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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
Naval Institute Proceedings
Vol. 61 No. 10 (Oct. 1935), pp1552‑1559

The text is in the public domain,
the 1935 copyright not having been renewed in 1962 or 1963.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1552  Healthy Minds in Healthy Bodies

By Lieutenant Arthur A. Ageton, U. S. Navya

The new plebe midshipmen lay on their stomachs on the floor of the gymnasium, rhythmically pushing their rigid bodies up and down to the staccato count of the instructor conducting the drill. "One, two, three, four, one, two. . . ." Of them all, only Mister Gadget, seven days out of Hicksville, rested his aching biceps for a moment. At the fourth count, he felt a toe root him in the side.

"Tired, Mister?" a deep voice asked, sarcastically.

Mister Gadget took up the cadence feverishly, one number out of step.

"Atten-SHUN!" he heard that cold voice snap.

Mister Gadget leaped to his feet and came to his impression of a stiff position of attention to find himself facing an awe‑inspiring individual in a white uniform, with two gold stripes on his shoulder marks.

"You want to go down for shirking, Mister?" A suggestion of a smile hovered around the corners of the officer's firm lips.

"N‑no, Sir. I just got tired, Sir."

"Very well, I'll let you off this time. Report to Mr. Schultz for the Cook's Tour."

Mister Gadget fell in with a group of other plebes whose interest in their particular phase of the gym drill had not been all that it should have been. By the time Mister Gadget and the other culprits had completed a Cook's Tour of the gymnasium, rope climbing, horizontal and parallel bars, flying rings, shelf climb, four laps around the indoor track, and a short dip in the pool, they made fervent resolutions to be found wanting at gym drill no more. And when, as Mister Gadget stretched out between his new sheets at taps that night, he considered the athletic activities of the day — his first early morning cross-country gallop from which he had returned with lungs bursting and chest heaving, that trying gym period, an hour in cutters wielding an oar as big as a telephone pole, and to top it all off, during recreation period, a game of baseball with the plebes of his platoon — he was convinced that athletic endeavor was not the occasional indulgence of idle moments which it had been at Oskawee College; in fact, "giving due consideration that healthy minds in healthy bodies are necessities for the fulfilment of the individual missions of the graduates," participation in athletics was to become a principal ingredient of his daily fare.

That there is something vitally different about athletics at the Naval Academy, anyone who has attended both the Academy and a civilian institution will readily testify. But this distinction is so elusive that it often escapes the casual observer and frequently is not appreciated by the ones most intimately affected, the midshipmen themselves. If the differentiations can be epitomized into one sentence, perhaps this most nearly approximates it:

At civilian institutions of learning, athletic events are spectacles for the amusement of students and all and sundry who care to pay the tariff; at the Academy, athletics are situated at the living core of the curriculum around which is built the structure of knowledge and ethics, which serves to mold the character of the individual midshipmen.

Not that midshipmen or their mentors consciously phrase such a mission for athletics. The indoctrination is much too subtle for that. If athletics are something of a fetish at the Academy, it is only because by 90 years of service they have proved their essential value in molding character and in developing leaders among young men.

 p1553  The organization is elaborate. In the first instance, familiarity with all sports is insured by instruction of each midshipman at gym drill in the rules and fundamentals of most of the major and minor sports known to organized amateur athletics. Supplementing this required instruction is an all‑inclusive extra-curricular organization in each sport — A‑ and B‑squads in the varsity sphere, class squads, and company squads, until each midshipman must participate in at least one sport or some unit will be lacking in players. And yet, there is no rigid barrier separating the two spheres of athletics, intra- and extra-mural. To the contrary, not infrequently the star player of one of the class teams this year becomes a stellar member of the Varsity next year. It is an efficient system which brings results in wins recorded, but it also provides healthy exercise to many who ordinarily would not indulge in violent physical effort.

But the significant feature of the Navy system is neither the production of winning teams nor the provision of healthy exercise. Consider the midshipman's day, so closely circumscribed and regulated from reveille to taps that he has to himself for his own pursuits only the two brief periods from 4:20 P.M. to supper and 40 minutes between supper and evening study hour. The truly amazing feature of the system is that so many midshipmen voluntarily devote the major portion of their leisure time to the pursuit of athletics. In a recent year, accurate records showed that, of a total enrollment of 1,700 midshipmen, 1,450 participated in at least one organized sport. Unquestionably, many of the others, too inept or too lazy for organized athletics, found occasional relaxation at some form of unorganized sport.

There are many who say that athletics at the Academy are stressed beyond any possible basic importance. If the only object were to turn out winning teams, this contention would be quite true. The Navy system of athletics has the virtue that it does produce good teams. Navy has frequently occupied an enviable position in football. For several years, the Navy won the International Intercollegiate Boxing Championship. The Academy teams have led the league in gymnasium for many years. In lacrosse, Navy is always a dangerous contender. The crew has been famous on two continents. These sports, together with basketball, provide the big show games of the Navy athletic program; color and thrills and grand spectacles, all the pageantry of any college or university, and more. Who can ever forget his first (or last) Army-Navy Game, win, lose, or draw? That there is so much of pageantry, of showman­ship, is not inconsistent with the mission of athletics in the curriculum. Closely restricted as the midshipman is in his activities, there must be some outlet, some form of amusement compatible with a proper concept of a military institution. The early and late instruction of midshipmen in the fundamentals of the various games arouses keen interest in those games, which spurs the individual on to effort along the line of those sports he finds most enjoyable. The knowledge gained while actively participating in a sport tends to make the midshipman a much more keenly interested spectator. And the whole system operates to contribute to each sport the best efforts of those who have a capacity to excel, and so give to the midshipmen varsity teams of which they may well be proud, of which, indeed, they may not infrequently expect outstanding accomplishment in the world of intercollegiate sport.

But if this were all that athletics have contributed to the Naval Academy, the system would have failed. Critics may lament the constant accenting of the desire to win, but is that not the very spirit which the Academy seeks to instill into its graduate? Nelson has said that the will of  p1554 a commander to win has often turned the tide of sea battle. That desire, that will to triumph, developed on the field of sport, combined with an ability to lose in a sportsman-like manner when one's best efforts have been expended and the decision lost, are needed every day of an officer's life in the Fleet in peace time and even more often in time of war.

What attributes of properly administered sport are not assets to the military leader? The general­ship of the football captain and quarterback, the close co‑operation of a crew, the ability to give and take punishment of boxing, the loyalty and devotion to a common cause of any competitive athletic team, and the pride in one's outfit, all are prime essentials of any military organization. Again one must remember the principal feature of the Navy system — the A‑ and B‑squads, the class and company squads, athletics for all actively participated in by all — only such a system properly administered to encourage the will to win by every legitimate means, not stressing the necessity for winning so strongly as to neglect the good-sportsmanship of losing, and fostering always loyalty to the organization and the plan which is an important requisite of any military unit, can contribute its share to the mission of the Naval Academy.

Thus unobtrusively do athletics help to form the military character of the graduate. One day, the young ensign will find himself actively directing the destinies of some one of his ship's athletic teams. If, at the afternoon practice one day, he says, "Come on, fellows, let's run through that three‑out-and‑up play again, and get it right," and receives an instantaneous and eager response, that's leader­ship. If he jumps into the backfield and shows his first-string halfback how to take out the defensive back, that's leader­ship by example. And if, when that same halfback misses his man time after time because he's thinking more about carrying the ball than he is about running interference, the young coach calls him to one side and says, "Brown, I'm running this team. You've got to play football my way. You're swell toting the ball but rotten at interference. Get in there, now, and get your man," that's corrective leader­ship.

At drill in his turret the next day, if the young ensign's pointer group is particularly poor and he says to his pointers, "That result was rotten. Come on, now, let's get in and lay those guns on the bull and hold 'em there. I know we can do it," he has learned that the methods of leader­ship of gridiron, track, and baseball diamond are not so very different from those needed aboard ship. The raw material is always man in the aggregate. If an embryo officer learns to lead men, that knowledge and ability, however acquired, is a priceless asset to any organization.

Certainly, when from the perspective of a few years in the Fleet, the young ensign gives due consideration that a healthy mind in a healthy body is a legacy which the Naval Academy has presented him so unobtrusively that, at the time, he never even suspected that it was intra-curriculum, may he come to the realization that he has carried into the Service respect and admiration for this Academy which guided him and served as the mold for his military character during the four most formative years of his life.


Thayer's Note:

a Arthur Ainslie Ageton was born on October 25, 1900, in Fromberg, MT, entered the Academy on August 25, 1919, and graduated in the Class of 1923. He taught Navigation at the Naval Academy in 1935‑1937 and 1941‑1943, and during the rest of World War II fought in the Pacific theater, earning a Bronze Star. He retired from the Navy in 1947 with the rank of Rear Admiral, and spent his retirement — interrupted by a tour of diplomatic duty as ambassador to Paraguay — writing a variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction: among them the 5th and 6th editions of the Naval Officers Guide (1960 and 1964) and as co-author, American Ambassador to Russia (1955) with Admiral William Standley whose memoirs they are, as well as The Marine Officers Guide (1956). He had already written Naval Leadership and the American Bluejacket while still in the Navy, in 1944. Adm. Ageton died on April 23, 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The fuller biographical sketch (1965) by the Navy Office of Information from which I extracted this summary is online.

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