Recently, I had the opportunity to take a mini-vacation and visit a good friend of mine in Phoenix. The trip was long overdue, I hadn’t seen this friend in nearly seven years. I could spend time talking about how instant communication and social media has made it easier to feel like these long breaks between seeing people we care about are ok, but that’s not the focus of what I’m writing today. Today, I’m writing about what I learned while playing paintball last Saturday.
As a disclaimer, I am by no means a paintball professional. In fact, it had been somewhere near fifteen years since I had played at all and I was one of those people toting around rental equipment rather than my own getup. There were three fields, all of them outdoors, and very little shade. Luckily, it’s only April so the temperature in Phoenix was only about 90 degrees fahrenheit. To finish building the scene, it was a particularly busy day, so my friend and I were there with roughly eighty other people, none of whom either of us knew personally. We played in six games and had a great time. I was tagged out in five of them.
Game 1 ( and a short bit on Game 2 ):
The Story: Our first game was a bit of a joke. When the call to start went out, our team aggressively took forward positions and spread out evenly across the field. The opposing team quickly found itself trapped against the rear boundary and unable to break through anywhere. Almost by accident, our team had moved forward in a coordinated fashion and frankly annihilated the other team. Out of the approximately forty people on our side, a good thirty of them ( including myself ) survived through the end. I didn’t even have to exert any effort. I shot maybe five times that game.
The Lesson: Accidental success can happen, even without building a strong foundation or a coordinated plan of attack. When it does, it can lead to a false sense of ease and security that often results in future failures ( this point was brought home during game 2 when our team — the same team — lost and I was tagged out by a shot to the kidney while taking an overly relaxed position behind partial cover ).
The Story: With huge teams on either side, the owner of the field got his refs to combine two smaller fields into one large one. This larger field was an ‘urban’ setting filled with small box-like buildings, scattered barrels, tire-stacks, and wrecked vehicles ( including a couple of helicopters ). Our refs grabbed two flags and ran them to opposite ends of the play area, setting up a capture-the-flag scenario. At start, our team again aggressively rushed forward, but quickly stalled.
My friend and I ended up behind a building where the walls had been partially cut down to give a bombed-out or ruined feel. We were trading fire with a group of 5 on the other team who were distributed behind a large stack of tires and two adjoining buildings. Between us was a large open space with a wrecked van in the center. On either side of this open space were more buildings. About twenty yards to our right, on the far right end of the field, a group of six guys on our team was stacked up against the wall of one of these buildings. We called out to them “flank right, take these guys down!” They’re response was “They’re shooting at us, we’re pinned!” They weren’t, as my friend and I were holding down all five rather well due to our advantageous position, but it was not worth argument. It was pretty obvious these guys weren’t going to move. Instead, I immediately turned to my friend and told him “I’m taking the van” and he responded with “I’ll cover you”.
Thirty seconds and a firing sprint later, I had the van. The sound of paintballs tinging against the metal of the vehicle came in from multiple directions, but I was comforted by the sound of my friend’s gun returning fire and keeping the enemy pinned in position. Knowing I couldn’t stay where I was for long and that I was effective only as a target, not a threat, I took another firing sprint to a forward building on the right flank of our opponents. At this point I heard my team yelling “They’re falling back!” and I began trading fire with the guys behind the tire pile from the corner of my building.
My friend took the opportunity of my better position to reposition himself along the left border of our firing area and start moving forward. The other six guys? They stayed where they were. That’s right … they just stayed put. We had pushed the enemy back, but our team was not pushing the advantage. I was joined by one more player from our team, but he had not come from that group of six, and my friend remained the lone pusher on his side. I took down a couple of our opponents, but with no one laying down suppressing fire and five guys able to concentrate on my position I was taken out with a shot to the ribs. The other team eventually won.
The Lesson: Every team needs a decisive, solutions-oriented, leader who will take risks and move them forward, because most people are strongly risk-averse. But a leader is useless without total buy-in from the rest of the team. Even with a couple of people supporting and following me forward, without our whole team the opposition was too much. If your team won’t move forward with you, find another team. Always move forward, but when you find yourself in a sub-optimal position ( the van ), don’t be afraid to abandon it quickly. When you do so, don’t retreat, but instead find another way forward.
The Story: Our fourth game was played on a field setup with berms, trenches, and craters. A few hay bales and walls rounded out the cover, but the primary feel was that of desert terrain trench warfare. Apparently, a prevailing strategy among those who know the field is to rush up a dry riverbed on the far right and then fire horizontally across the field against the other team, using the berm on the side of the riverbed for cover. The problem is that the riverbed itself has no cover for people to get behind should the enemy setup on the other side of the berm and lay fire down into it.
Before the game started, my friend and I discussed the idea of rushing up the riverbed with one of us taking responsibility for watching the berm for the other team and the other looking for easy target opportunities. However, when the whistle blew, our entire team of thirty plus persons rushed to the riverbed. The … entire … team. Myself, my friend, and an older gentleman all stared in wonder as the entire team abandoned the majority of the field to the enemy. A quick look up the field revealed at least five members of the other team coming down the left side. Looking at each other, and with a collective sigh, the three of us abandoned the riverbed idea and took up positions to guard the left flank.
I took the most forward firing position and found myself on the receiving end of five paintballs for every one I fired out. My friend and the older gentleman lobbed their share of paintballs across the firing area as well, but it was obvious within seconds that if we didn’t do something, we’d be overrun. So I spotted a trench about fifteen yards to our left that would give us better position and told the others to cover me while I made a dash for it. With two people laying down covering fire, I crouched low and took off at a sprint. First step, paintballs flying all around me. Second step, one of them finds my chest. I’m out. As I walked off the field, I had to walk by the enemy position. It was only then that I saw there weren’t five guys firing against us, but fifteen.
After the game, my friend shared with me what happened after I left. He and the older guy had held that left flank for a few more minutes until the other team managed to push forward against them. Just as they began to fall back, three survivors from the riverbed came rushing back, explaining that they had been ambushed and annihilated. The rest of the game did not last long. Our team lost.
The Lesson: When an ‘easy solution’ presents itself, far too many people fall prey to blindly following it. On our team, less than 10% of us actually assessed the situation before acting. Further, when a team ignores less exciting, but equally important, areas of operation, everyone loses. Finally, you can make best-guess assessments of your situation, but that doesn’t mean you’re right. Regardless, you have to take actions based on your best knowledge and if you fail ( as I did ), it’s not necessarily because you chose poorly. Sometimes the situation just is not winnable and it’s better to go out trying to gain the advantage than letting defeat slowly overwhelm you.
The Story: Game five was back on the ‘town’ field, with buildings, barrels, vehicles, and tire-stacks again acting as our cover pieces. My friend and I were switched to the other team as, by this point, the crowd was diminishing. A large corporate group had just left, so we were down to about twenty persons per side. Teams were put in opposite corners of the field. At start, my friend and I rushed to the right along the field border. We ran into the other team at the far-right corner and began trading fire. My friend was tagged out quickly, but there were other members of our team nearby and we found ourselves trading fire between buildings with both teams unable to press forward.
I took an advantageous position against the side of a building and, crouched, was able to fire shots at any opponent trying to round the corner of their own building before they could take aim at me. It was risky, as I had no cover against anyone coming around, but I also had several advantages. My opponent had to come around the corner, spot me, aim, and fire. All I had to do was watch the spot I knew they would come from and fire. And because I was backed up by team members, I did not have to watch my flank.
But that’s where I made a mistake. I was letting my previous experiences in the day dictate my behavior going forward and, instead of pressing forward and taking the corner building to wrap our team around behind the enemy, I sat and traded fire. I was comfortable. I knew I was protected. And so I just sat. Of all the mistakes I made Saturday, just sitting there during this game is the one I beat myself up about the most.
A few minutes went by before the guy covering my left got shot. I dropped back from the building’s side and started working both ends of it, waiting for reinforcements. The enemy started taking better positions. It was only a matter of time before my position was overrun. I turned to fire a few last shots before giving up my position and got three right in the neck. I deserved it. Our team ended up victorious, but all I can think about is how I failed to take the opportunity in front of me.
The Lesson: An aggressive position is always better than a defensive position, even if it exposes you. When you see an opportunity in front of you, take it or perish. Letting yourself get comfortable in safety is dangerous.
The Story: Our final game was with two teams of fourteen. A few people were shuffled between teams and we were put on a small urban-type field that was built to encourage close-quarters engagements — closely stacked buildings with barrels and tires helping to cover the distance wherever a large open space exists. My friend and I rushed forward to a barrel stack right in the middle of the field, looking to offer horizontal fire support to our flank movers. I was covering the right-side of the field and found myself almost immediately engaged with four opponents. They stacked themselves in a small building so that one was against the back corner, one on the front corner, one in the doorway, and one in the window. I started firing off shots as quick as I could shift my gun barrel and pull the trigger, letting off bursts of three at each opponent before moving to the next and not even looking or caring if I hit, just wanting to keep them ducked under cover and not moving forward.
My friend heard the rapid fire coming from my position ( and the paintballs splatting against the barrels we were hiding behind as the others shot back ) and asked “Hey, what you got?” I responded “Four in the building, can barely keep them down” as I continued to fire. My friend spotted another team mate — a kid about 10 years old who would have an easy shot at the guys I was keeping pinned — in a house to the right. “Hey,” he yelled, “we’ve got four guys in that house, point your gun through the window and you can take them out!”. The kid turned to us and responded “What?”. My friend yelled back again, pointing and gesturing, “There are four guys in that house. You can shoot them all. You have a great shot! Just point your gun through the window and shoot!” The kid shook his head no and retreated backwards instead, but that’s the last I saw of that interaction. I had let up my firing to try to help explain to the kid what was going on … just enough for our opponents to concentrate fire back at my position. I took one right between the eyes.
Not more than a few minutes after I got tagged out, the enemy had rushed all the way down the right flank and our team started walking off the field in increasing numbers. Several minutes later, the four remaining players on our team — my friend included — were completely surrounded and tagged out by an aggressive rush on the rear of their position. After the game, my friend mentioned that instead of calling to the kid he should have run to the nearby building himself and taken care of the guys we had pinned down.
The Lesson: If you are fully engaged with an issue, quick action is what is needed. It may be tempting to try to teach a new employee by ‘throwing them into the fire’, but a more effective solution is to lead by example and let them follow.
I’m not sure why my mind was oriented toward these type of lessons through the day of paintball, but the experience left me with some interesting insights into how individuals act when faced with threats and challenges. Moments from every game continue to play through my head as I go through my days at work and they help to inform me of how to navigate the situation at hand. Luckily, our company consists of a talented, coordinated group of protocol-savvy individuals who are mission-focused. Thanks to that cultural instillment by our leadership, we are a well-honed team that can overcome any challenge we face. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still sometimes need a leader to rush out to the van before anyone else will follow.