Looking back, sports prepared me for flying fighters more than anything else. You develop thick skin playing sports—you learn how to lose, how to accept criticism, how to prepare, how to handle pressure; you grow you in a way that’s difficult to find outside of sports. Different sports teach different attributes, particularly team versus individual ones, but they all have parallels to what we do in the air.
Team sports, as the name implies, teach teamwork—you learn how to work together to build trust. As a group, you must come together to accomplish a shared vision; often with people who come from completely different backgrounds. It is a complex, messy process that doesn’t have a set formula. I played baseball, all the way from t-ball throughout high school and each year we would try to build a cohesive, effective team—failing as often as we succeeded. It was practice though. By the time I got to my first fighter squadron, I had been a part of probably 30 teams. It was easier to integrate, find my role, and start contributing than if I hadn’t had my sports background.
Another attribute I learned is situational leadership. As my skill and experience grew relative to the team I was on, my leadership style had to change. As a freshman in high school and one of the weaker players, my job was to shut up, work hard, and do the jobs the other players didn’t want to do. By the time I was a senior, I was one of the better players and a captain on the team. Part of my job was to hold people accountable, which meant being more assertive.
As a fighter pilot, after you spend four years becoming an officer, two years in pilot training, and a year learning to fly your fighter, you’ll show up to your first squadron and your primary job will be to stock the snack bar. Just like the new freshman on a sports team, the best thing you can do is shut up, learn your job, and volunteer for the tasks no-one else wants to do. As your skill and experience grow relative to the other pilots, your leadership style will have to evolve.
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Preparation is another trait I learned. Similar to being a fighter pilot, in sports the vast majority of your time is spent training. While boxing at the Air Force Academy, we would spend hours each day preparing for a six-minute fight. The training, in most cases, lagged the results, often by months. If you didn’t wake up at 5AM for your daily morning run, no-one would know until fight day when you were exhausted by the time you got to the third round.
Flying fighters is similar. We train for years before we go into combat. As a multi-role, single seat fighter pilot, there is always something you could be better at. The learning never stops. We have thousands of pages of tactics to memorize and with closure rates averaging a mile every three-seconds, it has to be instinctive by the time you get to combat.
The most important attribute sports taught me was mental toughness—how to thrive in a high pressure environment. As a boxer you’re in the ring alone. No-one else can help you. If you’re distracted and having a bad day, you can get hurt. Leading up to the fight, you know there is an opponent working his hardest to knock you out in front of your friends and family.
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At the Air Force Academy, we would have sports psychologists from the Olympic training center make the 15 minute drive to work with us. They taught us visualization, positive self-talk, and how to stay in the present moment. While the stakes are much higher now—we not only have our own lives to worry about, but our wingmen, other airborne assets, and the troops on the ground—I still find myself using what they taught me on a daily basis.
Sports are a training ground for your mind and body. They allow you to grow in a simplistic environment, under pressure, with short feedback cycles. You learn that through deliberate practice you will improve. Having had a chance to instruct many F-16 and F-35 pilots, the better ones usually have a sports background. It doesn’t matter if they were a star, or if they only played in high school—the important thing is they have the tools to get better each flight while contributing to the squadron.
Make sure to check out Justin Lee’s podcast, The Professionals Playbook!
Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force