By Colonel Ben Higginbotham
“Are you still a professional athlete?”
That’s the question that Rob Shaul asked me on the last afternoon of the 2016’s MTI Scrum, as we were gathered on the deck for a group discussion.
The initial question was based on an article that I wrote several years ago: “Advice to the Young Tactical Athlete: The Things I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then…” My initial, gut-reaction answer to Rob was “yes.” Pride makes me want to believe it. As I flew home from Wyoming after the Scrum, though, and as I reflected on the question in the weeks after, I wrestled with the subject a lot.
At the time that I wrote the “Advice” piece, I looked at professional athletes like the NFL’s Tom Brady, and saw examples that I felt young tactical athletes could aspire to. In an article on SI.com on December 10th, 2014, Greg Bishop described Brady’s calculating, professional approach to everything in his life: strength and flexibility training, diet, and mental preparation. Based on the example of Brady and others (read about Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry’s intense focus for similar examples), I encouraged young tactical athletes to treat themselves as professional athletes. “Make [training] a daily professional habit,” I advised, “just like other critical professional habits, including managing your time, taking care of your kit, and developing your mind. Not only will you perform better training every day, but you’ll also find it easier to sustain the fitness to achieve your goals (selection, doing amazing things, surviving and thriving in combat).”
In my career, I’ve had the good fortune to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division, to lead Ranger Instructors and train new Rangers, to lead Rangers in combat, and to serve in elite special operations units. Early in my career, my average week included PT, shooting, jumping, consistent training, and time devoted to preparing and maintaining my kit (as well as to lots of the mundane and frankly less-important minutiae that’s a part of life in most military units).
Over the years, though, I’ve moved up and today I am the director of operations for Special Operations Command Africa, the headquarters that oversees all of the special operations our Nation conducts on the Continent of Africa. My daily routine is decidedly different than those earlier jobs, starting early and ending late with email, phone calls, and video teleconferences. In between, my hours are filled with meetings and deadlines. I sit constantly, I travel frequently, I rarely get an opportunity these days to shoot or jump, and I frequently find the day’s schedule encroaching on my PT time. It’s a far cry from my average day or week early in my career, and not what I aspired to 25 years ago, but the job that I do is important: it is critical to enable our operators and their partner forces to get things done, and it’s a logical part of a career progression for an officer in special operations.
My case is the rule, rather than the exception, for tactical athletes with long careers. One reason is our up-or-out career model, not entirely unlike a professional management treadmill. Another is the extreme wear-and-tear that our profession puts on bodies. Add these and other factors together, with older members unable to do the hard things the profession demands forever, but bringing the experience that is necessary for successful operations, and you end up with a model that involves consist onward and upward movement from tip-of-the-spear athlete to progressively higher leadership positions.
In this way, our profession is very different from professional sports. The average NFL player, for example, only plays for a little over three years, according to the NFL players association. A small number work in jobs related to the game after retirement, but they’re generally in coaching or sports journalism. Unlike in our profession, those athletes no longer have a burden or job-based motivation to maintain fitness as part of their job.
On top of that, many of those former professional athletes cannot perform physically anymore. On the eve of the last Super Bowl, USA Today profiled NFL Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana. Montana described the arthritis, nerve damage, and failing joints that prevent him from skiing, surfing, or playing pickup basketball. While I carry damage of my own (and write this with a hand just out of a cast from my most recent mishap), I and most of my peers do seek to maintain some level of outdoor physical activity similar to that at the physical peak of my career. I ski fanatically, ride my mountain bike, and enjoy scrambling in the mountains. And I want to continue to do so for as many years as possible – well into old age.
The simple answer, given all of that, is that I’m not a professional athlete anymore. The model I once referred to doesn’t apply anymore in my case. But if professional athletes aren’t a good model, and if I’m not one, then what’s an enduring model for “experienced” tactical athletes like myself, who still have some burden of fitness and want to maintain an active lifestyle?
In my research, the best modern alternative that I’ve found to date is that of the “journeyman.” While the term in sports journalism sometimes has a negative connotation, I think it’s still a useful concept: that individual who shows up day-in and day-out and puts in the hard work necessary to succeed and keep doing what they love. In simple terms, Wikipedia tells us, a modern journeyman is someone focused on self-discipline, consistent self-improvement, and patient, methodical, life-long learning and up-skilling. This isn’t far off from historical examples, including one I found attributed to Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the source of Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai back in the early 1700s. Tsunetomo described a lifelong pursuit of mastery, concluding that the top level in that pursuit – mastery – wasn’t perfection, but rather internalizing the pursuit itself. “It becomes clear to the master that this [ultimate] realm [of skill] is boundless and his skill can never be perfect. With this realization, the master, being fully conscious of his imperfections, is neither conceited not contemptuous, but continues traveling the path.”
Coming full circle to the question on that June night in Jackson, I have to admit that I’m not a professional athlete. I’d still advise the young tactical athlete in the same way – to pursue the professional model up front – since that’s the model that most are in a position to understand at that point in their careers. But I’d add a thirteenth piece of advice: once you’re on the path and committed, become a journeyman, in lifelong pursuit of mastery.
That’s where I am. No, I’m not a professional athlete, but I am a modern journeyman, in lifelong pursuit of mastery.