Career Transitions for NFL Players and Soldiers

How context eclipses individual resilience.

Posted Mar 20, 2019

A few months ago, I had a very interesting conversation about 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 wrote in a previous post, as a society, 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. The myth of the broken veteran, a chapter in a book I hope to publish later this year, examines the stories we tell that are shaming to groups of people, using veterans as a prime example. 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:

1. 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 reportedly 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.  

2. In the case of both professional sports and military occupations, one's fortune can suddenly be reversed and one's entire life path can be changed in an instant. The greatest fear of many professional athletes is to have a career-ending injury. Similarly, in the combat zone, soldiers and Marines can suddenly experience devastating injury. In the military, these injuries are often physical, but may involve exposure to extreme psychological traumas as well.

In any case, the individual can go from functioning at the highest level of their respective profession to suddenly being ejected from the organizing activity that is most closely linked to their sense of personal identity. When individuals suddenly find themselves outside their former world, the change is often paired with a feeling of invisibility. This is especially true for our warfighters. That is, the athletic endeavors of professional athletes are witnessed in a communal way. They are taped, recorded and regularly discussed on sports programs. For example, Dwight Clark will forever be associated with “The Catch.” Some athletes find a way to keep a tie to their teams or to the sport as a whole through new roles such as becoming sports commentators.  People in society may continue to recognize top tier professional athletes as “celebrities.” Others may fade into relative anonymity, but they can be assured that a mention of their professional sports life will often generate positive interest and immediate social cache.

In contrast, those who hold the stories of our warfighters exist in a separate circle – the military and veteran community – that is not well integrated into mainstream society. If these experiences were understood and better integrated, more civilians would be able to go much deeper with our warfighters than relying on statements like “thank you for your service.” A recurring theme in my conversations with veterans is how they often feel like ghosts, not fully visible and no better understood (despite the hero worship) than Vietnam veterans have felt. Many of the veterans I have served have needed to actively grieve the loss of this identity. Many have been stuck until they are given this understanding and the necessary insights for how to grieve and grow beyond the role they have had for many years.

3. In both instances, 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. 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 “fall off a cliff," emotionally speaking, when they get injured or are extracted from their domain of competence and the Tribe of others who have become like family to them. Even in the midst of very grave injuries, many veterans feel a compelling need to get back to the war zone. My friend Josh Mantz, who actually flatlined in the combat zone, is a good example of this. In his book, The Beauty of a Darker Soul, he describes how he pulled the staples out of his leg with a Gerber so that he could get back to the war zone without further delay. 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.

To summarize, my short-range goal has been to help us make the connection that transitions for warfighters and professional football players have some compelling similarities. The longer-range goal, however, is to help those who are suffering in the wasteland of a life-changing transition to see that their respective situations create a series of predictable, overwhelming stressors for individuals. These contextual factors 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 crucible, and we must have a fully-informed strategic response to supporting their grief and their growth.

In April 2019, Psych Armor Institute will be launching a course I developed on "Overcoming Barriers to Treatment" for those who have served in the military. This project is sponsored by the NFL Foundation. This course will be free to access and it will directly relevant to helping support those in transition. Look for the link in a future posting!

Here are a few resources that can help those in transitions start a journey toward health and healing:

  • NFL Life Line. Confidential support for the entire NFL family. The NFL Life Line is a resource for current and former NFL players, coaches, team and league staff, and their family members. It's secure, confidential, independent, and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call  1 (800) 506-0078.
  • Veterans Crisis Line. The Veterans Crisis Line connects Service members and Veterans in crisis, as well as their family members and friends, with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text-messaging service. Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone.
  • Vets4Warriors. Vets4Warriors is a national 24/7-peer support network for veteran and military communities 100% staffed by trained veterans and members of the military community, their families or caregivers. Call 855-838-8255.
  • Merging Veterans and Players. MVP's mission is to match up combat veterans and former professional athletes together -- after the uniform comes off -- to give them a new team to tackle the transition together. MVP shows them they are NOT alone.