Maintaining Small-Unit Bonds Key To Repeat

When looking to develop leaders and get his team playing nine units strong, Urban Meyer looks to the military for inspiration.

The quarterback leading the team on to the battlefield. The next man up “picking up the rifle” in the wake of an injury. Players fighting for their fellow soldiers.

We’ve all heard the analogies.

Comparing sports to the military is a delicate tight-rope to walk. Certainly, the realities of war dwarf the importance of sports to the most miniscule of relevancies.

However, from a pure strategic standpoint, the parallels exist and it would be foolish for those leading men on the football field to ignore centuries of strategic development and understanding gained by those leading men into battle.

Like all of his peers, Urban Meyer is seeking an advantage wherever he can get one, looking for any way to improve his organization. The Buckeye head coach is not above borrowing strategy from the military and has done so in building small-unit cohesion on his team in the same way the armed forces do.

Those unit-level bonds are what allowed the team to withstand so much adversity last season. When those bonds were tested the year prior, they broke and they Buckeyes dropped their final two games.

“It’s the ability to enter a storm and survive the storm and then come out strong,” Meyer said. “Those are the teams that win. It’s very rare. Usually what happens, you see it all the time and I’ve been a part of teams like that, all of a sudden you hit that storm. We lost to Michigan State (in 2013) and the ship started to rattle a little bit, and then we lose to Clemson. (In 2014), we lost to Virginia Tech, the power of the unit, the small-unit cohesion was strong enough to get us better and better.”

Meyer’s theories on the topic are similar to those outlined in “Military Life.” In the book, Thomas W. Britt, Carl Andrew Castro and Amy B. Adler argue that getting individuals to feel a sense of attachment and bond with a large group is nearly impossible. However, getting individuals to fight, and in many cases die for a small group of individuals they are around constantly is much more realistic.

The book outlines three needs for this cohesiveness: maintaining unit integrity in battle, enhancing unit performance and “to sustain commitment to the mission.” All three of those translate to the football field.

Meyer has said time and time again that his goal is for his team to be operating nine units strong. That choice of language, looking at the team as units rather than offensive and defense, follows that military thinking. While the units are certainly reliant on each other, each linebacker, for example, is more dependent on the rest of his position group than he is on the defensive line or the secondary.

Adolphus Washington said that Meyer often talks about small-unit cohesion with respect to the military, going so far to say that team captains would be useless or even impossible without their in-unit lieutenants.

“It’s kind of impossible if you don’t have strong leaders in every group,” the senior defensive tackle said. “The person that is the leader in the unit, they typically rise to the top and become the team leaders, but it definitely starts in the unit room.”

While the Buckeyes return a bulk of talent from last season’s national championship team, there are unit leaders to be replaced. Washington talked about filling that role on the defensive line, one vacated by the graduation of defensive tackle Mike Bennett. The receiver room is without Evan Spencer and Devin Smith, while Doran Grant will be absent in the secondary this season and Curtis Grant won’t be playing middle linebacker.

Those shoes will need to be filled in order for the team to retain the small-unit cohesion that helped them to a title. Luckily for the Buckeyes, Meyer is adept at building leaders, a process he augments with training from Tim Kight – the originator of Event + Response = Outcome bracelets the team wears.

“We’re big on small-unit cohesion. Myself being the leader of the offensive line, I have to make sure that unit is ready and I have to make sure that I’m ready personally,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “If I get caught up in what this position group is doing or what that position group is doing, that will take away from ours. I think a big reason why we’ve been successful is because we’ve been able to rely on offensive lines to take over games. That’s my concern.”

There are many pitfalls to comparing sports and the military, but the similarities between the two from an organizational and developmental standpoint are undeniable. It would be foolish for a coach not to capitalize on them. Meyer has done that with his devotion to the concept of small-unit cohesion, seeing it pay off last year after falling apart the year prior.

“Brotherhood of trust means everything we’ve done with leadership training and the time that we spent together to make sure we’re a tight-knit team,” Joshua Perry said following the national championship. “Our training and our fundamentals and what we’ve done to develop that is what led us to be successful.”

The Buckeyes are seeking their first back-to-back championship in program history in 2015 and it may come down to Meyer’s ability to reinforce the individual unit bonds he has worked so hard to cultivate. With leaders like Decker, Washington and Perry who clearly understand the concept the team is well on its way.

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