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Athletics as an Integral Component of a Military Academy Education - Mark P. Ryan, Ph.D.
North Valley Military Institute
Athletics is arguably an essential, non-negotiable component of a military academy education. Each of the Service Academies, all military colleges in the U.S., and nearly all military secondary schools have integrated athletics into the core components of a cadet's experiences and requirements. While all schools approach athletics in different ways, there are a number of very common characteristics, including quality physical education courses, intramural athletics, interscholastic athletics, fitness activities/challenges outside a cadet's physical education coursework, and a school-wide emphasis on personal wellness.
Quality Physical Education (PE) Courses - Physical education courses should align with the five National Physical Education Standards (see shapeamaerica.org):
Standard 1 - The physically literate individual demonstrates competency in a variety of motor skills and movement patterns.
Standard 2 - The physically literate individual applies knowledge of concepts, principles, strategies and tactics related to movement and performance.
Standard 3 - The physically literate individual demonstrates the knowledge and skills to achieve and maintain a health-enhancing level of physical activity and fitness.
Standard 4 - The physically literate individual exhibits responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others.
Standard 5 - The physically literate individual recognizes the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.
That means quality Physical Education classes should include explicit instruction in movement patterns/principles/concepts, motor skills, strategies, tactics, and teamwork skills AND provide frequent opportunities for students to be active and interact with others in individual, dual, team sports/activities, and a variety of health-promoting activities. Most quality PE programs perform assessments of student fitness levels, have students set and work toward goals of improving those fitness levels, and provide focused instruction and experiences to enhance the fitness test performance of their cadets.
Intramurals - Intramural athletics involves competition WITHIN THE SCHOOL in a variety of team sports. Since some team sports like basketball or soccer or volleyball are so common and students may have preconceived notions about their abilities or lack thereof in those sports, many schools use intramural athletics as way to expose students to less common sports where they are on a more level playing field with their peers. Sports such as archery, orienteering, bocce ball, bowling, speed badminton, table tennis and paddleball can augment more traditional intramural sports such as flag football, softball, kickball, and sockball. The typical military school intramural competition scenario involves companies competing against each other for some form of honors, whether those are honor unit points, or an intramurals banner or trophy, or some other public recognition for the achievements. Many schools have cadet intramurals NCOs who help schedule participation, organize matches, arrange logistics, and track results. Some schools use cadet leaders as officials for intramural contests, and many schools require all cadets to participate in intramurals as a mandatory element of their cadet experience.
Interscholastic Athletics - Similar to intramurals, interscholastic athletics involves competition OUTSIDE the school, usually against schools of similar size. Most military academies belong to a state or regional consortia of schools aligned within the larger National Federation of State High School Associations (see nfhs.org). Those schools follow standard rules for player eligibility, officiating, conduct of matches, uniforms, etc. Some military academies require all cadets to participate in interscholastic sports at some point during their high school or college careers. Almost all academies offer a wide range of interscholastic athletics, particularly those that appeal to the demographic and skillset of the Corps of Cadets.
Physical Fitness Activities Outside the PE Class - There is a definite culture at a military school. That culture includes a strong sense of esprit de corps, morale, discipline, etc. Part of the athletic dimension of military schools often involves cadets participating in physical fitness activities and challenges outside the regular Physical Education Classroom. West Point requires all cadets to successfully complete the Indoor Obstacle Course Test (IOCT) which tests agility, coordination, strength, aerobic capacity, flexibility, and adaptability. A number of other military schools and colleges have created similar obstacle course experiences for cadets. Many schools also have "physical challenges" that demand cadets hike, river raft, run long distance, backpack, or do other very demanding physical tasks. A number of schools have created special clubs for physical fitness and wellness. Still others have special military awards for successful participation and/or completion of those tasks. At NVMI, we have a grade level challenge for each grade: 6th grade cadets complete an in-cadence mile run; 7th graders complete a high ropes course, 8th graders a 5K run, 9th grades a 35 mile bike ride, 10th graders a Class IV River Rafting expedition, 11th graders a 25 mile hiking/backpacking weekend on the Pacific Crest Trail, and 12th graders run the Los Angeles Marathon. For successfully completing the task, they are awarded a fitness challenge "merit badge."
Wellness Programs - Military academies promote the broader concept of wellness by having healthy meal service, having fitness centers for cadets and staff, providing counseling and religious service supports, and providing both academic and non-academic instruction focused on such skills as decision-making, problem-solving, accessing reliable health information, goal-setting, communication, negotiation and refusal, assertiveness, and advocacy skills.
The United States Military Academy has a saying that "every cadet is an athlete." The military school model emphasizes athletics because they promote teamwork, communication, fitness and wellness, self-confidence, respect for self and others, put winning into perspective, and foster academic success.