By Jim Dietz, Lincoln Land (Ill.) volleyball coach
So sometimes when you hit the middle portion of your life, you do something crazy. Usually for middle-aged men, this takes the form of a new car, boat, or going to Vegas to get married in an Elvis chapel.

Not me.

I’m a volleyball coach.

In February, I applied for a U.S. Marine Corps Leadership Course to be held in May in Quantico, Virginia. I filled out paperwork related to my coaching history and success, but I was also asked to answer questions regarding my knowledge of the U.S. military. The instructions said those selected would be notified in April. Curious, I went to look at past selected coaches. They weren’t all volleyball; they were from all sports. The one thing I did notice though was they were all people you’ve heard of — in volleyball terms, like Michigan’s Mark Rosen  (who did the course last year). Not a single two-year college coach on the lists. Great.

So when I received word the final week of April that I was selected, I was surprised. Excited, too. The local officer called and within 30 minutes, I had more forms to fill out and the itinerary for the four days. Shortly after, I said to myself, “I wonder if would be interested in hearing about this.” Turns out the answer was yes, so here I am, writing a diary of my leadership training with the USMC at their Officer Candidate School.

Prelude: There’s some interesting stuff before leaving. The first was the gear list they suggested coaches bring. The big ones for me were the baseball cap along with the long-sleeve t-shirt and bug spray. Sunburns and ticks. The Marines Corps made sure to provide a dress code with the itinerary, so I’m set for athletic activity and looking good (as much I can at least) for functions in the classroom and evening. While coaches are to be in business casual attire, in the evenings, the Marines are to be in their dress blues — and Marine and Army dress blues are the best looking uniforms around.

The second big thing was the itinerary. Day one is primarily travel, but during dinner, there’s an overview briefing scheduled and coaches will be assigned to squads (for those unfamiliar with military stuff, squads are small units of 8-12 men, depending on whose military and branch you are working with).

Day two starts with PT (Physical Torture—Training) at 0630 followed by two hours of classroom leadership discussion, lunch, then moving to the field for the Leadership Reaction Course and Obstacle Course. After cleaning up, dinner and a briefing on the role of ethics and integrity on leadership.

Day three has coaches learning to use pugil sticks (mouth guards were on the list of things to bring), basic martial arts, discussions with the lieutenants doing the training, small-unit exercises, and the day will conclude with a military parade. The final day is supposed to have one more talk, but just as cool, two hours are allotted to exploring the Marine Corps’ museum — Chesty Puller exhibits, here I come.

The third — that’s the waiver you sign. Repeatedly in bold print, it says you won’t hold the Marines responsible for anything that happens in the field or the classroom, and that accidents happen all the time. They’ll try and keep you alive, but, well, them’s the breaks, y’know? I made sure my physical was up to date and did a heart stress test — you never know about these sorts of things.

Marine Corps Leadership Course-Jim Dietz
Jim Dietz with Joseph “Joe Marine” Shusko, credited with starting the Marines’ martial-arts program and who was President Ronald Reagan’s helicopter aboard Marine One.

Day one: I’d forgotten how much I dislike air travel. The first hop was 90 minutes of waiting for a 45-minute flight. The long end of the trip (Chicago to D.C.) I wound up assigned to a middle seat and couldn’t convince the 5-foot-5 person on the aisle to switch. Yay. Getting off the plane was, as always, a joyous relief.

I met up with the Marine Corps officers and a group of other coaches and we made our way to the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico, Virginia. Got things put away then went to the opening dinner. There were two talks, one centered on the practical aspects of becoming a Marine officer and the training regimen — intense enough mentally and physically that they turn away Division I athletes from it sometimes, but what was fascinating was not the emphasis on the physical aspects but the intangibles — community participation, morality, ethics.

As it was explained, they want people who have suffered adversity and hard knocks because if they go through troubles and can stand back up — they can lead. Ultimately, I think that’s what most coaches want, too: We want players who can suffer a loss, struggle with their personal performance, but come out victorious on the other side of those struggles.

It’s interesting being the only two-year college coach of any sort, that’s for sure. Then again, it was a wide mix of sports represented from tennis to rugby to the Youth Development Coaches for USA Women’s Wrestling. The objective of having coaches from a wide variety of sports is to collaborate, work together. That was emphasized — that that’s what the Marines will try and do over the course of weeks and months of training (whereas we are just here for four days)

Day two: I survived the morning “PT.” Thank goodness they took it easy on coaches. They wanted to get everyone’s body working and it did just that. Made 60 degrees feel rather warm. After PT came breakfast. That was a chance to talk with coaches from multiple sports. Most was standard “shop talk.” Problems for most coaches are human problems rather than tactical ones.

This, of course, is why the USMC wants to teach people how they do things, how to fix problems.

After breakfast, we had a seminar on “Coaching and Leadership” led by Captain Michelle Chadwick, who’s one of only 72 women combat engineer officers in the Marine Corps. It was, again, interesting to see the same problems come up in conversation over and over.

You can guess them, right? Alcohol, drug usage, promiscuity, and social media.

Most interesting was how many teams have athletes with “secret” Snapchat or Instagram accounts, but also how many coaches know about them. It seems to come down to self-esteem.

Captain Chadwick had great bearing — but so did the other two women officers assisting, captains Stephanie Hebda and Victoria Cannon. As a coach of a women’s volleyball program, it’s a problem I have regularly within my team: Who is going to step up and lead?

Those three were great examples and offered suggestions, including ways to get rid of complainers (Put the wolf in charge of the henhouse. If someone is causing issues, give them responsibility because it forces them to be part of the solution rather than causing trouble).

Cannon suggested finding one thing your team does that no other team in your athletic department does and use that to create positive camaraderie, which will in turn drive your team to success. There’s a lot of sound theory in what she said. Giving special uniforms or training to military units has created top-line troops for centuries, such as the Iron Brigade, the Devil’s Brigade, or the Green Berets for instance. This wouldn’t need to be expensive for your volleyball program, perhaps a uniform that only gets worn come November when the team is in a playoff stretch, and maybe it is customized individual video training, discussed one on one.

Marine lunch is not what you see in movies. (By the way, the hotel is right across the street from the shot used to establish location in the old TV show “Major Dad.”) Marine lunch is more than having food slapped on your tray. There’s junk food available, but mostly the food was healthy and cooked fresh (other than the pizza and French fries. I had pasta, thank you very much).

After lunch came the biggie, the Leadership Reaction Course. The Marine Corps asks that details don’t get discussed so that no future Marines have a hint at how things work. I can say that it’s about team-leading under time pressure. In that regard, I talked with a different volleyball coach here (I forgot where she coaches) and she said she did well during her turn in the role. I thought I did, too.

Coaches from other sports really struggled. It dawned on me why afterwards. The team leader has one minute to learn the problem then has two minutes to bring the rest of the team up to speed on all the details. Put that together and you have three minutes, which coincides with the time between sets in a match. I hadn’t realized how easy that was until afterwards. Given that’s the time the USMC allots for discussion, I reckon it’s good as a coach to think/talk in bursts under three minutes. Explain the drill, get going and go, go, go!

The evening briefing was by Sean Braziel, coach with USA Hockey and the Detroit Red Wings. Again, the emphasis was on integrity and ethics. That was a constant theme from all of the officers and training staff throughout the day. It’s not about failure. They get that will happen (especially while learning), it’s about how you react to the failure.

One more note from the second day. Speaking with one of the officers, I asked a question about passing/failing the combat course we were permitted to tour. They aren’t allowed to fail. The catch is the training is meant to build up to the penultimate test.

It’s like you need to go Algebra I, then Algebra II and then to Calculus. You can’t skip to the derivations. That’s the teaching logic.

Marine Corps Leadership Course-Jim Dietz
Coaches were divided into teams of five. Dietz is second from the right.

Day three: The day started with a brief talk by retired Colonel Joseph Shushko. In addition to being President Ronald Reagan’s helicopter pilot, Shushko helped start the Marine Corps’ martial arts program in 1999.

After an explanation of the principles and getting to see some cool images and war “souvenirs,” we went outside. This is important, because with the teaching, the Marines want individuals in the proper environment. Since this is martial arts and since they fight outdoors, then logically, they should practice outdoors.

They illustrated this with situations involving one-on-one combat, multiple attackers on one defender, and armed vs. unarmed. After the demonstrations, coaches were divided into three groups—Wristy-Twisty, Pugil Sticks, and Boxing.

Wristy-Twisty was about certain moves useful in close quarters like bars or parking lots, designed to end a confrontation without escalation.

It was cool to do and it’s amazing the pain you can inflict on cuticles or under a person’s lip. Also fascinating was to see that how people escape from being choked in movies is completely backwards. Everyone went through the process, getting hands on experience with the various techniques. Again, there was a quick explanation, a step-by-step demonstration, and then everyone went immediately into applying the steps of the techniques. By the end, I felt confident enough that I could use all but one of them if need be (until I forget them, right?).

The Colonel handled this portion himself and he emphasized that these were introductory techniques, that the USMC builds to complication and that giving clear goals/steps while improving helps with confidence and building motivation to push harder.

After Wristy-Twisty, my group was moved to fight with the pugil sticks, rods about three feet long with red padding on one end representing the bayonet and black on the other, which is the butt of the rifle. You fight best-of-three and only score a point if you pick up a killing blow (a head shot). We were in helmets with mouth guards at all times.  Before we started, one of the observations made by the Sergeant Instructor was “We do this so you learn how to react when you’re hit. It’s easy to say one thing, harder when you’re under duress.”

He wasn’t kidding.

I went in planning to stab with the bayonet. My opponent didn’t cooperate, dodged sideways, and brought the bayonet through the left side of my head. Ow. For the next point, I realized no one had used the butt-end yet, so I returned the favor and stuck it in the other coach’s ear.

Our third point was a simultaneous hit. It was the shortest fight of the day since the two of us really went at it. It was about 30 seconds of action, total. It was more exhausting than running sprints for conditioning.

The last station was boxing. Everyone fought one one-minute round. Marines have traditionally been excellent Olympic and professional boxers. Boxing is used as an introduction to the hand-to-hand combat techniques, and again, to introduce Marines to physically taking punishment. I squared off against the assistant soccer coach from Rhode Island. He got me good in the ribs once, I got him twice back. Both of us were like Apollo Creed: “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.”

When this was done, we ate lunch at the Officer Basic School and then received a briefing on the structure of the Officer training program and the time spent on the various portions of an officer’s training. I won’t lie. It was dry, and I suspect a ton of coaches zoned out because they were unfamiliar with NATO symbology.

When that was done, there was a final discussion session regarding ethics and leadership. It was quite interesting. New officers are asked questions and permitted to give anonymous answers to questions like “Would you drive under the influence?” “Is it OK to torture?” or “Is it OK to steal $50?”

They are asked “How do you rate your personal ethics?” before those questions. And then they get more questions, like what if it’s $10,000 and no chance of being caught? What if the torture would reveal the date/location of a terrorist attack?

Suddenly, there’s gray area.

The officers are taught, “There is no gray area.” It is emphasized constantly that choosing short-term benefit over long-term principles always leads to problems. The thing is, the Marines realize this isn’t perfect. They also discuss decisions made in the heat of the moment. It’s easy to say “I wouldn’t ever shoot a POW” while sitting in class, but would you do that right after the POW surrendered in the aftermath of stabbing your best friend to death? There’s the rub.

After good discussion, we had dinner and then got to attend the Marine Parade at 8th and I. If you get a chance to go to the Marine parade, absolutely take the opportunity. The only flaw is D.C.’s traffic. Gridlock isn’t just in the halls of Congress.

Day four: This is departure day, so the only thing on the agenda is a tour of the Marine Corps Museum. I’m not sure if many coaches liked it, but I’m a historian by training, so it was an amazing morning. It, too, is worth a day during a vacation.

Overall, it is a powerful experience. The commitment to ethics and personal integrity permeates everything — and they believe it.

It’s inspiring.

And challenging.

The question for coaches of young people becomes where we draw the “red lines,” what behavior cannot be tolerated and forces us to remove the athlete from our program and what can be redeemed, used as adversity to be overcome and make the young person a better individual.

Jim Dietz has been the head coach at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill., since 2006. Dietz, who is also the technical director for the Capital Area Volleyball Club in Springfield, Ill., is the winningest coach in school history. Dietz has contributed before the and also written two coaching books — The Human Side of Coaching and Like Heck She Isn’t a Volleyball Player) — and several novels.



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