The After Action Review

TAGS: operational success, military special operations, special operations, culture, AAR, after action review, professional sport, collegiate sport, problem solving, awareness, sport performance, meeting, communication, james smith

Successful sport organizations, indeed along with any other successful organization, by default, owe a large degree of their achievement to the synergistic operations run by their employees. The degree to which operations function optimally and cohesively with one another characterizes the existing potential that mobilizes the business operations.

Interdepartmental and intradepartmental efficiency are, to a large extent, dependent upon the employees’ freedom to engage in unaltered communication. This, however, is rarely found in the truest sense and particularly not amidst collegiate and professional sport.

Spoken, written, or unspoken and unwritten draconian edicts have embedded themselves in the cultures of hierarchy. Herein lies the reason for administrators, coaches, and staff to utilize guarded, and often devious, interpersonal tactics in the interest of leveraging self-preservation when the organization is declining in performance.

The solution to achieving non-censored communication based in reason and the true optimization of your practice begins, in part, with each member of the organization agreeing that there is no argument against reasoning skills that are utilized to engage in productive discourse based upon good evidence and intellectual honesty. It would be wise to build the culture of the organization upon this tenet in order to reach the height of its potential.


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No different than any “12 step program”…awareness is the first order of business.

One of the premier methods of raising operational awareness may be found in the After Action Review (AAR) that is a staple in a variety of conventional and special operations military outfits. At its best, it serves as the pinnacle of communication devices immediately subsequent to combat operations.

It must be noted, however, that, no different than biomechanical movement development, the way in which an AAR is conducted means everything; not merely the fact that an AAR is conducted.

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Imagine if, immediately upon the conclusion of every sporting competition and before any media attention, showers, or other activity takes place, all athletes, coaches, and staff hold a meeting.

  • In this meeting it is understood that hierarchy does not exist.
  • There is no head coach, no assistant coaches, no team captains, no seniority and no rookies.
  • There are only active participants who played a direct operational role in the preparation and execution of the competition
  • The locus of the meeting is centered around pure/unadulterated/uncensored communication that serves to elucidate why everything that was done by the participants- was done; and how to optimize performance the next time
  • The absence of hierarchy frees up everyone in the room, whose place in the totem pole is beneath the most senior figure, to communicate in such a way that is uncorrupted by concern for one’s job
  • If errors were committed it is the time to resolve why and how to do it right the next time
  • If actions were taken that yielded success it is the time to understand why
  • The meeting is supervised by an individual that is neither the most senior nor most junior in the room; but rather the individual who is designated as the most suitable to serve as the intermediary between all personnel in the room
  • One by one every individual in the room has the opportunity to “take the floor” and comment on the direction provided by the individual leading the AAR
  • In this way, a unique perspective is made possible by granting everyone who took part in the competition, from an operational standpoint, to provide reason regarding every scenario brought forth by the AAR leader- immediately following the competition.
  • The key to holding the AAR immediately after the competition lies in capturing the mindset as close to the way it existed during the competition and obviating time for the participating individuals to rehearse for the meeting or to allow any historical revisionist actions to take place that may otherwise occur with each passing day
  • No subject matter is off-limits and anyone in the room is able to comment on anyone else in the room.
  • The AAR works most fluidly when the culture has already been established that renders everyone fully understanding that the point of the AAR is unrestricted communication and not a finger pointing or bitch session
  • The type of unbridled communication that takes place in a properly conducted AAR is a rarity in professional environments outside of the military units that hold the most effective AARs
  • Yes they can get heated, however, when the requisite culture has already been established the end result is unprecedented operational advancement

The license, what’s more, the expectation to communicate openly amongst those driven by evidence based practice inspires one’s own well investigated practice by default; because no one is keen to demonstrate incompetence. More importantly, the primary motivation lies in everyone being given equal footing to advance the organization with their input- regardless if it pertains to their own department or not.

Diverse Business People Working in a Conference

While the AAR is a staple in military SOF units, as one example, many individuals who work in the sport or corporate world have their sensibilities challenged by attempting to conceptualize the following:

  • How an assistant athletic trainer would have the ground to offer problem solving strategy to a coordinator or head coach regarding a clock management error made during a game
  • How a department intern would have the ability to offer a solution a department head’s or a CEO’s strategies for amplifying fourth quarter profit margins.
  • How a video intern would have the unrestricted opportunity to engage in discourse with the head coach and his player management/substitutions during a game
  • How a new employee would have the platform to have productive dialogue with a vice president regarding a design feature in the next device.
  • How the equipment manager would have the license to offer insight to the defensive coordinator for making a defensive call that backfired during a game
  • In these hypotheticals it is essential to understand that all motivation for discourse is rooted in problem solving and NOT name-calling; however, these challenges do occur in front of an entire room of individuals who all played a part in the operation.

Anyone reading this already knows what it is like to have the opportunity to communicate openly; be it with a close friend, relative, or romantic partner and how this level of communication is absolutely fundamental towards solidifying the special nature of the relationship.

It is also likely that everyone reading this already knows what it is like to be unable to do this at the work place- particularly in the upward direction of the hierarchy and, in the sports context, most certainly if you are employed by a major university or professional sports team.


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An organization whose culture is based upon open communication will accomplish previously unforeseen results by virtue of its employees being driven to master not only their own tradecraft but also to gain a global understanding of all modes of preparation.

As everyone on staff has license to advance the collective by way of assisting the adjacent department, each member of an organization now amplifies their value. This value is realized via both the advancement of individual acumen as well as each individual’s contributory efforts to facilitate the advancement of their peers.

None of this is hypothetical, it exists at the highest levels of military special operations and the AAR, in part, is fundamental towards the continued commitment of these units to change, evolve, and adapt in order to attain operational success in the domain in which life and death hangs in the balance.

The degree to which a sport organization’s hierarchy is willing to undertake such a transformative mode of communication will render a level of operational improvement commensurate with the aptitude of the organizations’ employees and the amount of commitment everyone devotes to reduce ego, increase knowledge, and amplify cohesion between departments.

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