Sport in the military

Why Sport Is Crucial To Military Operations

Sport in the military

The fitness benefits are unquestionable, but what other qualities does competitive sport bring to the military, and why do all three services frequently champion its necessity?

Historically sport has played a major part in the military. From being a factor in recruitment, to enabling promotion through the rank structure.

Military life has been underpinned by competitive sports.

In the early years of the Royal Navy and British Army, sport was a particular interest for those joining the officer corps.

Through participation at public school it soon became a tradition brought over by those joining the upper echelon of the services.

Fast forward to the late 19th century and sport was a mainstay throughout all the classes of British society.

The lure of being able to play sport while a serving sailor, or solider, would certainly have been appealing to all ranks - regardless of class or background.  

By the time World War One broke out it was sport which played a key role, once again in recruitment.

'Pals' battalions became a popular way of enlisting, with footballers one of the first to sign up together.

The 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, became known as the 'Football Battalion'. Players and staff from clubs such as Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town and Leyton Orient’s forerunner – Clapton Orient, all served within the regiment.

Soldiers enlisted together from sports teams during World war One

Modern-day servicemen and women juggle their everyday roles with their sports involvement.

Some of the very best can receive an ‘elite’ status, allowing them to take time out of work and solely concentrate on their sporting activities.

The Royal Air Force places sport at the very heart of its activities.

“The RAF has a long and distinguished history of supporting personnel in the playing and organising of sport” - RAF Sports Federation

RAF servicemen and women can choose from over 50 sports to participate in, from archery to power kiting to winter sports.

The encouragement for personnel to undertake events is massive.

It is a similar story for both the Royal Navy and the Army. With the land force siting specific examples of where competition helps operations.

“The British Army has long believed that sport prepares men for combat by increasing fitness, channelling aggression, and focusing the mind.” - National Army Museum

Speaking at the Army Sports Awards in 2014, the then Chief of the General Staff said sport is crucial:

"Sport produces soldiers who build and lead teams by habit and reflex. It generates and maintains cohesion. It nurtures pride and that essential corollary – humility. It encourages leaders to think clearly, confidently and positively when under pressure. And fundamentally it feeds a winning culture and ethos that inspire hunger for success on the battlefield." 

Deployment at sea is no different, and sport helps personnel face the demands of service life.

“You always need to be mentally and physically fit, because you’ll find yourself in physically challenging situations, on and off the sports field.” - Royal Navy Website

Sport is seen as so crucial that the Ministry of Defence even has its own set of rules and guidance. Contained within the Joint Service Publication 660 – titled as Sport in the UK Armed Forces.

The benefits of sport within the publication are listed as improving and developing:

  • Fitness
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Self-discipline & courage
  • Determination
  • Co-ordination
  • Competitive-spirit
  • Individual & collective resilience

Back in 2016, the then Chief of the Air Staff - Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford - spoke to the Forces Network about the benefits competitive sport brings to the service, the qualities mentioned apply to all three services as a whole:

Sport has played a crucial role throughout the military since Victorian times, and with the benefits it brings to operational deployments - as well as peace time duties -  it will continue to be at the forefront of service life for many more years.  

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