Transitioning for Warfighters and NFL Football Players: Similar Challenges and
New Opportunities for Growth, Part 1 of 3
Reprinted with permission by the author.
With funding provided by the National Football League (NFL) Foundation, TAPS has partnered with PsychArmor Institute and researchers from the National Center for Veterans Studies and the Columbia Lighthouse Project to offer a series of free courses focused on suicide prevention, intervention and postvention. The first of these courses, which launched in May 2019, is “Barriers to Treatment.” This training provides practice guidance for helping service members make a healthy transition following their time in the military.
In light of the launch of this training series, and the introduction of this particular course, it is interesting to note the similarities between the career transition process for warfighters and professional athletes. This is not to say that the experience of serving in a war zone is similar to that of competing in athletics. The goal of making these connections is to heighten awareness of the context as the dominant factor in transitional challenges. As I have mentioned in other writing, we continue to make the mistake of thinking that individual outcomes are mainly a product of individual “resilience” factors.
Perhaps it is tempting to lay the responsibility at the feet of the individual, because that gives us a greater sense of perceived control ourselves—or lessened personal responsibility for supporting those who are impacted by transitional stress? However, when we do this, we start to see individuals as “deficient,” and they can see themselves reflected in this mirror in turn. Instead of continuing to see the individual as the source and cause of transitional struggles, let’s consider some of these important contextual factors.
There are at least 3 compelling areas of overlap for the current comparison groups: warfighters and professional athletes. In this first of three blogs, I will cover the first area:
A Fast and Straight Path to Strong Self-Identity
Both careers create a strong and clear identity for individuals, often starting at a relatively young age.
As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, the most promising athletes on youth teams (often the ones who are oldest in their age category) are selected for increased attention and cultivation. There are some exceptions of star athletes who have been discovered relatively late in the game. Jerry Rice, who was discovered for football in high school after outrunning his principal, is a notable example. However, in most cases, professional athletes have a long history of being recognized and supported as “athletes” from a very young age. And related to this, their identity as an athlete often organizes and drives their sense of self.
In the military context, given that enlistment usually begins at age 18 (barring a parental waiver), this identity-driving factor starts later, but still relatively early in a person’s life cycle. Those who enlist between ages 18 and 20, often as an alternative to going to college, are still within their prime identity-formation years. Therefore, the military cultural transformation that starts in boot camp often roots very deeply for those who enter in this time of their life.
In the case of both professional sports and military engagement, the formation of an early, clear self-identity as an “Athlete” or a “Soldier/Marine” etc. can delay some of the individuation processes that might otherwise occur in youth and early adult developmental phases. This is particularly true to the extent that individual decision-making is diminished. In professional sports culture and in the military, there is a strong focus on honing the body and mind of the athlete or warfighter to be an effective instrument. This process is supported in each context by people behind the scenes (an Army of researchers and strategic planners) and people with direct influence on the individual (coaches/trainers/drill sergeants).
Individual choice is replaced by a highly regimented structure that includes when and what someone eats, and a mental conditioning program to shape values and motivations towards the desired end. As a result, the work of figuring out the layers of one’s identity is often moved to a period of transition after the military or professional sports career. This becomes both an urgent and often high-stakes question for many who transition out of these two contexts. And at this critical time, the individual often has little to none of the support and coaching that he or she had previously. This is especially true for those in the next category.
Read more in part 2 of this blog series.
Find a related resource list here.
About the author:
Dr. Shauna Springer is a licensed Psychologist with an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a doctoral degree from the University of Florida. She has been deeply embedded in the military and veteran community for over a decade. Prior to her current role as Senior Director of Suicide Prevention Initiatives at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, she served as a front-line Psychologist in a Department of Veterans Affairs behavioral health clinic. Known to many veterans as “Doc Springer,” she has helped hundreds of warriors reconnect with their tribe, strengthen their most important relationships, and build lives that are driven by their deepest values.
The TAPS Suicide Prevention and Postvention Team offers a range of resources, programs and events as well as expert subject matter training and consultation for organizations and providers. To learn more: https://www.taps.org/suicidepostvention.