PUSH-UPS FOR PUNISHMENT
WHY THEY ARE UNNECESSARY AND INEFFECTIVE IN CAP
by Capt Andrew J. Welsh, CAP
TAK Composite Squadron, New York Wing
While participating in a different unit's squadron meeting, I witnessed
the senior member staff in charge of the cadet program, commander included,
sanction the use of push-ups for punishment. I was a little surprised at
this, as I had thought that CAP as a whole no longer conducted or approved
of push-ups for punishment.
Of course, the senior ranking cadet staff at this squadron, eager for a
solution to their "discipline problem", immediately embraced and approved of
the idea. That was no surprise to me at all. What cadet, especially the
higher-ranking ones (already proven to be the gung-ho cadets) would turn
down the opportunity to perform push-ups for a punishment? The military
academies, and the military colleges (Texas A&M, Citadel, Norwich, VMI,
Virginia Tech) all perform push-ups for punishment. They're training
military officers- obviously, they must be doing something right. Even some
Air Force, Army and Navy ROTC units (or minimally, their training camps)
around the country have push-ups (or other form of PT) for punishment. I
could go so far as to say some active duty Army units use push-ups as a form
of punishment. The cadets think, "The military does it, so it must work,
Wrong! It doesn't work. This article will explain:
* Why push-ups for punishment are ineffective as a punishment in itself.
* Why push-ups for punishment are ineffective for leadership training.
* Why push-ups for punishment "work" for the military, and not CAP
* Why doing push-ups for punishment is a "weenie" way out, and not "manly" or "tough."
* And finally, why NOT using push-ups for punishment WILL work in your unit.
Knowing this is a topic that many people have strong feelings about, I
present this as an argument why a squadron should not use push-ups for
punishment at weekly meetings or activities.
II. Why push-ups for punishment are ineffective as a punishment in itself.
First, we must understand the intentions behind punishment, when and how
punishment should be administered, and what kinds of punishments are
When is punishment to be given? When we have a subordinate who does not perform
their duties correctly, behaves in a manner that is unacceptable, or violates a
regulation, one of two things has occurred. The first scenario is where the
individual did not know that they couldn't do what they did, or didn't know how to do it, which
is an issue of skill. A skill problem does not warrant punishment.
The second scenario is when the individual did know that they
weren't supposed to do what they did, or intentionally did not do what they
were supposed to (be it laziness or insubordination). These situations do
warrant a punishment, as the issue at hand is a matter of will.
Common Mistake #1 Unfortunately, immature supervisors will punish
problems of skill. (That in and of itself is a problem of skill for the
supervisor- he or she has been improperly trained on how to supervise.) If
a cadet can't do a left flank, the supervisor shouldn't punish them for not
doing it right, even if they've spent X hours trying to get it right.
Sometimes it's because the supervisor doesn't recognize that it is a skill
problem- they instantly assumed that it was the cadet's fault. Why should a
supervisor punish a cadet for something they themselves didn't do right
(train the subordinate)?
What is the purpose of punishment?
As implied above, the purpose of punishment is to correct problems of
will. The goal of the supervisor is to correct the behavior of the
individual to meet the outlined standards or expectations. The supervisor
is trying to find the solution to the problem by administering the
punishment. Sometimes, it doesn't work, because the individual exhibits the
behavior (or lack of) again at a later date. In this case, a different and
more severe punishment should be given, again, with the goal in mind of
finding the solution to the problem.
So to state it more clearly, the purpose of punishment is to stop the
subordinate from exhibiting the undesirable behavior, and to TEACH
them why it is important to do so. If you don't TEACH them why it is
important to stop, the subordinate will only stop the behavior for a short
period of time.
Common mistake #2: TEACHING the subordinate is where immature
supervisors often trip up again. They forget the important follow-up step
that TEACHES the subordinate not to do it again. If the subordinate
does it again, (or doesn't do it) then the supervisor did not teach them
what they were supposed to learn.
What is an effective punishment?
An effective punishment is one that TEACHES the subordinate why
they shouldn't exhibit the behavior anymore. Again, problems of skill (not
knowing how to drill, incorrectly ironing the uniform, etc.) do not warrant
punishment; the individual just needs to be taught the skill (maybe in a
different manner). The easiest way to teach the subordinate is by
discussing their behavior and the behavior expected of them.
Why push-ups are ineffective as a form of punishment.
One time, during a Saturday morning preparation session for AFROTC Field
Training (the 4-week AFROTC encampment) at my school, I was "dropped for
push-ups." While my sophomore classmates were practicing drill cards,
another classmate and I were pulled from the group. We were in blues, and
were told to change into our sweats. After having 45 seconds to do that, we
were brought to a wrestling mat to perform various forms of exercise. The
cadet that was providing us with this supplemental PT didn't explain
anything until we were on about our 50th scissor kick. He then proceeded to
tell my classmate and I that we were the only ones in the group to "have a
clue" (I had been to 5 encampments at that point), and we weren't
teaching/helping our classmates enough. My first thought was "We are being
punished for knowing more than the others, and performing better. How lame
is that?" He explained that he wanted us to be more "team oriented" and to
"help out our teammates", as it was "apparent" we weren't. Once we were
done, we returned to the group to perform drill cards.
Placing my experience aside for now, let's look at the demographics of
the people "dishing out" the push-ups. They are the staff; the individuals
who are gung-ho about the program, the military or whatever; the ones who
stuck around to advance in rank. If these people were dropped for push-ups
when they were new, they probably were motivated enough to think about the
reasons why they shouldn't do what they were supposed to. Some might even
have "liked" it (the really "gung-ho" members who crave that hazing-like
environment, or to relive the "glory days"). This demographic group is more
likely to be motivated about CAP, and more likely to progress, and be in
charge. This group also is more likely to want to perform push-ups as a
form of punishment, because it "worked" for them.
I'm sure if I asked these people how they felt when they were doing the
push-ups, most of them probably would say that they didn't like it. But
because these individuals developed pride in the program during their
training, then the training must have been "right" because they developed
pride. Well, sometimes people can develop pride in spite of their
training. This is known as cognitive dissonance. There is a saying, "What
is hard to endure is sweet to recall." What may be hard to endure may be
sweet to recall, but not to relive. Supervisors often forget
Also, having noticed myself, cadets that turn senior are at risk of falling
into this trap. When they now rest on top, and see more things, they see
more of the mistakes being made. As a cadet in flight, I was aware of
mistakes I made, and maybe the guy next to me. As a flight sergeant, I
could only see the mistakes that the cadets in my flight made, but not the
whole squadron. Only as a senior member and after several years, could I
see more of the mistakes being made. By no means am I saying that the
mistakes are to be tolerated. But as a senior, I may get frustrated,
because relative to my experience, the quality of the cadets has gone down
(I see more mistakes now). And this is where the senior members have to be
careful, especially the ex-military and ex-cadet kind. It is easy to jump
from "the military/cadet program when I was in it didn't have these
problems" to "how did the military/cadet program fix these problems?"
Every cadet (AFROTC, Army ROTC, CAP, USAFA) I have ever spoken to, that
had been "dropped" for pushups and asked "what did you learn", answered
first and 100% of the time "not to do it again." Some of the older cadets
(non-CAP) would add to their lessons learned list the incorrect
One hundred percent of the time, each person answered "not to do it again"
as their primary lesson of learning after having done push-ups as a
punishment. Now, I haven't spoken to every person that has been dropped for
pushups, and my sample may be limited, but I can't help but feel that "not
to do it again" was the main lesson to be taught by doing push-ups for
In and of itself, "not to do it again" is a perfectly fine lesson to
learn. However, without the reasons why ("a crooked nameplate exhibits poor
pride in the uniform and reflects poorly on myself" "not memorizing the
chain of command is a problem if my boss is not around, and I need an
answer, but I don't know who is next in charge") the lesson loses meaning
quickly. And most importantly, if the lesson has no meaning, the individual
will forget it at some point (or intentionally violate it anyway) and behave
unfavorably again. Then we're right back where we started; the subordinate
Push-ups are ineffective as a punishment, because the punishment does
not TEACH the individual to fix the problem. If the supervisor does
lecture the subordinate while doing the push-ups, the push-ups themselves
become unnecessary, because the lecture is what is teaching the subordinate,
and not the push-ups. Also, the push-ups often only serve to cause the
trainees to despise their trainer, because they don't know the "why's"
behind all of those push-ups. Then they only follow the leader, because the
have respect for his or her position of authority, and not for the leader
themselves. If the first answer everyone provides is "not to do it again",
that is indicative of the subordinate not learning what they were supposed
to. It does indicate that the individual has learned to "not do" something,
but not to "do" something. That is leadership through intimidation or fear,
and we all know that leadership through intimidation or fear (a subset of
authoritative leadership) provides great short-term results ("not to do it
again") but poor long term results. In the context of a squadron meeting,
short-term means that meeting night, maybe a couple of weeks. In the
context of an encampment, short-term means a few hours, maybe a day or
Performing push-ups is a quick fix, short-term solution that doesn't REALLY
solve the problem at hand.
III. Why push-ups for punishment are ineffective for leadership training.
When training subordinates, and dropping them for push-ups, you train
them that push-ups are the solution to the problems. And since these
trainees eventually become the trainers, they continue the practice of using
push-ups for punishment, because that is the solution they were taught when
they messed up. What a waste of creativity! The staff member who uses
push-ups is simply not thinking. They see a cadet scratching their ear in
formation, and without thinking of "how am I going to teach this person why
they shouldn't scratch their ear while in formation", they think of "Cadet
Jones is gonna get it for moving around in formation!" And the first
punishment they can think of is the ol' standby, push-ups. Now, maybe some
units "regulate" the use of pushups, in that the staff can't use them right
away. This tells me that the command in that unit only puts in little
thought and effort to fixing the problems- they discussed few correction
techniques before pressing on to push-ups. This is laziness working its way
in. The staff was lazy, because they did not sit down and have a
brainstorming session on possible punishments for certain offenses. The
challenge lies in coming up with creative, EFFECTIVE solutions to the
Push-ups for punishment is ineffective for leadership training, because
it teaches a new supervisor to use this punishment "crutch", and doesn't
teach that supervisor to ensure their subordinate learns why they shouldn't
behave the way they did. It teaches that supervisor that if somebody screws
up, they should be dropped for push-ups. How many members out there with a
paying job, could imagine their boss dropping them for pushups for being 3
minutes late? What about mommy and daddy making little Johnny do push-ups
for not taking out the trash? Or picture your math teacher making a student
do sit-ups because he was passing notes in class. How about a mission
coordinator making a cadet ground team member do push-ups for squirting
cadets with a water pistol during a break? Seems pretty silly, doesn't
It seems silly to me that if we are trying to teach cadets to "be of service
to my community, state and nation," using push-ups teaches them they are the
answer to fixing behavior problems. We aren't doing anyone a service by
teaching them to do push-ups. On a smaller level, we are delaying the
leadership development of the cadets, because they don't learn the real-life
solutions to behavior problems until later on in their CAP careers. There
would be mutiny if the Cadet Commander dropped a Cadet Major for push-ups
because his administrative work was sub-par. And at the very least, we are
scaring away some people ("I'm not putting up with this B.S.") who might
otherwise be worthwhile contributors.
IV. Why push-ups for punishment "works" for the military, but not for CAP
Recalling my example of PT for punishment (as a part of military
training), the PT was completely unnecessary. I listened to his
admonishment, as did my counterpart. I understood and appreciated why we
were spoken to. However, the PT was entirely unnecessary. Had this person
simply pulled us aside and corrected us, the results would have been the
same, or even better. I would have learned the lesson without the
my example, I showed that my first reaction was a negative feeling towards
my supervisor, not a negative feeling towards my behavior. If my supervisor
had pulled me aside, had me stand at attention (so I would pay "attention"),
and simply told me what he or his supervisors wanted, I would have
understood more quickly and performed correctly sooner. This "discussion"
wouldn't have wasted all that extra time and effort (of changing, and
physical activity.) In my case, I was mature and smart enough to see past
the "bull" and learn the lesson to be learned. You can tell that to this
day I am disappointed with the situation, and have less respect for those
supervisors as leaders.
Why does push-ups for punishment supposedly work for the military? This
has to do primarily with age differences. CAP cadets often look up to the
military training programs as a guide for developing their own training
program. Some ideas work well, while other fail miserably. The common
pitfall is not understanding what motivates a 19+ year-old to do or not do
something, doesn't work with 12-13-14 year-olds. We are not preparing
C.A.P. cadets for war, and don't need to have as intense of a physical
fitness program as the military. Also, because military members or trainees
are much older and more mature than 12-13-14 year olds, most can see past
the "bull" and learn for themselves the real reasons why they should or
shouldn't do something. Some just end up despising their superior, and
behave only because they must follow orders.
One other reason why push-ups for punishment is done in the "military"
(really, only their training programs) is because they've "always done it
that way." Few cadets and young seniors are aware (maybe with exception of
the movie "An Officer and A Gentleman") that drill instructors in the 50's
and 60's could punch their trainees when they made mistakes. It took time
for the military to move away from their antiquated methods, and realize
that they were ineffective in the long run. It still is a slow process for
the military to switch modes today. The same problem of providing a
"crutch" to the ROTC cadets in charge of trainees at the ROTC training camps
does not teach them much needed leadership skills when they get to the real
world of the military, and have to deal with the Airman 1st Class who has
consistently come to work late.
V. Why doing push-ups for punishment is a "weenie" way out, and not
"manly" or "tough."
Doing push-ups for punishment is the "weenie" way out, because it
requires little to no thought on the part of the supervisor. Although the
staff may feel like they're being tough on their subordinates/trainees, or
that it's the "manly" thing to do and it will win them approval from the
senior staff (because their unit is in "top shape"), all it really does is
make the cadets despise their leader(s). They behave not because they have
pride in the unit and they want to, but act only out of fear or intimidation
or simple respect of the authority of the position and not of the
In the long run, leadership by fear, or obedience out of respect for rank,
and not of the leader, has been proven over and over in studies as
A supervisor can be "tough" without ever having to make a subordinate do
a single push-up. Learning to do so takes some thought, practice and skill,
none of which are needed when making a subordinate do push-ups. I know that
as leaders we all want to be respected, and thought of as skillful and
VI. This is all fine and great, but it won't work in my unit without pushups.
I would like to give you a specific example in the earlier mentioned
unit where the push-ups for punishment failed to work. (I hadn't seen one
instance where it did work.) I remember one cadet in particular that was a
behavior problem in the "basic trainee" flight. He moved around a lot in
formation, and talked under his breath often, giving the cadet staff much
grief. Even I was frustrated with this individual, to the point of almost
getting angry about it. The cadet in charge of the flight was trying his
best, and only knew to either yell at the person, or make him do push-ups.
Since it was no fault of his own that he was taught that those methods are
what worked (since he turned out OK, they must've worked), I chose to teach
him a better, and more effective way. Sometimes it takes a LOT of patience
to find the method that TEACHES the individual the importance of
staying still while in formation, and also making them WANT to stay
I had to talk with this individual for 20 minutes, at almost every meeting,
for 4 weeks, to find out why he moved in formation, if he knew why not to,
why he didn't want to once he knew to stay still, and why the punishments
provided up to that point didn't work. This was effective only for each
night. As he came back the following week, he would move around again,
driving everyone involved on staff nuts. At one point, it became so
intolerable that I asked him to leave the flight, because his behavior
indicated that he didn't want to participate. Although it took me a while,
I found a punishment that was effective. After that incident, he no longer
moved around as blatantly as before (the difference lay in from putting his
hands on his hips, or rubbing his face with both hands while at attention,
to the "normal" fidgets new cadets make) It was important to discuss it
with him afterwards, and also to discuss it with the cadet flight commander
(who wasn't there at the time). While this example may not prove
single-handedly that push-ups for punishment is ineffective, I hope that it
points out the reasons why it is a bad choice for a unit to conduct it, and
there are more effective and creative solutions to the problem.
Indeed, not having push-ups for punishment will work in your unit.
Units may try to justify, or "control" the amount of push-ups or the
administration of push-ups, but the shortcomings are the same, no matter how
often or how little push-ups are used. I mentioned in the introduction a
unit I was helping out with. The commander at this unit said to me, when I
was discussing the push-up policy with him, the "cadet staff needs some
discipline tools... they don't have much to go with, and need something to
control these cadets". (The cadets causing most of these troubles were from
disadvantaged areas, with little hope in life) His solution to the problem
wasn't really the solution, since it only attacked the symptoms, and not the
actual problem itself. And the statements "they don't have much to go with"
and "need some discipline tools" tells me that the cadet and senior staff
neglected to sit down and discuss the problem and find viable, short- and
long-term solutions. This didn't really fix the problems at hand, and only
served to push some of the new recruits away.
I pity the squadron that has been doing push-ups for punishment for
years and then stops- where would their "discipline" go? (Where would their
"crutch" go?) They would have to sit down and actually THINK for
themselves- and what a pity that is. I am issuing the CHALLENGE to
each unit out there that has push-ups as a punishment to stop. I offer the
CHALLENGE for you to THINK, be CREATIVE, and TEACH your subordinates
why regulations, customs, and behaviors are expected to be followed, and why
other behaviors are not to be tolerated. I may not offer the specific
solutions to the problems in your unit; I leave that to you to figure out
for yourselves. But to those units who do use push-ups, I say, "GET OFF
YOUR CRUTCHES!" and expand your leadership training so you teach the
cadets the RIGHT and REAL-WORLD way to solve problems and to motivate
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