Pete Carroll Inspires the Armed Forces
Sports and the military have always had a uniquely rewarding relationship, perhaps summarized best by legendary World War II Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields on other days will bear the fruits of victory,” MacArthur famously said decades ago about the role of sports in the armed forces.
More than 60 years later, Pete Carroll and his “Win Forever” philosophy are showing that MacArthur’s words have not faded away. In fact, now it’s Carroll’s words and life-changing philosophy that could be recited by soldiers for decades to come.
Carroll was a specially invited attendee and speaker at the military’s Conference on Small Unit Excellence, a first-of-its-kind seminar in Alexandria, Va., in late April that has since laid the foundation for revolutionary shifts in the actions and attitudes of the country’s armed forces.
“It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of,” said Carroll, in his ninth year as USC’s head football coach.
Co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the three-day conference attracted the military’s highest-ranking officers, some of the country’s brightest academicians, science’s top thinkers and Carroll — the only sports-related person invited — as they sought the answer to one question: How can the U.S. military improve and maintain consistent success?
Carroll’s participation in the conference has been called transformational, dynamic and the most significant aspect of the three-day event that is expected to substantially alter U.S. military strategy in positive ways.
Carroll’s talk focused on his inspirational “Win Forever” philosophy, a model designed to direct individuals and groups to maximizing their potential and performing at their highest levels.
Achieving “Win Forever” begins with a vision for success, followed by a disciplined process of practice and preparation, Carroll said. And it all happens through competition — the central theme of the USC football program — and, as Carroll said, going on a “relentless pursuit to find a competitive edge.”
“Something unprecedented will happen because of that conference,” said Bill Harrison, one of the chief organizers of the event. “And I can assure you that no one at that conference had more impact on the people who have to go do it than Pete Carroll.”
Carroll’s invitation to the groundbreaking conference appeared to be a perfect fit from the start.
Colgen, a consulting firm utilized by the military to coordinate the conference, was sent out to bring on revolutionary thinkers who could generate fresh and relevant ideas for the group of preeminent military leaders.
“I was told to find someone who could help the cause,” recalled Harrison, a consultant for Colgen and the person in charge of coordinating a slate of worthy speakers. “The cause is to address the needs of small units and improve their ability in terms of decision-making and subsequently their actions. So I sat back and thought, ‘You know, there’s no one who does a better job with small units than Pete Carroll.’ ”
Carroll’s renowned optimism meshed well with what the conference organizers were looking for, especially taking into account that another invitee was Martin Seligman, who is considered the “father of positive psychology.”
“Pete is a poster child for the notions of positive psychology and resiliency in teaching and coaching small groups,” said Seligman, a best-selling author and longtime professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “We all appreciated having someone who’s a beloved celebrity like he is and whose philosophy of teaching and coaching fits with [the military’s].”
Another major reason Carroll was selected to speak involves the statistics. The number of players on the field at one time (11) is roughly equivalent to the number of soldiers in a squad (12). That’s the size of a Navy SEAL team and the number of soldiers in the 2,500 squads in combat right now.
Plus, present-day warfare is fought not in large waves of soldiers but in small legions of troops who tactically go in and fight the battles.
“The way to engage in this new type of warfare is not to come at them with brigades but with small units — the war basically becomes 11-on-11 then,” Fautua said. “That sounds a lot like Carroll’s world.”
And there’s one other not-so-obvious reason Carroll was chosen to speak at the Conference on Small Unit Excellence — and a main reason he connected so well with those in attendance.
“He’s coming up against teams that if they could find a way to beat USC, that makes their season,” said David Fautua, a research coordinator at U.S. Joint Forces Command and another key player in finding worthwhile speakers for the conference. “That’s a lot like us — it’s the same parallel in irregular warfare, because it’s brought everything down to the tactical level.”
Harrison approached Carroll about the late-April conference earlier this year and Carroll jumped on board without hesitation.
“It was an extraordinary honor for me to take part in something like this to help our country,” Carroll said. “I’ve never felt that sense before. It’s really powerful to be involved in the process of helping in something of this magnitude.
“And to be involved with people who compete on that level, what more could I ask for? They’re competing everyday to try and keep our country safe and save lives.”
Once Carroll arrived at the conference in Northern Virginia, there were no icebreakers necessary; the football coach fit in immediately with decorated military leaders and academic thinkers.
“We use football analogies all the time in the military so he was amongst friends,” said Jack Pryor, CEO of Colgen and a 28-year military veteran. “He really hit a home run with those folks.”
“Other than generals and admirals wanting to have dinner with him, Pete was just another guy — he just rolled his sleeves up and didn’t throw the celebrity thing out there at all,” Harrison said. “He was just another one of the people trying to address the issues.”
The fact Carroll took three days out of his schedule to fly across the country and participate in the conference was appreciated by all, to say the least.
“It was an amazing gesture, because I know Pete Carroll has no time to give beyond what he’s doing right now,” said Dennis Coates, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and currently the CEO of Performance Support Systems, a consulting firm employed for the conference. “I was really impressed he made that commitment to be there. I got the sense he did that because he knows he really understands how to mold strong individuals with strong skills and strong character to win. And he felt a sense of patriotism, that this is important to national security.”
Many of the attendees saw that Carroll wasn’t coming to the conference to gain attention or earn publicity.
Said Harrison: “He doesn’t need this, he just has a passion and a recognition of what the struggles are.”
Going to Work
The Conference on Small Unit Excellence was attended by roughly 100 military leaders, academicians, scientists and other assorted people (namely, Carroll), who were divided into four breakout groups with different topics.
Carroll was placed in the 22-person Breakout Group No. 3, which focused on excellence in the small unit as a whole (other groups looked at the leader and the soldier-warrior) and included high-ranking military officials, a world-renowned psychologist and other scientists, professors and experts from diverse backgrounds.
In total, the group spent 12 hours sequestered together during the three-day conference, setting out to respond to a charge to formulate “a set of recommended actions to make small units stronger and more effective in life-threatening operations,” according to the goals set by the participant guide for the conference.
That’s a monumental mission statement for a guy whose job is to win football games — not wage wars — but Carroll appeared to have been among the most effective participants in the group.
“The various scientists and military practitioners all felt a need to talk — they wanted to express their backgrounds and what they thought the possibilities were,” said Coates, the facilitator of Carroll’s group. “Pete Carroll’s energy was to actually do something — not talk about something. I sensed he was eager to move on beyond talk and actually do something.”
So the breakout group split into four smaller teams and what Carroll’s six-man team focused on “was maybe the most important recommendation of the entire conference,” Coates said.
“Pete and his group decided that one of the important things had to be a major cultural shift in these federal units — whether they’re military, police or whatever,” Coates said. “He brought his own “Win Forever” ethic and his “Always Compete” ethic, and it became a part of the recommendation of that group. The other groups focused on things like science and measurement and training, but Pete’s group focused on this vision and cultural shift.”
Following 12 hours of small-group discussions during the first two days of the event, the four breakout groups came together on the final day to present their conclusions and recommendations to the conference as a whole. Carroll’s group presented last.
Guess who their spokesman was.
“Pete kicked off that group’s presentation and the way he did it was amazing,” Coates recalled. “He just let his charisma and his energy and his vision come through in a very engaging, highly emotional presentation. It was unique because the other presentations were more businesslike and logical and cut-and-dry.
“His was like a coach’s halftime speech — it was wonderful.”
Carroll kicked off the talk with a tactic he uses for many of his motivational speeches. To stress the importance of having a philosophy and knowing it, Carroll asked the people packed in the hotel ballroom to raise their hands if they had a personal philosophy. About half the attendees raised their hands.
Then he asked how many of those who raised their hands could recite their philosophy in 25 words or less. By then, only a small handful of people still had their hands up.
“What Coach gave to the group is that philosophy is everything, that philosophy is key,” said Fautua, the research coordinator at U.S. Joint Forces Command.
“It really made me reflect about ‘what is my personal philosophy?’ ” said Major Gen. Jason Kamiya, director of joint training and commander of the Joint Warfighting Center at Joint Forces Command and who is now in his 33rd year in the military. “It gave us all a wake-up call that as we begin this effort to raise the bar of excellence in small units, we better know what our philosophy is.”
Those in attendance said Carroll’s talk not only invoked emotion, but also stirred the mind.
“At first, I looked around and everyone’s in suits or uniforms, arms crossed with frowns on their faces, leaning back,” Coates said. “Within about a minute of listening to Pete Carroll, they weren’t frowning anymore, their arms were uncrossed, I saw eyes getting moist and they were leaning forward and taking notes. It was unbelievable. Soldiers who had come back from Afghanistan and Iraq and had medals all over themselves, and they started taking notes and nodding their heads. It was terrific. I felt myself responding to this — ‘wow, this is fantastic.’ ”
Before long, Carroll delved into his “Win Forever” philosophy, sharing the impact it’s had on him and the Trojans — and the impact it can have in all walks of life, especially the military.
“It’s really extraordinary; in fact, it’s amazing,” said Robert Scales, a retired Army general who played a significant role in the coordination of the conference. “Coach’s principles apply to extreme situations, life-and-death situations. There’s a difference between wanting to win and wanting to live, but the impulses are pretty much the same, the conditions you go into are pretty much the same, and the actions you choose are remarkably close — and that’s what struck us.”
Carroll’s goal to “Win Forever” applies so directly to the military realm because defeats cannot be tolerated. Losing a game on the football field isn’t the same as losing a life on the battlefield, but the goal to “Win Forever” fit snugly for the military leaders listening to Carroll.
“A bad season for the coach is 11-1, but a bad season for us in combat … there is no 11-1, you’ve got to be 12-0, you can’t have a bad season,” Coates said. “So everything he talked about in terms of ‘Win Forever’ has enormous application to what small units do in combat.”
Col. Michael Steele, who was involved in the Somalian skirmish that has since been immortalized in the movie Blackhawk Down, compared it similarly after hearing Carroll’s speech.
“Everything in our organization is focused on winning — whether it’s the resources, training, philosophy, whatever — everything sets the focus on winning,” Steele said. “If we don’t win, guys don’t come home. That’s why ‘Win Forever’ resonates with us.”
Two of the main components of “Win Forever” — positive thinking and preparation — were firmly grasped, many of the conference’s attendees said.
“Everything’s based on a foundation of a positive mindset,” Steele said. “I’ve always said that the most important thing we can train is their mind. Even though Coach Carroll didn’t use that exact terminology, that’s what ‘Win Forever’ is — you’re establishing a mental framework on which you hang all these other aspects of these players’ lives. The most important thing is ‘Win Forever’ gets your mind right and everything else falls in place.”
Secondly, as Fautua recalled from Carroll’s talk, “preparation is everything.”
“That’s training and education for us,” Fautua said. “It’s performance-based. Each individual’s role and their role on the team has to be understood, and it builds such incredible confidence that we cannot lose.”
Finding the Right Words for the Future
Like Carroll’s pursuit for eternal success, the military is also on that path — it just didn’t have a way of clearly communicating it.
With Carroll’s “Win Forever” mantra pumping through the veins of the military leaders, there’s now a clear articulation of the goal. From that conference as a whole and the recommendations laid out by Carroll and his group, the military has now adopted a motto: “Unleash the Power: Win Forever.”
“ ‘Unleash the Power’ to us is a different way of saying ‘Win Forever,’ ” Kamiya said. “It can be applied, much like ‘Win Forever,’ to any community you’re in.”
And there’s no end in sight for the magnitude of this joint philosophy in the military.
“That ‘Unleash the Power: Win Forever’ philosophy is intended to permeate the Center for Small Unit Excellence,” Harrison said.
If Carroll’s “Win Forever” mantra has been used to mold a new philosophy in the U.S. military in less than a month, imagine what Carroll’s impact will be in the coming months and years.
Seemingly every conference attendee had an opinion on the subject.
“Much like the rock that you drop in calm water, the effects of Coach’s presence and what he had to say is still rippling through the body of communities here,” Kamiya said. “The ripples are still reverberating through our communities.”
“I think what Coach said has the potential to have a great impact on the military,” said Steele, a highly decorated Army colonel with 11 top awards and a veteran of five overseas military operations.
“The recommendations will be taken to the military committees and to Congress and will be on Barack Obama’s desk before we know it,” Harrison said. “And it’s still early in the game. As this rolls out, I think we’re all going to say, ‘Oh my goodness, this is quite an amazing effort.’
“And Pete’s the nuclear power behind this.”
While Carroll returned to Los Angeles immediately after the conference and currently has no plans to return to the Washington, D.C., area for future similar events, military leaders promised the coach’s influence did not fly home with him.
“We’re going to make sure that the engagement Coach has in the future is very high-impact,” Kamiya said. “We’ll carry on his philosophy in various forms without his physical presence, but we may call him in the future to be physically here.”
Whatever the calling, Carroll and his philosophy will be ready.
“I’ll do anything they want me to,” Carroll said, “and I’ll give everything I’ve got to serve.”