War isn’t NASCAR; not everyone drives the same tanks, shoots the same weapons, nor wears the same body armor. War isn’t a level athletic playing field, and shouldn’t be.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider using phrases such as “tactical athlete” or “warrior athlete” to describe law enforcement, fire fighters, and those who serve within our military. Terms such as these can immediately convey the concept that individuals with these combat-centric occupations need to be physically and mentally trained as well as athletes – a comparison which might not be true nor accurate.
These terms were created partly by the private sector strength and conditioning/performance enhancement industry and partly by Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel.
The private sector:
- Identified the military population as a potential revenue stream.
- In an effort to sell their training services, companies adopted these terms to sell what they do with athletes to the military population.
The SOF personnel:
- Recognized the need to sell their chain of command on the importance of training and recovering Operators in the same way the Pros, Olympians, and collegiate ranks on scholarships were making it happen.
- Wanted to take advantage of the private sector’s existing capabilities to certify professionals and provide cutting-edge training.
These potentially intersecting paths have produced some otherwise missing training venues and opportunities to share best practices. They’ve also produced a reliance on phraseology that is overdue for refinement.
Certainly those in the military perform “athletic” movements and if trained properly they can reduce their injury rate, improve strength, power, stamina, etc. – something all athletes do. Merriam-Webster defines athlete as “a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength.” While those in the military are trained and perform various training exercises, “exercise” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “something that is done or practiced to develop a particular skill.” Just because military personnel perform athletic-type movements and practice particular skills, doesn’t mean we should try to classify them as athletes. If we were to do this, logic would dictate that we apply this moniker to nearly every profession such as surgeons (surgical athlete), housekeepers (housekeeping athlete), the chef (culinary athlete), construction workers (contractor athlete), and even those who work at Starbucks (barista athlete) to name a few. All of these professions are subject to overuse, injury, and perform gross and/or fine motor skills. Even when you take into consideration athlete fueling demands, the physical loads, fundamental training requirements, and lack of sleep, it still applies to the aforementioned professions.
The “sports world” is a much simpler domain compared to that of the military. For instance, there are strict rules, a consistent number of participants, and the duration or length of a competition and season is easily defined. With military scenarios, the complexity increases exponentially. The environment can be massive in terms of space, the numbers of those competing against one another often vary unpredictably, and the complexity of the information on the adversary can trivialize quantum mechanics. Additionally, the physical, emotional, and mental burdens are significantly greater on Warriors as they compete for their lives and others.
Along with the training methods, the sports world tends to bring their ethics and rules with them. Because the military isn’t governed by the NCAA, USOC, FIFA, nor any other sports governing body, the ethics must be viewed differently. Perhaps we should explore the ethics of military blood doping for our high-altitude performers, the morality of not providing them a litany of physical- and cognitive-enhancing supplements, and why civilian legal restrictions on sports have been so closely adopted by the military.
Soldiers, Warfighters, and Operators are all human; we should treat them and train them like humans. Our efforts to outfit them with weapons, technology, and protection are to preserve human life and human performance. This isn’t an athletic endeavor in the least.