When it comes to building a strong unit with lively, engaged patrols, it’s important to remember that William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt got it right when he said “…a Troop is not divided into Patrols. A Troop is the sum total of its Patrols” Put another way, a troop doesn’t really exist to build patrols (although logistically it may appear that way at times), but instead, the groups of boys who form patrols make up a troop.
As adults we can guide, instruct, demonstrate and enable, but patrol spirit isn’t something built from a set of directions or poured out of a can. To be certain, our job as adults is to provide opportunities for the boys in patrols to bond over fair competitions, nominal awards, healthy recognition and surviving shared circumstances (both good and bad).
The consistent use of patrol leadership gives boys an experience in group living and participating citizenship. This is a significant transition from Woodland Trails experiences as Navigators and Adventurers learn to interact in small groups where members can easily relate to each other. These small groups determine troop activities through elected representatives such as the First Officer and Second Officer.
As adults, we need to recognize that we’re there as ultimate safe-guards and boundary setters when it comes to life and death (or serious injury, etc.) issues. We can’t be hovering over each decision or covering for each mistake that might occur.
On my son’s first scouting campout, one patrol simply forgot to check out a tent at the quartermaster closet before heading out to the campsite. The forecast called for a cool and damp evening, and the campsite was an hour’s drive from the church. The patrol quickly realized their mistake and begged to be driven back to the church for a tent. Adult leadership provided two tarps and some twine with instructions to get working on an emergency shelter and to make sure they learned to make a list of needed items for subsequent trips. The patrol suffered no serious harm, but shivered a little and was glad for a hot breakfast in the morning. They bonded over the situation – both in building the shelter, getting through a night that must have seemed worse than it really was, and in the telling of the story over and over again as they progressed through their tenure with that patrol. They learned a lot of lessons that night – because the adults didn’t completely bail them out – instead, they assured their overall safety, but also set that patrol on a course of stronger self-reliance and dependability.
On a different occasion, our patrol (the Flaming Arrow Patrol — Zech. 9:14a “Then the LORD will appear over them, And His arrow will go forth like lightning…”) learned of a special “scout day” event to be held in conjunction with a West Point (US Military Academy) Football game. The troop had not included this outing in it’s annual plan so the boys asked the Scoutmaster for permission to go as a Patrol Outing if they could demonstrate their ability to build a trip plan, gather adult supervision (appropriately trained for youth protection) and coordinate transportation. They made their plan, got it approved and had a very successful outing. As a result, the other patrols were a little jealous at first, but when they learned that they could plan their own outings, and include the football event in the following year’s troop plan, they were very happy, indeed.
Another way to build a strong sense of fellowship and shared loyalty to the patrol is to foster the enthusiastic use of patrol yells, cheers and identifiers such as custom patches and home-made flags. During a Klondike rally, our patrol sled teams got extra points for consistently using yells, cheers and flags at each “town” along the route. Judges would only award points if the cheers were genuine and highly spirited. While enduring the tough work of mastering the challenge, it wasn’t always easy to let out a joyful noise, but it was something that kept them focused and determined to overcome. The patrol also prided itself in obtaining low-cost, custom embroidered and custom printed merchandise from online and local sources – it’s always more fun when everyone has the same fleet cap with a custom patrol logo, etc. Further, it’s important to remember that when money is tight, craft stores often supply a great, low cost alternative and the hand-made qualities of the project serve as a basis for a patrol meeting while reinforcing the fun over the flash.
Think about structuring patrol competitions into each learning activity planned by the First and Second Officers. When learning about meal plans, have patrols take the lessons and break them down into a practical session by actually building out meal plans and estimating cost per person. When learning about knots and lashings, translate the practical application into a patrol competition to build a camp gadget or tripod, etc. Awards could be as simple as a banner to be affixed to the patrol flag until the next competition, or something as silly as the “golden pine cone award” (a pine cone, spray painted gold, and glued to a short dowel that gets lashed to the patrol flag post, etc.) At the end of the semester, which ever patrol has the most golden pine cones gets an award of nominal value (perhaps a new patrol pot/pan/stove/lantern/etc. to upgrade existing gear.)
A patrol takes pride in its identity, and the members work together as a team. They share the responsibility of making their patrol a success. That responsibility comes in a bunch of forms – creating duty rosters, teaching newer Trailmen how to perform duties properly, scheduling adequate time for meal prep and cleanup, taking time to schedule devotionals, enforcing quiet time out of respect for the other patrols and neighboring campers, etc. This could be the basis of a patrol activity – simply discussing and writing out the many responsibilities a patrol could be held accountable to complete without fail.
Patrol spirit (it has been said) “is the glue that holds the patrol together and keeps it going. Creating a patrol identity and traditions will help build each patrol member’s sense of belonging.”
As adults we can foster the opportunity for patrol spirit, but it’s ultimately accomplished by the boys themselves. It needs to be an organic occurrence, and it may take longer for some patrols than others. The payoff in developing strong patrols translates to smoother outings, lifelong bonds of friendship and the development of young men who initiate action instead of passive boys who wait to be told (nagged) into action.
Robert Baden-Powell said, in his book “Aids to Scoutmastership”:
“In a Patrol the Scouts learn to work with others, while the Patrol leader learns responsibility for others. Both have to give in a part of their personal interest for this.
“These patrols are therefore more important than the Troop. Patrols must be kept intact under all circumstances, which means working, tenting, learning, cooking, so surviving together.
This is the practical experience from the outdoor program that can help young men become stronger and more ready to take on practical leadership assignments for the rest of their lives – whether they become sole proprietor craftsmen, business managers, business owners, husbands, fathers, uncles or church leaders. In each case, having a vision, making a plan, initiating action are vital components to success. These steps can be mastered within a patrol system at an early age – if we provide the opportunities and gentle guidance to enable it to happen.