Transitioning for Warfighters and NFL Football Players: Similar Challenges and New Opportunities for Growth, Part 3 of 3
Severed from the Tribe: An attachment wound that cuts across both groups
Whether it’s on the battlefield or the football field, there is a sense of being part of a “Tribe” – being part of something bigger than oneself.
Relative to the military context, there is more individualism in sports. Athletes may switch teams throughout their careers, and star athletes, especially those with endorsement contracts, often develop a public persona. But in both cases, the mission comes back to team performance. A star quarterback is only a star to the degree that he takes his team to a win in the championship game.
In the military, at every level of training, from boot camp onward, the goal is to take individuals and transform them into groups that serve a common mission. The role of team and military psychologists is to ensure that team performance is optimized and that individuals are ever ready to serve their respective team or unit. In the military, individualism is not a virtue, but rather a character defect. Related to this, many Veterans are uncomfortable about being singled out from their unit for special recognition.
Pay close attention to how Veterans receive individual medals of honor. What you will often hear is something like, ‘I only did what anyone else would have done’ or ‘I just did what I was trained to do, just like anyone else.’ This is linguistic code for ‘I don’t particularly want to be singled out – it doesn’t make sense to honor me alone when so many people I love sacrificed equally. We accomplish our victories as a Tribe.’
As I have said in previous blogs, for many Veterans, it is not trauma exposure that creates challenges following discharge, but the forced cut-off from the Tribe of those they love and trust. Relevance in both professional sports settings and military settings is defined by performance. For this reason, people can emotionally “fall off a cliff,” when they are extracted from both their domain of competence AND the team or unit that depends on them. Even in the midst of very grave injuries, many Veterans feel a compelling need to get back to the war zone. Our nation’s warfighters become part of something bigger than themselves – a deep, collective kind of love and trust with their brothers and sisters in arms — and they bleed – psychologically – when they are cut off from the Tribe. These wounds can be healed and I have been in a position to repeatedly witness the life-saving power of reconstructing the Tribe and helping warriors extend trust to safe people outside their military Tribe.
To summarize, transitions for warfighters and professional football players have some compelling similarities. Transition in both cases is marked by a series of predictable, potentially overwhelming stressors for individuals. These stressors – which often cut to the core of a person’s identity – would affect any of us similarly if we were in the same situation. And for those of us who support those who are in transitions – whether they are Veterans, athletes, first responders, or others, it is important that we understand that individuals in transition are not deficient – they are thrust into a series of uncharted challenges with limited support. We must have a fully-informed strategic response to supporting their grief and their growth. PsychArmor Institute has launched a series of courses on Suicide Prevention, Intervention, and Postvention, starting with a course on overcoming barriers to care which provides insight and practical guidance to help us support those in transition.
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.