Military Sociology

Life After Peak Experiences

image-soldier-athlete“It is often said that a sports star will die twice, the first time at retirement. For elite athletes who have dedicated their lives to sport, what happens when your time comes to an end, if you aren’t an athlete, then who are you?” – Emma Vickers

Combat is like the Olympics of a service-member’s career. Years of strenuous training and repetitive drills all build up to a big moment where the training is put to the test. In a rush of well-integrated collective effort, individuals are bound together, transcending their individual selves in service of the mission. As Sebastian Junger states:

“These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees [in combat] are where the men feel… the most necessary… the most clear and certain and purposeful.”

Like an Olympic athlete, individuals in combat experience a high point in their career. All of the elite skills and capabilities instilled in training is drawn upon, the team is focused on a clear set of objectives, and the rush of collective defense ramps up each individual’s biological processes, allowing for increased reaction-time and psychological resilience. 

For many in sport or combat, retirement comes at an early age – either by choice or due to injury. These Individuals in their late twenties or early thirties may be going into retirement at the same time as their peers are establishing their professional life.

Although young retirees have a chance to establish a new professional path, the nature of their elite training and peak occupational experiences may actually be an existential barrier for those struggling to come to terms with an identity outside their elite role. As Emma Vickers states:

Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously quoted, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.”

Abraham Maslow described peak experiences as a major contributor to self-actualization (reaching the highest stage of personal development). For individuals in combat or elite roles at an early age, we need to reconsider how these peak experiences may actually block identity formation in individuals who are faced with radical occupational changes.

Besides the individual, combat groups are highly organized teams of individuals who are extremely well coordinated with one another and directed at a clear goal. Like an NFL team, the group is able to work extremely effectively at a level far beyond the norm. When individuals leave this environment, adjustment to some civilian workplaces can pose significant frustrations of the group proves to be inefficient or lacking adequate leadership. Veterans are highly trained in leadership and decision-making abilities and would be an asset to any organization.

When structures are in place to support radical transitions, peak experiences may help rather than hinder an individual’s continued development. Educational support, career training, peer-groups, and organizations that support knowledge translation skills are examples of these types of structures.

The Canadian Treble Victor Group is an example of a great organization supporting veterans in transition.

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