by Capt Andrew J. Welsh, CAP
TAK Composite Squadron, New York Wing

I. Introduction

 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, right?"

 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 effective.

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 that.  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 behaviors.  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 punishment.

 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 behaving unfavorably.

 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 two.  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 behavior problems.

 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?  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 PT.  In 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 person.  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 ineffective.

 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 thoughtful.

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 still.  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 people.

Capt Andrew J. Welsh can be contacted by email at Andrew.Welsh@usa.xerox.com.
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