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Fields of Friendly Strife

Although a required part of the service academy curriculum, athletics plays a much larger role in the development of our future military leaders.

Douglas MacArthur Photo by Andrew Lopez/Central Press/Getty Images

Obviously, covering service academy athletics is the purpose of Against All Enemies, but we’d be remiss not to highlight the overarching importance of athletics at service academies and its purpose in preparing future officers to lead and to win our nation’s wars.

It is after all, commissioning time for the Army, Air Force, and Navy classes of 2019, and over the course of the next week, some 3,000 plus new Ensigns and Second Lieutenants will put on their shiny new gold bars and head out to begin their careers as young officers. And for many of them, the lessons learned through participation in athletics will resonate as they trade one uniform for another.

To determine the emphasis placed on developing cadets and midshipmen into future officers through athletics, one need look no further than a quote from Douglas MacArthur, a West Point graduate and renowned military leader. MacArthur’s quote, which is immortalized in West Point lore, and chiseled in granite between Michie Stadium and Holleder Athletic Center reads,

“Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory.”

McArthur’s quote is required knowledge for cadets at West Point, and is memorized during the first few weeks of Cadet Basic Training prior to even beginning the academic year as freshmen. In layman’s terms, the lessons and experiences that athletes take away from competition will likely lead to more competence and confidence in battle and therefore, victory.

If you examine athletics - the teamwork, social skills, training, and so on, it’s clear that most, if not all of these traits are desirable in a military leader. And athletic competition is a microcosm of combat itself. Combat is a competition, it’s about defeating your adversary which is much the same as beating the other team or another competitor.

Every Cadet an Athlete

Another phrase that gets bandied around at West Point is “every cadet an athlete.” That is not to say that every cadet is necessarily an exceptional athlete, but with very few exceptions, every cadet competes in athletics, whether it’s at the NCAA level, or club sports or intramurals.

It’s no secret that an ideal service academy candidate is a well-rounded person. West Point, as well as the other service academies, looks beyond grades and ACT/SAT scores for admission. Obviously, those are important since service academies are elite academic institutions, but they aren’t the only criteria.

Service academies look for candidates who are involved in their communities, whether it’s as a volunteer or through scouting or working a job. They look for candidates who are involved in school activities and clubs. And they look for athletes. In fact, part of the admissions process for service academies involves taking and passing a candidate fitness assessment.

Once accepted into the demanding crucible of service academy life, athletics continues to play a prominent role. NCAA athletes practice and compete on a daily basis while club sport athletes and intramural athletes frequently navigate through academy policies and parade drill practice. Not only that, but athletics is a graded pillar of development at West Point alongside academics and leadership.

Cadets at West Point are graded in physical education classes such as military movement, boxing, combatives, etc. but they are also graded based on how they perform and conduct themselves in their respective sport. But the significance of athletics in preparing future officers to lead after commissioning goes beyond mere letter grades and GPA. It’s about the mindset cultivated among service academy athletes and the culture of winning and excellence that is built upon the foundation of athletic competition.

I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission...

Among the many legends and traditions from West Point lore is the story of a quote by George C. Marshall. During WW2, Gen. Marshall reportedly said,

“I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”

The context surrounding Marshall’s quote is unknown, but his words are depicted on a plaque that Army football players rush past as they take the field on game day, and those words have been an inspiration for decades.

Marshall’s quote also came about during an era where West Point was a dominant athletic powerhouse, especially in football. And to highlight the importance of athletics in developing future leaders, it’s worth mentioning that President Eisenhower was a football player during his time at West Point.

If you look out among the ranks of officers, not just in the Army, but across other branches of service as well, you’re sure to find several service academy athletes. And a vast majority of them have stories of how athletics at the academy helped shaped them as a leader and has provided them with tools to lead others effectively.

Athletics, by nature, inspire competition and a pursuit of excellence. In turn, that fosters a culture of winning which is the objective of athletic competition. It’s also the objective of combat.

Future military leaders are tasked with winning our nations wars. Not trying hard, but winning. Athletics are critical to developing that winning attitude, but in the right way. Because in combat, as MacArthur put it, “There is no substitute for victory.”