Operationalizing Sports: Can Suffering Lead To Enlightenment?

By Mark Won

This essay argues for the need for a more holistic perspective within the military when it comes to physical fitness. It is an invitation for leaders to experiment with new ways of integrating coaching, mentoring, and whole-person development in the programming of physical fitness efforts in the DOD.

“There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.” –Napoleon Bonaparte


According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, more than half the world will be obese by the year 2030. We are, for the first time in history, living in a world where more people will die of overeating than hunger.[1] The world is not only “flat” but it just may be that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have been inverted.

Having securely solved the food, water, warmth questions at the bottom of the pyramid, we are now circling the tip of the top triangle grossly infatuated with the infinite self-actualization options we are offered. Yuval’s predictions of obesity in the world may simply be a metaphor for a larger and less obvious problem: in our race to summit Maslow’s pyramid, we did not take into account the actual costs of upward mobility. Overwhelmed by the burden, and in some cases, the prison of “too much,” some are desperately seeking out ways to cut the cord and lose the “ball and chain” of accumulation and privilege.

The new minimalism, as popularized by authors such as Marie Kondo, named one of Time’s 100 most influential people, has taken the West by force. Her New York Times #1 Bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, even spawned a Netflix series, where the camera follows the author on her “rescue visits” to the cluttered homes of people who own and have too much.

Decluttering is an unavoidable cost to clarification. The process may be literal, as in the downsizing of a home or work obligations, and sometimes even psychological and emotional. There is no better experience of simplification than prison or the desert.

Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot who was shot down and captured in North Vietnam in 1965. He was a prisoner of war for seven and a half years, he was tortured fifteen times, put in leg irons for two years, and confined in solitary for four years. Recalling his own crucible experience he writes, “A person’s ethical notions tend to crystallize in the hermetic. Mine did. The pressure chamber in which my most deeply felt ideas were forget was not a surgical operating room, not a pressure-packed classroom but a prison cell.[2]

Countless others, including the Apostle Paul, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Bonhoeffer, Mandela, to name a few, produced some of their most memorable writings or solidified their ideas that left a mark in the world during prison time. In prison, a person is turned to cattle. They are a number and all wear the same colored suit. They are herded from station to station throughout the day and stripped of all luxuries, comforts, and status symbols. Hence, it is no surprise that when these men were reduced to the bare minimum in life they had the opportunity to dig deeper than they may have otherwise.

Military recruitment, selection and training programs typically try and create this “crucible” experience with the intent to break down and rebuild an individual into a team member infused with new resolve for selflessness and resilience. However, in the duration of a person’s career, it’s difficult to recreate such valuable conditions unless it has been built into the culture of their assigned duty station. This is where sport presents a unique opportunity to develop such a culture.


Suffering and exertion in sport mirrors war. Cardiologist and best-selling author of the book, Running and Being, George Sheehan, considered the marathon a moral equivalent to war, providing a “theatre of heroism, an arena where one could demonstrate courage and fortitude, a setting where one could be the best one would ever be.”[3] Sheehan also speaks of running as an embodied metaphor: “My fitness program was never a fitness program. It was a campaign, a revolution, a conversion. I was determined to find myself. And, in the process, found my body and the soul that went with it.”[4] The mysterious symbiosis between sport and spiritual formation is what energizes the thoughts of William James, who suggests that “this type of discipline would allow us to live to our maximum. And find in ourselves unexpected heights of fortitude and heroism and the capability to endure suffering and hardship. To discover, if you will, the person we are. Reaching peaks we previously thought unattainable.”[5]

James is helpful because he understood that life was meant to be a struggle.  In other words, his acceptance of suffering provides a helpful framework that can counter the pervasive escapism that saturates our milieu.  Life, he said, “was built on doing and suffering and creating.”[6] He wrote that “man must be stretched,” in one way or another. Sport is one way among many where such doing, suffering and creating can be rehearsed within a structure, endlessly. As Sheehan wrote, sport is an “arena” where a person could test, push, and meet themselves in ways not possible in more restrained environments.

Most people will not have the opportunity to undergo the kind of prison transformation we have considered or suffer quite like Stockdale. For the everyday people lacking the opportunity to enter such unique contexts of change, the suffering that comes with a commitment to growth in a sport can serve as a substitute crucible. Sport provides the arena for personal challenge and growth without necessarily having to be in prison for many years. It contains all the ingredients necessary for increasing self-awareness, humility, moral resilience, faith, and increased solidarity with others who suffer. “Sport invites activity that presses the edge of what it means to be human: it gives rise to a life of faith in one’s possibilities in the light of one’s limitations.”[7]


As far back as the 1920s, Douglas McArthur, then the Superintendent of West Point, instituted athletics programs as a strategy to better train and prepare future officers for war.[8] It was a time when “American planners began to raise the mass army that would ultimately fight the Second World War, the design of the sports program through which soldiers and sailors were trained and entertained reflected new thinking, not only about the practical purposes of such a sports program, but the philosophical purposes behind the creation of an American masculine ideal through sport.[9] Among allied forces, boxing served a central role in determining the superiority of a nation’s warriors among the group.[10] The Army-Navy football game represents one of the oldest rivalries and encapsulates the competitive spirit, high regard for toughness, teamwork, and winning that both the military and sport embrace.[11] As America’s “national pastime,” baseball has had a pivotal role among soldiers in numerous wars since the Civil War.[12] The singing of the National Anthem or “God Bless America” in every game, military jets flying over before the start of the Super Bowl, and many other themes of patriotism in sporting events reveal just how deeply embedded the two institutions really are.

Today, this long marriage between these partners has given rise to programs such as the Warrior Human Performance Center, part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, the most notable of the institutionalized military sport science research and performance centers.[13] Conceived as a result of the institutional and operational interests of the USMC and SOF, the center focuses on utilizing biomechanical, musculoskeletal, and psychological protocols to improve injury prevention and mission-specific holistic human performance.[14] Recognizing the gap in the holistic training of servicemembers, Major Christopher Reardon combined what he learned from the Naval Academy, the Marine Corps, and his partnerships with Chaplain resilience teams over his 13-year career to create a nonprofit called, Freedom Fitness America.  He provides curriculum and program support to various communities in the Department of Defense to enhance readiness in its members through physical training that incorporates coaching and mentoring with the aim of mind, body, spirit integration and development.[15]

There are many reasons why two people of relatively even strengths go through a deployment, boot camp, or other challenging experience, and one ends up broken while the other seems to thrive in the adversity. The implications to this question are significant for leaders. What makes one individual more resilient than another? Can we predict such things? Is resilience trainable? I would argue yes. And one overlooked tool readily available is the role sports can play as a means of building resiliency. Rather than treat it simply as a minimally staffed command routine, strategically leveraging sport as a tool for cultural engineering can be transformational. To be continued…

[1] Yuval N. Harari and Derek Perkins, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow., Unabridged. (New York: HarperAudio, 2017). [2] Stockdale.176. [3] George Sheehan and Kenny Moore, Running & Being: The Total Experience, Kindle Edition (Rodale, 2014). 19. [4] Sheehan and Moore, Running & Being. 51. [5] Sheehan and Moore. 201. [6] Sheehan and Moore. 200. [7] Richard A Hutch, “Sport and Spirituality: Mastery and Failure in Sporting Lives,” Practical Theology 5, no. 2 (August 2012): 131–52. [8] Wanda Ellen Wakefield, Playing to Win : Sports and the American Military, 1898-1945, SUNY Series on Sport, Culture, and Social Relations (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997). 36. [9] Ibid. [10] Wakefield, Playing to Win. 80. [11] Mark Carnes, The Columbia History of Post-World War II America (New York, UNITED STATES: Columbia University Press, 2007). 135. [12] Butterworth, Sport and Militarism. [13] Butterworth. 37. [14] Ibid. [15] Freedom Fitness America

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