, they visited Benfold and talked with Abrashoff and his crew.

It’s an incredibly inspiring story. And the principles behind Benfold’s success are exactly the same as those that have brought the girls’ teams at Fayetteville-Manlius ten national championships.

In my working life, I occasionally help Donovan R. Greene, Ph.D., a highly regarded industrial psychologist. Companies hire Don to identify executive candidates who can strengthen their cultures and amplify their success. A habit that many of the best candidates share is “managing by walking around” (MBWA).

That’s what Mike Abrashoff did, and what Bill Aris does. Abrashoff spent countless hours visiting each of Benfold’s departments, learning its functions and where they fit within the ship’s overall operations. He met with each crew member and invited their thoughts on how they could do their jobs better. And he empowered them to make changes. He respected them and tapped their creativity, knowledge, and enthusiasm. Morale soared, and success came quickly.

It was uncannily similar to how Bill Aris guides his high school cross country teams.

Coaches don’t believe Bill because he doesn’t tell them what they want to hear.

They want to hear: “I get results by hard-nosed methods. I work my kids’ tails off, and I’m not above recruiting so long as I don’t get caught. We do huge mileage in summer, and I won’t tell you about our speedwork, because that would be revealing too much. But it’s all in the numbers.”

Bill with his Manlius girls after winning Nike Cross Nationals. Bill’s genius is that he creates happy, tightly bonded teams.

Does that sound like schools today? The obsession with numbers. The “studying to the test.” The government-imposed standard curriculum that leaves one-third of the kids bored out of their minds, another third unable to keep up, and only one-third challenged at their level.

When modern sports scientists from America and Europe travel to Africa to study the world-leading Kenyan elite runners, they bring along their little measuring sticks. They measure the Kenyans’ leg lengths, muscle elasticity, and calf and thigh dimensions. They weigh and analyze what they eat—how much carbohydrate, fat, and protein. They study how many miles they run, and how hard. And they write it all down in a little notebook full of numbers.

Few of them ask the Kenyans about their hopes and dreams. Yet if you invite the Kenyans to talk about what sets them apart from their American and European counterparts, they never mention numbers. They talk about qualities of the heart—not heart volume and such-like science, but the heart’s feelings.

They explain that they run based on inner feeling—they take joy in running together, and if their bodies don’t feel up to running hard on a particular day, they’re perfectly willing to pack it up and go home; whereas an American runner would be much more likely to force himself through the workout, haunted by a need to “make the numbers.”

The Kenyans know that their bodies will tell them when it’s okay to run hard, and when it’s best to knock off. They’ve long since learned to do the right thing.

They talk about how the U.S. runners are so serious about their training, how obsessed they are with numbers and technology, and how it’s all geared toward some feverishly imagined far-off future result. Meanwhile, the Kenyans are intent on maximizing the joys of today.

Captain Abrashoff did a simple thing on Benfold—he created a happy ship. He gave his crew the freedom to enjoy doing their jobs well. Other ships’ officers and crew members were soon seeking excuses to visit Benfold, for the experience of being infected and inspired by its upbeat mood.

That’s the secret of Bill Aris’s success, and it isn’t complicated. Aris creates happy teams. How? By getting to know his runners and helping them realize their dreams. That kind of caring creates loyalty, enthusiasm, and success—on a Navy missile destroyer, a cross country course, and in the classroom.

School administrators and politicians should take a lesson from Aris and Abrashoff. Instead of cramming kids into a lockstep curriculum, thereby demotivating all but the average few, they could empower teachers to institute an individualized curriculum that would take the measure of each kid’s hopes and dreams.

When Abrashoff left Benfold, he studied surveys conducted by the Navy to discover why people weren’t re-enlisting. Surprisingly, low pay was far down the scale, in fifth place.

“The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility.”

Abrashoff worked tirelessly to reverse these trends. He would not tolerate attitudes in his officers that might risk creating a bossy, feudal culture that would spread poisonous feelings of resentment throughout the ship.

Every crew member’s contributions were to be considered important, and they were to be made aware of their value to the ship.

By treating his crew as if they mattered, and giving them freedom to shine, Abrashoff built the best damn ship in the Navy—just as Aris has built the nation’s best high school cross country program.

Six months after Abrashoff’s departure, Benfold earned the highest grade in the history of the Pacific Fleet on the Navy’s Combat Systems Readiness Review.

Abrashoff tells story after story of how he transformed the culture of his ship, one detail at a time. It’s a deeply moving account. And ultimately the “method” can be boiled down to a simple principle: the best approach to organizational change and individual excellence is the one that creates the greatest fulfillment and happiness for the individual.

“Every year, I look at every kid in our group,” Aris said of his approach to training high school runners. “Number one, I try to find out what’s in their mind and in their hearts. How high is up, in other words. From there I build a training program around that.”

Speaking of the unique culture that Aris has built, award-winning running journalist Marc Bloom says:

“In all my 40-plus years (of being involved with high school cross country), I don’t think I’ve seen anything this extraordinary, at least on the high school level…. If you look at professionals it’s like looking at the Kenyans and the Ethiopians. On the high school level, F-M is so far better than anyone else.

“You say how do they do it?” Bloom added. “You can look at the physiological aspect and the running, but there is also a cultural foundation to it. It’s a different society. It’s a different attitude.”[3]

It’s a culture that engenders good feelings within each runner and within the team. Aris persuades his runners to tap the joy of training for something larger than themselves. And it all sounds eerily like the culture at Living Wisdom School.

“When our kids train or race, they do so for each other rather than competing against each other. When one releases themselves from the limiting constraints of individual achievement alone, new worlds open up in terms of group AND individual potential and its fulfillment…. Each is capable of standing on their own, but when working together so much more is accomplished both for the group and individual. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts basically, nothing new here.”[4]

Why aren’t people more receptive to these radical but exhaustively proven ideas? Why are so few listening—in school, in sports, and in business and the military?

Mark Allen, six-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, may have the answer.

Before he began racing triathlons, Allen was a hard-charging All-American swimmer at UC San Diego. Swimmers do intensive interval workouts, and when Allen became a triathlete he trained full-out all the time, whether running, riding, or swimming. Yet year after year he fell just short of winning the Ironman.

Then Allen met coach Phil Maffetone, who had him do several months of easy aerobic training at the start of the season, followed by six weeks of very hard work. Maffetone understood Allen’s individual needs and adapted his training accordingly. That’s when the string of Ironman victories began.

In an interview with Allen, Tim Noakes, MD, author of the authoritative Lore of Running, asked him for his thoughts on why more triathletes hadn’t adopted the methods that had brought him so much success.

“Allen answered that many athletes are too ego-driven. They can’t wait to perform well and will not accept anyone else’s ideas.”[5]

Why are our public schools and our academically obsessed private schools not adopting the principles that work so well in sports and in the Navy, and that have created happiness and success for so many students at Living Wisdom School, because they help each child learn more efficiently than the failed lockstep Core Curriculum, and the equally disastrous No Child Left Behind?

The answer is that politicians and school administrators are too heavily invested in their own ideas and obsessed with numbers—even when the numbers lie.

Bill Aris’s methods aren’t what the politicians and administrators want to hear. And that’s too bad, because there’s solid scientific evidence that the heart and brain can work harder with less strain in the presence of happy feelings. In the classroom, research shows that the brain becomes a more efficient learning machine in the presence of harmonious, expansive feelings—as opposed to the stress and emotional toll of a needlessly competitive, test-focused atmosphere.

Teachers and coaches who support the individual child,  intent on helping them become happy members of a happy team, aren’t just wasting the kids’ time. They’re amplifying the children’s ability to learn, empowering these young learners by tapping the power of positive feelings to make each child’s brain a champion.

Imagine if you were a teacher, and there was a child in your classroom who clearly needed special attention and loving help—would you blithely ignore the child’s needs, prioritizing test preparation and grades? As parents and as a society, would we set up our entire school system so that teachers were forced to ignore that child’s unique circumstances?

Mass education is “dead-ucation.” Teachers who know how to elicit the individual child’s enthusiasm for learning, by giving them daily experiences of success at their own level, are able to educate them far more effectively than teachers who are required by government decree to cram a barely digestible load of facts into the students’ overworked and resisting brains.

(Adapted from The Joyful Athlete: The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training, by LWS web content manager George Beinhorn. www.joyfulathlete.com)

[1]Adapted from The Joyful Athlete: the Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training, by Palo Alto Living Wisdom School web content manager George Beinhorn.

[2] “The Secret to F-M’s Success: There Is No Secret,” Tom Leo and Donnie Webb, Syracuse.com, December 10, 2010. http://bit.ly/2JT3vnn.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Stotan: The Secret of Fayetteville Manlius,” XCNation/RunnerSpace, September 23, 2013. http://www.runnerspace.com/news.php?news_id=180217

[5] Lore of Running, op. cit.

 

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