ROTC Eagle Battalion puts Eastern Michigan's women's volleyball team through grueling 24-hour leadership development training

by Debra Johnson, Published September 09, 2013

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CHELSEA, MICH. - It was an unseasonably cold 44 degrees the night of Thursday, Aug. 15, as members of the EMU Women's Volleyball team arrived in Chelsea, Mich. for what would undoubtedly be one of the most challenging training exercises of their lives.

Dubbed "Hell Day," the leadership training program grew from collaborations between Kim Berrington, head coach for the EMU women's volleyball team and members of Eastern's ROTC Eagle Battalion unit, including Major Steven Mueller, assistant professor of military science and Lieutenant Colonel Eric Winterrowd, department head and professor of military science.

After researching other options, John Kessenich, assistant women's volleyball coach suggested approaching the ROTC unit on EMU's campus. Berrington knew right away that this was the right fit for her team.

"Last year pre-season, we had a national company come in to do some mental toughness training with us," said Berrington. "But this year, we wanted to find a local organization who could not only provide leadership training for our team, but could continue to build upon that initial training throughout our season. We knew nobody could train leaders better than the Army, and they're right on campus and part of the EMU family."

The leadership training occurred at the Cedar Lake Outdoor Center, at a camp the ROTC Eagle Battalion has used many times in the past for its own team building exercises.

"Not every ROTC program has the ability to train athletes like we do at Eastern's ROTC," said Mueller. "Our program has a unique blend of expertise, from former weight lifting champions, to former coaches, former Division I athletes, Navy SEAL, Army Ranger and the Green Beret. Where else can you find an ROTC cadre that can relate to an athlete and instill this kind of leadership?" 

Team Eagle jogging back to the beach

The program officially began around 10 p.m. Major Rachel Smith, assistant professor of military science, welcomed the group and explained the evaluation process and how ROTC cadets would assess their leadership skills. Smith also discussed safety standards, logistics of the camp, and issued equipment, including camouflage fatigues, helmets, ponchos and gloves among other staples.

After three hours of setting goals - to solidify who they wanted to be and what their team stood for - the players were split into two teams and a leader was assigned for each team. They were dismissed to their cabin around 1 a.m.

Shortly, they were rousted from their beds and led out of their cabins. The teams had just 10 minutes to their equipment together and muster at the boat dock. This was the first breakout phase in the program, and as a penalty for not checking their equipment prior to going to sleep, the whole group had to jump into the lake and then spend the entire night huddled together outside.

"Having to sleep outside, completely soaked, full of sand from head to toe and cold was one of the most effective ways to build a bond between teammates," said Alyssa Davis, a sophomore at Eastern, majoring in exercise science. "I knew the challenges set out for us were going to be some of the most difficult ones we would ever encounter, both as individuals and as a team. But at the end of the day, we grew in a different way than a traditional lecture setting would have allowed."

The comprehensive program was designed by Mueller to strengthen and bring the volleyball team closer together. The overall goal was to improve student-athlete leadership, encourage teamwork, teach discipline and build confidence in order for the team to excel no only on the court but also in life.

"We weren't trying to train volleyball players to become soldiers," said Mueller. "We were trying to put them into a situation where they were completely stressed out so they would realize that they could persevere and make it through no matter how hard things got. Our goal was to incorporate all of our military training and experiences into one leadership challenge, while teaching lessons that could be carried onto the volleyball court." 

Throughout the program, the teams competed against each other in everything they did. Laws were provided that the teams needed to abide by or suffer the consequences such as jumping in the lake again. If the laws were obeyed enthusiastically, they were rewarded in some manner like being allowed to rest. The laws instilled values that the players could carry directly onto the volleyball court that demanded intensity and motivation at all times.

Laws such as:

  1. Thou shall not quit, but keep a positive attitude!
  2. Thou shall become less, so we can become more!
  3. Thou shall believe and be passionate!
  4. Thou shall be intense and pay the price!

5.    Thou shall expect greatness and shall rejoice!

The athletes had to run continuous laps, race each other in rowboats and had to conquer mental puzzles while marching from point A to point B, among other exercises. The mantra "It pays to be a winner!" was a phrase that echoed throughout the day.

Each of the 14 players rotated into a leadership position and were assessed and evaluated in their leadership abilities. ROTC cadets completed evaluation forms for each player, providing invaluable information for the coaches and the players themselves.

"It was important to us that the women were assessed peer to peer, and our cadets played a critical role in the success of this training program," said Mueller. "It also provided our cadets with a great experience as well, so they can eventually run logistically challenging events like this when they get to their own units." 

One player said the leadership training proved to her just how strong their team can be when they put their minds to a common goal.

Team Huron getting instructions from Major


"This training forced us to work through every issue, every uncomfortable situation and every challenge," said Kelsey Jones, a junior at Eastern who is majoring in clinical laboratory science. "And at the end of the training, every single one of us had the satisfaction of standing up and saying that we did this and we didn't quit."

Mueller made sure to incorporate plenty of humorous exercises into the training in order to keep the team's spirit high. One such example consisted of an exercise where the teams were trying to eat breakfast while getting water sprayed on them from a hose.

"The point of this training exercise, besides keeping them miserable, was to get them to think outside the box and figure out how to solve a problem," said Mueller. "After discussing their options, they simply got up and moved the picnic table out of the range of the hose - problem solved and a great example of what they could accomplish if they stayed focused and worked together."

Now that coach Berrington and her team have embarked on their fall season, she can already see changes.

"I see a huge difference with my team," said Berrington. "They're able to dig a little deeper now by referring back to examples that they learned through the leadership training. They realize they are stronger together and are capable of more than they ever thought, which is a powerful force as we move through our season."

Further leadership training continued when the team conquered yet another challenge - fear of heights. The team had to rappel 60' from the roof of Roosevelt Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 21, followed by leadership, teamwork and motivational discussions. The on-going support provide by the ROTC will help the team stay focused during the season, especially when academics and school social life pick-up, Mueller says. 

"The players are the key to success because it is the players that determine what happens on the court, in the locker room and in their social lives," said Mueller. "Coaches can't be there all the time, which is why player leadership is so vital to a successful athletic program."

Visit the EMU ROTC homepage to learn more about the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps and the benefits of cadet life. 

Debra Johnson

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