How to Balance Military Service as a Professional Athlete

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(Courtesy of Joe Greenspan)

Joe Greenspan is the first soccer player to compete professionally while also serving in the Navy Reserve. Getting on the pro soccer field with the San Diego Loyal Football Club required a lot of the same traits the U.S. military instills in its members, including a dedicated work ethic, physical and mental resilience, and being able to play his individual role as part of a greater team.

For all professional athletes serving in the military reserves, the most part of their lives is answering the call to put on the uniform when the time comes. That's the balance Greenspan and athletes in other sports have to strike. But the two sync well, according to Greenspan.

"Even though the two are in very different realms, the values and the ties that bind you to your unit are very similar," he said.

Greenspan was a highly coveted soccer prospect upon his graduation from the Naval Academy in 2015. Despite a lack of clarity over his ability to defer his academy service obligation, he was drafted into Major League Soccer in the second round, going 26th overall to the Colorado Rapids.

(Courtesy of Joe Greenspan)

In 2016, the Obama administration's policy for graduating academy athletes allowed them to apply to defer their service commitments, granting approvals on a case-by-case basis. Those who did get the OK from the Pentagon were put on Ready Reserve status. The Defense Department allowed Greenspan to report to Denver in a recruiting role, where he played out his first season. He then transitioned into the Naval Reserve, where he's served ever since.

As a reserve public affairs officer in San Diego, his commander in chief is President Donald Trump. As a defender for the San Diego Loyal, it is U.S. Men's Soccer legend Landon Donovan.

"Whether it's Big Navy that you're serving or your team, your football club, you are a part of something that's bigger than yourself," Greenspan told Military.com. "As part of that unit, no matter what your role is, you have to serve. ... It's your responsibility to do your job."

This is especially true for fitness standards. As a professional athlete, of course, it's necessary for him to be in top physical condition. But Greenspan said the sailors in the Navy are right up there with him.

"It's part of the job, you know, so of course pro athletes need to have a level of fitness that's pretty high, but I've seen some pretty fit guys and girls out in the Navy, for sure," he said, adding that it starts with your mentality.

For Greenspan, there's a desire to be as physically fit as he can be, not just during the soccer season, but especially in the off-season. Many players have different ideas about how to perform best on the field but, in general, strength work on his legs with a focus on injury prevention is the foundation of his workouts, he explained. Squats, deadlifts and building muscle around the knees are all key, he added.

(Courtesy of Joe Greenspan)

In the off-season, he said, he and his teammates lift heavy. During the regular season, they just maintain. The coronavirus pandemic threw everything off for Greenspan and his teammates. But they quickly figured out how to get themselves -- and each other -- through the worst of it, he said.

"We were all on our own, but we would end up doing Zoom workouts twice a week, even when we couldn't be around our physical fitness staff," Greenspan said. "But it was a good microcosm of the idea that, when you're not playing, it's on you to be a professional."

Transitioning toward professional sports after service is possible, but Greenspan said it takes good habits and time in the gym to get there.

"It's hard to walk in," he said. "No matter what sport you're playing, you need to be on the ball whenever you can. Soccer is a physical sport, but it's less about the physical and more about the skill with the ball. Whereas to be an NFL linebacker requires a different skills set. So train and prepare as if you were going to play that sport. Train six, seven days [a week] over a long period of time."

Once your body is ready, he continued, getting to play professionally is about finding an opportunity.

"Major League Soccer is the highest level here in the U.S.," he said. "But there are lower levels that you can work your way up in. It's going to be tough, having never played professionally. But if you can foster your skills until you have the chance to show your skills, like an open tryout, then you can show you belong there."

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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