Discipline, practice, physical ability, teamwork, and a healthy dose of humility can be a good foundation for any path in life. For a college athlete contemplating a transition to a military career, these qualities and experiences can be particularly relevant. College sports and military service share many similar requirements. The good news is that your success as a college athlete may very well equip you to adapt well to the demands of military service – and your sports credentials may actually create more options for you as a member of the military.
How are sports similar to the military?
Whether you participate in sports or plan a military career, you’ll see the two overlap very quickly.
- The right equipment and uniform to be part of the team or troop.
- Constant and demanding physical training and conditioning.
- Mental preparedness and discipline.
- A keen competitive spirit and desire to be the best among others.
- Knowledge of your opponent
- Ability to accept coaching and work as a member of a team.
Sports and the military overlap so much; the only thing missing in sports is actual weaponry! However, you could argue that the “weapons” are the players themselves in contact sports like football, basketball, and rugby. As an athlete, you work hard to prepare yourself to compete at the highest level each time you step out on the field. You must learn your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and anticipate their game plan to outwit them mentally and outmatch them physically. In the military, soldiers do the same, except they take their direction from their commanding officer instead of the coach.
What are the differences between athletics and the military?
Although sports and the military share many common traits and disciplines, one key difference is the nature of the job itself. As a college or professional athlete, training for and playing your game is a job. You have a scholarship or a contract, but you can quit or retire any time you’d like.
In contrast, you sign an enlistment contract for a specific period of 2-8 years of active duty or reserves in the military, which will vary with different branches and job classification. The point is that you are making a significantly longer commitment during a critical decade of your life.
A second key difference is that athletes can look forward to enjoying an off-season where they are not required to show up for practice or a game and can use the downtime to recover before the next training camp. In the military, there is no off-season and no delayed mission due to weather or injury. When you are on active duty, you can be called to service any time of the day or night.
Both the similarities and differences can be appealing to an athlete who wants to join the military or a service member who sees a future for him- or herself in the world of sports.
How can I transition between the two?
Many professional athletes have either come from the military or enlisted into the military after their playing career. NBC Sports has a list of over 80 men and women who transitioned from sports to the military or had a military career and then played professional sports. Here are just a few greats from that list:
- Pat Tillman – a football player with the Arizona Cardinals who became an Army Ranger.
- Jack Lummus – a baseball player with the New York Giants who enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve.
- Robert Bleier – a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers who was drafted into the Army.
- Jerry Coleman- served as a Marine Aviator, played baseball with the New York Yankees, and went to sports broadcasting.
- Art Donovan Jr.- served with the U.S. Marine Corps as an anti-aircraft gunner during World War II. He went on to play for the Indianapolis Colts.
I come from a couple of generations of Army veterans. My father enlisted in the infantry right out of high school. He happened to be a pretty good baseball player, so he applied to be on the Army team. Luckily, he was among the more fortunate of his generation of service members, as he missed going to Vietnam and instead was sent to Hawaii to play Army baseball. He was able to play baseball for his entire active duty contract and was honorably discharged when his contract was complete. He then went on to college and participated in football and baseball at the collegiate level.
There are good, bad, and surprising outcomes from the transition between sports and the military.
The good: In either profession, you develop the daily discipline to stay strong, both mentally and physically. You offer service to others in the form of entertainment or to protect the freedom and interests of our country.
The bad: Unfortunately, the pay scales are not the same. Professional sports teams have the benefit of raising advertising money to support their teams and players. U.S. citizen tax money supports our local government and, in turn, each of the military branches.
Surprising: Athletes are natural competitors, and when the moment strikes, they may find they want to play for their team and their country. Many athletes on the NBC list did just that in WWII and the Korean War, discovering that their enduring love of country won out over their love for their team and sport. Going the other way, military service members may find that their follow-on career in professional sports feels like another service form. They provide entertainment and inspiration to their fellow citizens.
Do I need to give up participating in sports if I join the military?
As an athlete, you can join the military and still participate in many sports. The Armed Forces Sports division of the Department of Defense trains and supports 23 different sports teams, including softball, rugby, and basketball, among numerous others. As an active-duty soldier or reservist, you can apply to play for a team and go through the tryout process.
Sharing more about being on God’s team with others
No matter which path you choose, athletics or military, if you’re a Christian, you’re on God’s team first. God wants us to approach any profession as a mission field, to serve others and share God’s Word.
The Apostle Paul is an excellent example of how we can live this out in our lives. Paul spoke to Romans, Greeks, Asians, Middle Easterners, Jews, and Christians in his travels. He took the time to listen to their beliefs and understand why they worshiped their gods or God. Paul shared his journey as a devout Jew who became a Christian and converted others to Christianity everywhere he went. Because he took the time to listen, he also made time to care for others, just as God and Jesus care for us. Paul shared the message of the Holy Spirit, and it brought others to the faith. We are to do the same.
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