How Football Prepared me for Life in the Army
A week ago I was asked to speak to a group of high school football players to pass on some of what I have learned after nearly twenty years of military service. In thinking about how to frame a the discussion, it came to me that what we learn as young men on the gridiron can translate directly to life in the military. George Carlin’s routine on football and baseball aside, I offer the following litany of analogies to describe how football prepared me for a military career.
Acceptable levels of failure
Anyone who claims to have never failed at anything is probably trying to sell you something. Learning to fail on the football field is in fact one of the most valuable life lessons I learned. Everyone needs to experience failure at some level throughout his or her lifetime. Some failure you can recover from, others will haunt you for the remainder of your life.
There is a difference between a 3-yard loss on first down, and giving up a 100-yard kickoff return. Football prepared me to deal with failure. Not only to accept certain levels, but to overcome failures with a better performance on the next down, the next series, or the next game. Everyone fails at some point in his or her military career. It could be as simple as blowing a brief to a commander or getting recycled at a school. Again, there are many layers to failure in the military. We can bounce back from some failures, but a failure that involves compromising morals or ethics can destroy a career. Fortunately, over the course of my time in football, and in the military I have been surrounded by friends who helped me avoid, and when necessary recover from failure.
Reliance on Others
Football taught me that success and failure is a team effort. Miss a block or forget an assignment in pass coverage and the opponent will capitalize on the error. Even worse, a teammate can be injured. In the military, we learn quickly that success is a team effort. Teamwork can mean knocking down targets in an assigned sector of fire, or contributing to an operational planning team. In the military, failure at the individual level can lead to mission failure, or even worse getting someone close to you killed.
Football was my first experience of being a part of a cohesive group of individuals over a long period. We had teams in little league baseball, but the players on each team changed year after year. Our football team had a core group of players who began playing at the age of 8 through the end of high school. The bonds we developed remain intact today. Similarly, in the Army I have been a part of units that spent over a year preparing for, and then a year serving in combat. The importance of team chemistry and developing relationships that go beyond the workplace is paramount to warfighting units.
How you practice is how you play and How you train is how you fight
The ability for the American military to provide realistic training is an asymmetric advantage we hold over our adversaries. The importance of this was emphasized to me early in my childhood. I first heard the quote “how you practice is how you play” in my first year of organized football as an 8-year old. The amount of effort teams put forth on the practice field easily translates to success or failure on game day. Over the past 16 plus years, I have been witness to this concept in war. Indeed, during the first Gulf War in 1991, tank crews stated that rotations at the National Training Center (NTC) were more difficult than actual battle. Hard, realistic training at home station and at NTC and JRTC enable better combat performance for tactical level units. High levels of mental preparation and planning in events such as Combatant Command exercises and division or corps level warfighter exercises are critical for military success in times of crisis. In both football and the military, the more effort you put in on the front end, the better the chance of success on the field.
Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield
Every week our team would spend Monday afternoons in the film room. Following a review of our past game we would watch film of our next opponent. We would take the time to understand their formations and what plays would most likely be called in a given situation. This was my first exposure to an enemy doctrine template. In a similar manner, we would do our best to understand the filed we would play on and the expected weather on game day…a situation template. Sun Zsu, in his book The Art of War pressed the imperative that to be successful, you must know thy enemy, and know thy self. A deep understanding of an opponent’s capabilities and most likely course of action allows a force, or a football team to focus its preparation. However, understanding that the opposing force is conducting the same preparation, watching your team on film, or studying your doctrine leads to the next way football prepared me for a military career.
A living, thinking and adapting adversary
Relying on the weakness or incompetence of an enemy is a key ingredient to failure. War is the most complicated of human endeavors. A key aspect in the difficulties of warfare is that no nation or army conducts operations against an inanimate object. Enemies and adversaries constantly adapt to the environment while doing their best to defeat you. Adversaries have strategies and adjust them on the fly. Those who fail to adapt often face defeat. This description fits both warfare and football. I learned early in life that no matter how well prepared our team may have been on the practice field, or in the gym, our opponents were doing the same thing. Planning to defeat us, and putting in time at the gym to out-muscle us on the field. They made adjustments to their game plan on every series. Success was defined by who could stay one-step ahead. In a similar plane, understanding that adversaries adapt leads to the wisdom of never underestimating an opponent.
Relying on the weakness or incompetence of an enemy is a key ingredient to failure.
There is a life after football, there is a life after the military
As an 18 year-old young man, my football career reached its zenith. The Nassau County Finals game clock approached zero, and we were on the losing side of a 31–0 game. After ten years of playing ball this was the last time I put on pads to participate in an organized football game. I was not the only one in this category. Our team had a couple players that would play some ball in junior college, division III and one player in division I. Nobody made it to the NFL, and within 4 years, all my peers were out of football. As adults, some have moved on into coaching, but nobody is putting on the pads Saturday mornings. To this day, I still play tennis, and I compete in men’s league hockey at the local rink. I hope to continue these for many years to come. Football however is a young man’s game. I believe this experience, prepared me for the inevitable conclusion to my military career sometime in the future. As I pass my 16th year on active duty, the reality sets in that there will be a life after the Army, just as there was a life after football. It will be emotional, but it happens to everyone, from those who leave after their initial 4-year enlistment, to flag officers who retire after 30 years in service.