Memorial Day: Sports and War

It’s Memorial Day. Coaches everywhere will hang a flag, spend time with family, and raise a glass to remember those who have paid the ultimate price to defend our country.

On a day like today, it is easy to be grateful. It is safe to assume that coaches and mentors everywhere would agree that those who serve in the United States Armed Forces are true heroes. They protect the rest of us. They defend our liberties. In doing so, they take the ultimate risk.

When a member of the military does not return, they leave behind friends and family who experience a mix of pride and loss. It is a unique sort of tragedy reserved for those heroes. There is nothing like it.

We should keep that in mind when we compare sports and war.

It is one of the more common metaphors in sports. “Prepare for battle,” is on the lighter end of the metaphor. As the metaphor ramps up, it can become dangerous.

When a coach compares the kids from the next town over to the axis powers, insisting that the team is “going to war, and we’re going to win, we’re going to kill them all” (actual quote), then something has gone terribly wrong.

Let’s pause here for a moment to clarify the quote from above… is it ever appropriate for a grown adult to shout directions at a young person that instruct them to kill? Outside the heat of the moment, it sounds ridiculous.

is it ever appropriate for a grown adult to shout directions at a young person that instruct them to kill?

The instinct to use that sort of language is understandable. Coaches are often charged with motivating young people to operate at their peak – they attempt to maximize potential and accomplish things they would not otherwise have been able to accomplish. However, the methods taken by coaches will occasionally leave the realm of motivation (giving them a motive) and leaning into hype, excitement, and charges of exhilaration. There is room for all of those in athletics, but when they are used matters. In this case, how they are accomplished is also important.

If a coach hopes to excite an athlete by comparing what their tasks to war, then the how – the method – needs to be reexamined.

A long conversation could be entertained regarding the ethics of the comparison. Insisting that a teenager go out and kill another teenager – regardless of the rationale – is inappropriate at best. In its worst form, that sort of language can lead to violence, hateful speech, and the sort of cross-town villainization that destroys communities.

But today, Memorial Day, let’s consider this through an even more obvious lens. Comparing sports to war is disrespectful to those who have served.

A high school football game, even the big ones, do not compare to war. Teenagers playing a game do not compare to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. To suggest that they are comparable neglects the countless lives lost and affected by war.

Are you a coach, leader, or mentor who has used that comparison before? Don’t worry, here are 3 Steps to a Better Path.

  1. Humility. Be humble enough to admit that you have made the comparison in the past and that it was a faulty one. Be honest with yourself.
  2. Forgiveness. Forgive yourself for making the comparison – you likely didn’t mean to offend anyone. You were trying to get the most out of your athletes. It happens.
  3. Change. Decide that the men and women of the United States Armed Forces are engaged in situations that cannot be compared to a game. If you’ve come this far, then you will be able to find new and exciting ways to motivate young people. Accept the challenge!

This act of being deliberate with language is important in the moment and it is important as a deliberate and continued practice. Thoughtful communication will translate to all other areas of the athletic environment. The athletes will notice it. The coaches around you will notice it. The simple act of being deliberate with your language will have a profound effect on the culture of the team.

Sports are not war. Thoughtful leaders use thoughtful language.

Does your behavior match your goal?

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