Thu. Sep 19th, 2019


Army in sports

It is interesting to know that twenty-six out of the forty-four American presidents have served in the military and ten of them are known to have been good sportsmen thus confirming a relationship between soldiering, sports and leadership. It is by no stretch of imagination implied that those who don’t play sports can’t be great leaders, but sports and soldiering for sure have a positive impact on leadership.

A question which is often asked is what makes a young man, or a woman choose Armed Forces as a career. Is it patriotism or spirit of adventure or just another profession to earn a living? In India, it is a bit of all three with one of them probably being predominant. That done, what makes a soldier undertake such life-threatening assignments which have a very high chance of him sacrificing his life. When we look back at Kargil Operations of 1999, most officers who led the assault were aware that  they had very remote chance of coming back alive, yet they led their troops to successful assaults in an extremely difficult high altitude terrain where a human being can barely breathe due to rarefied atmosphere. Some of them made the ultimate sacrifice of their life while conquering those unsurmountable heights. For a person outside the military, it is extremely difficult to fathom why these young men are so fearless and committed to their task. One of the major reasons which explains why these twenty odd years old officers and men  made supreme sacrifice of their life, is the environment in which they grew up in the armed forces. The career in the armed forces is not just another career but a ‘Way of Life’ which trains you for this job, less through leadership capsules and training sessions which of course are a part of the curriculum but more through your interaction with senior, peers and subordinates and the environment in which you live, eat, sleep and play. Regimental Spirit and respect(izzat) of his Unit are overriding factors which make a soldier succeed in such challenging situations. He just can’t afford to let his unit down. A soldier learns a lesson or two even while having a drink at the bar of the officers’ mess listening to the tales told by his seniors about the previous wars in which the unit took part. So, leadership is best learnt through leading a life which inculcates leadership qualities  by default than a formal teaching session. This process is for sure is long lasting and stays engrained. 

During peace , two activities which generate that extra adrenaline  in a soldier are Sports and Adventure competitions at the sub unit level which comprises of about  hundred soldiers out of whom eleven are playing and the rest shouting at a pitch which can be heard a few kms away as if it is an India -Pakistan cricket match which is being played. This unexplained spirit is what drives the soldiers to do what they do. Sports and adventure form a very important part of the military life for which you are always preparing when  not participating. The competition spirit of sporting events inculcates in a man the ‘hunger to win’ as also the humility to ‘swallow defeat’. You learn to lead life playing by the rules of the game without subjectivity which wins over the subordinates. The feeling of physical clash specially in high intensity contact games and the experience of falling and getting up quickly to ‘get on’ with the game are invaluable leadership inputs which sports provide. Strategies which are required in a team game are no less than the corporate/military strategies and how they need to change dynamically after the very first move is a big lesson in leadership. When we talk to great sports achievers, they count ‘Discipline’ as one of the key contributing factors to their success which holds good for any discipline of life.  It would be fair to conclude that sports and soldiering help to make great leaders who have intensity in their nature and hunger to achieve their targets as a team.  

 Besides the physical qualities of fitness, toughness, stamina and endurance which a man or a woman builds as a result of participating in sports, he/she surely imbibes leadership qualities such as decisiveness, leading from the front and team spirit to name a few. I have experienced that a professional officer who is also a sports person makes difficult situations look much easier and generally has a direct approach to deal with other members of his team. He would generally not put up a façade and ‘he is what he is seen as’ which makes the atmosphere in the organisation much more conducive to productivity and efficiency. I am of the firm belief that sports and discipline which you follow as a soldier form the bedrock of making an inspiring and successful leader.  

Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu

Author: Balbir Singh Sandhu

After serving the Indian Army for over 38 years, Balbir Singh Sandhu, an all-rounder Army veteran is currently working as a freelance advisor with Strategic Think Tanks upon his retirement., he was a constant contributor in bringing a positive change around for the betterment of his peers and others around him. He was the only second ASC officer to be promoted to the rank of LT General in the staff stream. As the Director General of Supplies and Transport, he restored procurement of supplies that were stalled for the past 2-3 years.

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