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Using "The Art of War" in Athletic Competitions

by Ron Kurtus (updated 28 May 2023)

Sun Tzu wrote "The Art of War" for the king of the Chinese state of Wu around 300 B.C. He then employed his tactics as a general in the victorious army of the king.

These concepts and principles of warfare and military strategy can be applied to athletic competitions.

The 13 chapters in the book are summarized into topics applicable to athletics. Although the material is somewhat cryptic, you can see how it applies. (See The Art of War for more information.)

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

Warfare and athletic competition

Warfare and athletic competition are similar in that the objective is to defeat the opponent. In warfare, victory is decided when the opponent surrenders or is crushed into submission. In an athletic competition, victory is usually decided by who scores the most points by the end of the game. In some sports such as boxing, the opponent may be knocked out or even give up before the end of the game.

Art of War

The book "The Art of War" is divided into 13 chapters or topics. The following material summarizes those topics, changing the perspective from winning a war to winning an athletic contest.

1. Laying Plans

Athletic competition can be important to your success and stature. It can be a road either to achievement or to mediocrity. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

Athletic competition is based on deception. It is deceiving your opponent into allowing you to score a point.

2. Waging battle

When you engage in actual competition, if the game drags on without victory, you may become fatigued and even lose your desire. If you take too long to win, you can exhaust your strength.

Now in order to defeat your opponent, you must be aroused to passion and desire to win. You must see your rewards.

3. Attack by Stratagem

In the practical art of winning an athletic contest, the best thing of all is to defeat your opponent with dignity. To crush him into the ground is not good. Hence to fight and win in every play until the end is not supreme excellence. Instead, supreme excellence consists in breaking your opponent's will to win without having to struggle for the victory.

4. Tactical Dispositions

You must put yourself beyond the possibility of defeat and then wait for an opportunity of defeating your opponent. To secure yourself against defeat lies in your own hands. But the opportunity of defeating your foe is provided by the opponent himself.

The player who is skilled in defense hides his abilities. He who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. Thus, on the one hand you have ability to protect yourself and on the other, you have a victory that is complete.

5. Energy

The control of a long game has the same principle as the control of short game. It is merely a question of pacing yourself.

In all competitions, the direct method may be used to score individual points, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

6. Weak Points and Strong

Whoever is first to attack will be fresh for the fight. Whoever is second in attacking and has to hasten to get back in the game will become exhausted.

Therefore the clever competitor imposes his will on the opponent, and he does not allow the opponent's will to be imposed on him.

7. Maneuvering

Having starting the game and concentrated your efforts, you must blend and harmonize the different elements of your play before relaxing.

After that, comes tactical maneuvering, of which there is nothing more difficult. The difficulty of tactical maneuvering consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.

8. Variation in Tactics

The competitor who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his performance.

The player who does not understand the value of varying tactics may be well acquainted with the rules of the game, yet he will not be able to turn his knowledge into victory.

Thus the student of athletic competition who does not vary his plans will fail to make the best use of his skills.

9. The Progression of the Game

As the game or competition progresses, be cautious when relaxing your efforts and observe signs of a counter-attack by your opponent.

When your opponent does attack and try to score points, do not meet meet his at a point of disadvantage. It will be best to let him start and then deliver your attack at his point of weakness.

10. Using Position

You want to be able to fight with advantage. Be ready for battle. If your opponent is unprepared for a good battle, you may sally forth and defeat him. But if he is prepared for your attack, and you fail to defeat him, then disaster will ensue.

11. Situations

There are various places where you may play your game. You need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each environment.

Good players know how to drive a wedge between the opponent's left and right sides. You want to prevent cooperation between his strong and weak hands. You want to hinder him from having good plays that rescue him from the poor plays.

If your opponent leaves a door open, you must rush in.

12. The Attack with Fervor

You should attack your opponent in the game with fervor, not letting him fight back. In order to win a game of extreme importance, you must use all means available.

13. Knowledge of Your Opponent

Knowledge is what enables the good player to strike and conquer his opponent, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men. Knowledge of your opponent's dispositions can be obtained by watching him compete with other players.

Sometimes you can ask other players for hints of weaknesses in your opponent. This is especially true when the competition has high stakes.

Understanding meaning

The 13 topics may be somewhat cryptic in their meaning, but you can see how they can be used in an athletic competition. The idea is the same: defeat the foe. You need to prepare yourself for battle, know your enemy, and use methods to play to his weaknesses, as well as to deceive him into exposing those weaknesses.


The concepts and principles of warfare and military strategy stated in "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu can be used athletic competitions. Although the material is somewhat cryptic, you can see how it applies.

Some games are like wars

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