Bill Aris’s Truth: How Heartfelt Running Makes Champions

Nobody believes Bill Aris.

People ask Bill, over and over, how his Fayetteville-Manlius High School cross country girls have managed to win Nike Cross Nationals seven times. (NXN is the de facto high school national team championships.)

Bill Aris. Other coaches look for complexity in his success. But his methods are simple.
Bill Aris. Other coaches look for complexity to explain his success. But his methods are simple.

Bill graciously shares his methods. He patiently describes how he trains his runners. And other coaches suspect he’s signifyin’.

Surely he’s pulling their tails. At the very least, he’s got to be holding something back.

Coaches fall off their chairs when Bill explains that he spends relatively little time designing workouts.

“I spend 80 percent of my time on psychological and emotional considerations of each kid,” Aris said. “I put 20 percent of my time in designing the training,” he said. “I spend most of my time thinking about and trying to get to the heart and soul of each kid, to both inspire them and to understand them. I’m always trying to figure out what keys unlock what doors to get them to maximize their position.” (From a interview.)

Other coaches believe there’s no way Aris can produce national champions, year after year, without huge numbers of kids trying out for the team, and without recruiting. In fact, Fayetteville-Manlius has 1500-2000 students, yet just 25 runners show up each fall. And Aris doesn’t have to recruit, because his methods turn talented kids into champions.

The boys’ teams at Fayetteville-Manlius have won the New York state title several times and have finished second twice at NXN nationals (plus a third and fourth). To put that in perspective, it’s a huge honor merely to be invited to NXN; scoring consistently in the top five puts the F-M boys in the absolute stratosphere of the nation’s high school teams.

Captain Abrashoff, skipper of the Benfold.
Captain Abrashoff, skipper of the Benfold.

At the library recently, I picked up a wonderful book. At first glance, former U.S. Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff’s It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy would appear to have little to do with training high school girls and boys.

Abrashoff describes what happened when the Navy gave him command of a troubled ship with  bottom-of-the-barrel efficiency ratings.

Bill Aris and Mike Abrashoff are a lot alike. They’re renegade thinkers in professions where doing things “the way they’ve always been done” is the safest path.

In the Navy, officers are expected to get ahead or get out. If they aren’t being promoted regularly, they risk being seen as damaged goods and shunted into posts where they can’t taint the careers of other officers.

It’s a system that breeds a paranoid management style, where a high priority is not looking bad. It encourages officers to micromanage their subordinates to get results that will look good on their resumes.

Of course, that approach has consequences for morale. When Abrashoff took over Benfold, most of the crew members told him they couldn’t wait to leave the ship and get out of the Navy.

What Captain Abrashoff did was amazing. I laughed, smiled, and occasionally wiped a tear as I read. He decided to apply the lessons he’d learned in a two-year stint as an aide to Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. He would put the crew’s welfare first – as Bill Aris does with his runners.

Abrashoff interviewed each of Benfold’s 310 crew members personally, asking about their backgrounds, their life goals, what they hoped to get from their time in the Navy, and what they felt was wrong with the Navy’s way of doing things.

Above all, he invited their suggestions for improving procedures in their departments. And he implemented their ideas, even if it meant bending regulations.

Within six months, Benfold was winning at-sea exercises against ships with much stronger reputations.

Abrashoff adopted a simple guiding principle:

“I decided that on just about everything I did, my standard should be simply whether or not it felt right. You can never go wrong if you do ‘the right thing.’

“How do you define the right thing? As U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, you know it when you see it. If it feels right, smells right, tastes right, it’s almost surely the right thing – and you will be on the right track.

“If that doesn’t sound very profound or sophisticated, in the Navy, in business, and in life, it really is as simple as that.”

Let’s add “in sports training.” We know when we’re doing the right training – it feels right. And we know when we’re screwing up – it feels subtly wrong. It’s simple. Do the right thing and your training will go well, and you’ll enjoy it.

Few believed Abrashoff’s expansive leadership style would work – until Benfold began to earn a reputation as “the best damn ship in the Navy.”

Assigned to the Persian Gulf during the second Gulf war, Benfold became the go-to ship when commanders needed things done quickly and correctly. When other captains wanted to improve their ships’ performance, they visited Benfold and talked with Abrashoff and his crew.

It’s an incredibly inspiring story. And the principles behind USS Benfold’s success are the same as those that led the girls of Fayetteville-Manlius to seven championships.

Coaches don’t believe Bill Aris, because he doesn’t tell them what they want to hear. They want to hear him say: “I get results by hard-nosed methods. I work my runners’ tails off, and I’m not above recruiting if I don’t get caught. We do huge mileage in summer, and I won’t tell you about our speedwork, because that would be revealing too much. It’s all in the numbers.”

In my working life, I occasionally help Donovan R. Greene, PhD, a successful industrial psychologist. Companies hire Don to identify executives who can help them improve their corporate culture. A habit that many of the best candidates share is “managing by walking around” (MBWA).

That’s what Mike Abrashoff did. He spent hours in each of Benfold’s departments, learning about its functions and where it fit within the ship’s operations. He got to know the crew and invited their thoughts on how they could do their jobs better.

He empowered the crew members to make changes. He respected them and tapped their creativity, knowledge, and enthusiasm. Morale soared and success came quickly.

It was similar to how Bill Aris manages his cross country teams.

When sports scientists from America and Europe travel to Kenya to study the elite runners there, they bring along their little measuring sticks. They measure the Kenyans’ leg lengths, muscle elasticity, calf and thigh dimensions. And they weigh and analyze what they eat – how much carbohydrate, fat, and protein. They study how many miles they run, and how hard. And they write it all down in a little notebook full of numbers.

Few of them ask the Kenyans about their hopes and dreams. Yet if you ask the Kenyans to explain the difference between themselves and their American and European counterparts, they don’t mention numbers. They talk about qualities of the heart – not heart volume and such-like science, but the feelings of the heart.

kenyan runners
Is the simple joy of running a secret of the Kenyans’ success? (Wikimedia Commons, Wolfgang H. Wögerer, Wien)

They explain how they run based on inner feeling – how they take joy in running together, and how if their bodies don’t feel ready to run they’ll pack it in and go home, whereas an American runner might force himself through the workout, haunted by a need to “make the numbers.” The Kenyans know that their bodies will also tell them when it’s okay to run very hard.

They talk about how the U.S. runners are so serious about their training, how obsessed they are with numbers and technology, and how it’s all geared toward some feverishly imagined tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Kenyans are intent on maximizing the joys of today.

Captain Abrashoff did a simple thing aboard Benfold – he created a happy ship. Other ships’ officers and crew members were soon looking for excuses to visit Benfold, to be uplifted and infected by its upbeat mood.

That’s the secret of Bill Aris’s success, and it isn’t complicated. Aris creates happy teams. How? By getting to know his runners and helping them realize their dreams. That kind of caring creates loyalty, enthusiasm, and success, whether on a missile destroyer or a cross country course.

“Pondering all this in the context of my post as the new captain of Benfold, I read some exit surveys, interviews conducted by the military to find out why people are leaving. I assumed that low pay would be the first reason, but in fact it was fifth. The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility. Talk about an eye opener.”

Abrashoff worked tirelessly to reverse these trends aboard Benfold. He wouldn’t tolerate attitudes that might risk creating a bossy, feudal culture rampant with resentful feelings. Every crew member’s contribution was to be considered important, and they were to be made aware of their value to the ship. By treating his crew as if they mattered, and giving them freedom to shine, Abrashoff built the best damn ship in the Navy – just as Aris built the nation’s best cross country teams.

Before Abrashoff left Benfold, he shared his leadership secrets with his successor:

“I summarized the Benfold playbook, my recipe for running this phenomenal crew and ship. I tried not to sound like Moses, but my commandments were no less heartfelt. They were simply the chapter headings of this book: Lead by example; listen aggressively; communicate purpose and meaning; create a climate of trust; look for results, not salutes; take calculated risks; go beyond standard procedure; build up your people; generate unity; and improve your people’s quality of life.”

Six months after his departure, Benfold earned the highest grade in the history of the Pacific Fleet on the Navy’s Combat Systems Readiness Review.

Abrashoff tells story after story of how he transformed the culture of his ship, one detail at a time. It’s very moving. Ultimately the “method” can be boiled down to a simple principle: the best approach to organizational change is the one that creates the greatest fulfillment for each individual.

A happy team. Bill Aris and the NXN-champion girls of Fayetteville-Manlius. (Click to enlarge.)
A happy team. Bill Aris and the NXN-champion girls of Fayetteville-Manlius.

In The Joyful Athlete, I tell how a number of legendary coaches adopted these methods, with success. They include Bill Walsh of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, Phil Jackson, coach of 11 NBA champion teams, and Pete Carroll, coach of the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Each of these coaches built his team’s success from the ground up, by investing energy in the individual player.

“Every year, I look at every kid in our group,” Aris said. “Number one, I try to find out what’s in their mind and in their hearts. How high is up, in other words. From there I build a training program around that.”

By building up the individual runner, says high school running journalist Marc Bloom, Bill Aris has created a unique culture.

“In all my 40-plus years (being involved with cross country) I don’t think I’ve seen anything this extraordinary, at least on the high school level…. If you look at professionals it’s like looking at the Kenyans and the Ethiopians. On the high school level, F-M is so far better than anyone else.

“You say how do they do it?” Bloom added. “You can look at the physiological aspect and the running, but there is also a cultural foundation to it. It’s a different society. It’s a different attitude.

“What Bill Aris has done is he has achieved a different society, a different young person’s society, a different culture that goes beyond the ordinary that allows them to achieve excellence.” (Article here.)

It’s a culture that engenders good feelings not only in each runner but within the team. Aris persuades his runners to tap the joys of training for something larger than themselves.

“When our kids train and or race, they do so for each other rather than competing against each other. When one releases themselves from the limiting constraints of individual achievement alone, new worlds open up in terms of group AND individual potential and its fulfillment…. Each is capable of standing on their own, but when working together so much more is accomplished both for the group and individual. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts basically, nothing new here.

“Next, I would suggest the notion of contribution rather than participation. By this I mean that each kid on our team has an opportunity to contribute to the overall good rather than to merely participate in the process. In this way, regardless of whatever level on the team a kid may be in terms of ability or competitive success, each strives to see themselves as giving something worthwhile of themselves to improve our process, rather than to merely participate or take from the program. Simply put, giving versus taking. All of this is program-wide, inclusive of both the boys and girls I coach.” – Bill Aris

Why aren’t people more receptive to these radical but thoroughly proven ideas?

  • Coaches scratch their heads when Aris talks about the non-mechanical factors behind his teams’ success.
  • When Abrashoff began turning Benfold’s culture upside down, few believed he had the ghost of a chance of succeeding.
  • The U.S. elites still aren’t listening to the Kenyans.

Perhaps Mark Allen, six-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, has the answer.

Allen was a hard-charging trainer, having been an All-American swimmer at UC San Diego. Swimmers do intense interval sessions, and when Allen became a triathlete he trained all-out all the time, whether running, riding, or swimming. Yet, year after year, he fell just short of winning the Ironman.

Mark Allen moves on — past Dave Scott for the first time. (Click to enlarge.)
Mark Allen moves past Dave Scott for the first time at Kona. (Click to enlarge.)

Allen then hired coach Phil Maffetone, who had him do several months of easy aerobic training at the start of the season, followed by six weeks of very hard work. Allen won the Ironman six times.

Tim Noakes, author of Lore of Running, asked Allen why more triathletes hadn’t adopted the methods that brought him so much success. “Allen answered that many athletes are too ego-driven. They can’t wait to perform well and will not accept anyone else’s ideas.”

Bill Aris’s methods aren’t what coaches want to hear. And that’s too bad, because there’s solid scientific evidence (reviewed at length in The Joyful Athlete) that the heart can work harder, with less strain, in the presence of happy feelings.

Coaches who support their runners, intent on helping them become happy contributors on a happy team, aren’t wasting their time. They’re creating a powerful training effect. They’re making their runners better — by tapping the power of positive feelings to make each runner’s heart a champion.

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