American media commentators love to militarize sports, especially football. Military terms pervade American sports portrayal as well as the language of coaches. Commentators bless players with the benediction of “he or she is a real warrior.” I have real doubts about this language and metaphor, but the language of fight and battle seem endemic in the history of sport and our own understanding of it. So I want to think about two metaphors—warrior and soldier—for athletes. I do not believe athletes are warriors and if we have to use a military metaphor, I think they are soldiers.
We use with the metaphor of warrior to bring up three separate but related aspects of individual athletes:
1) How an athlete relates to goals.
2) How an individual relates to pain.
3) How an individual relates to obstacles.
4) How an individual relates to team.
The media commentators and even athletes often call upon the word warrior to draw attention to the will power and courage required to drive to achieve a goal. They really invoke it when an athlete plays with pain or overcome a serious personal, physical or opponent obstacle. The myth of warrior entices folks because it seems to capture this aspect of personal courage and will power to achieve a goal under adverse conditions. Notice no one uses warrior in a team concept, there is a good reason for this.
By and large when warriors face soldiers, soldiers win. Soldiers combine the moral advantages of being a warrior with mission cohesion and loyalty. The Romans, Chinese, Mongols, Swedes and Germans have proven this for centuries. The Germans and Mongols did not succeed until they turned their warriors bands into soldiers and armies. There are exceptions like Afghanistan for the last four thousand years, but over time soldiers trump warriors. Why is this so and why is it to inappropriate to call athlete’s warriors?
Let’s start with the difference between warriors and soldiers. As the word hints, warriors make war. Warriors specialize in mayhem. The word derives from deep Germanic roots meaning to confuse or disrupt. Warrior cultures are based upon honor and individuality. The warriors, like the early Greek warriors before the Greeks invented the phalanx and hoplites, glorified great individuals like Achilles or Ajax. The Viking Sagas or even the great Sumerian epics reflect the same world. Great and magnificent individuals dominate their world by beating every other individual in combat.
The world of warriors remained resolutely zero-sum. My honor depended upon your dishonor. Duels and conflicts pervaded the touchy world of warriors who often had their own warrior class. Warriors live together in wary disharmony always prickly about being “diss’d” and picking fights. Honor could be gained by beating others but it could all be lost in one battle. Warrior cultures were driven by glory to win and despair at the costs of losing.
To quote Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Warriors do not make good team players. Viking bands regularly broke up over squabbles among warriors. The great Celtic sagas depict a world of endless feuds. In the classic story of Greek warrior society the ship Argos starts out on a trip to find the Golden Fleece. The expedition represents the greatest collection of warriors in Greece. Yet squabbles, defections and internal fights split the entire enterprise. They succeed not through warrior force but guile.
Most athletes do not function as warriors. Maybe some lonely long distance sports seem to be the metaphorical equivalent of warriors. Parallel sports like swimming, running or field sports feature athletes who must compete alone in linear competition suggest the lone individual quest. These parallel athletes, however, do not fight each other physically, but they do seek to surpass each other and win. Every event ends with a winner, and everyone else loses. Here sport resembles warrior culture contests.
But even here people may be kidding themselves. These individual athletes need trainers, supporters and competitors to practice against. In long distance running and cycling they need teammates to protect them, pace them and clear the way as Lance Armstrong repeatedly demonstrated in Tour de France.
If you want to build a mission driven team, do not cultivate warriors driven by their own desire to collect honor and glory for themselves. Cultivate the soldier.
The origin of the word tells us everything. Warriors war; they celebrate individuals, berserkers, rogues and heroic individual quests. Soldier comes from the Latin word solidus—solid, firm, strong and forged. In the middle ages soldier meant people who got paid to fight. The pay suggested that they devoted time and energy and become professionals.
More importantly soldiers fought as part of an army, as members of a unit. From time immemorial leaders speak as does the Art of War of the “spirit” or “morale” or “unit cohesion” of soldiers. We know that troops on the field seldom fight for glory, but for each other. They overcome fear and pain together. They stay disciplined under stress. They execute with discipline and precision, they follow orders and plans and have planned for contingencies.
Soldiers like athletes on teams unite in a mission. The mission may be to win a game, to excel at what they are doing or to win a championship. Like soldiers these athletes fight one game, one day, one battle at a time. They learn under pressure and above all they fight as a unit and win or lose as a unit.
Soldiers exhibit patience. They may stand around and wait, but they train, practice and work with each other. They live under authority, and they rely upon each other. If one fails, the others stand endangered.
Soldiers unlike glory seeking warriors coordinate with each other. They share loss and pain and glory. They help each other up when down and buoy each other when up.
Being a soldier grows from a form of selflessness that begins with the willingness to learn skills and to get better. It grows into unit cohesion and loyalty where individual skills mesh so that the unit or team can accomplish more than a single warrior. Every soldier fears the selfish glory-seeking individual who prides him or herself on being a warrior. They endanger the group and team. Warriors cannot be relied upon in crunch time because they care more about their own glory and reputation than the team’s success.
People do not warrior on, they soldier on.
If we must speak of athletes in military terms, let’s get it right, soldiers not warriors.