Take the plunge!

Peak Performance Center helps cadets navigate stressful situations

(This article appears in the June 2019 edition of Checkpoints magazine)

Located in a quiet corner of Sijan Hall, the Peak Performance Center serves as a lifeline for cadets to help them navigate through the labyrinth of challenges they face at the Academy.

From getting advice on time management to coping with the aftermath of sexual assault to conquering a fear of heights or drowning, cadets can find confidential and professional counseling at the Peak Performance Center.

“We are set up specifically to see cadets, we are only available to cadets and they must be voluntary,” says Capt. Rebekah Auld, a Peak Performance Center provider. “So, a cadet cannot be command directed for an evaluation. We are here to help cadets learn the survival skills they need to learn how to process through stress or anxiety-provoking situations and be successful.”

Entering virtual reality

The Peak Performance Center staff looks for innovative ways to interact with cadets and offer solutions to complex issues.

Cadets involved in required water survival training often make their way to the center seeking advice on how to overcome various fears related to the aquatics training. The aquatics courses, coordinated through the Athletics Department, teach a variety of survival techniques that airmen may need to employ quickly if they are ever in a plane that is forced to make a hazardous water landing.

At the pinnacle of the training, a cadet jumps off the 10-meter (30-foot) platform into the Academy pool, swims 50 feet underwater beneath a simulated bulkhead, surfaces and inflates the flotation blouse that’s part of the cadet’s airman battle uniform.

Even the strongest swimmers can find the training intimidating.

As Auld worked with cadets on aquatics-related concerns, she wondered if it would be possible to add a virtual reality tool to the counseling process.

“We thought it would be really cool to engage the cadets in a way that they’re used to being engaged, which for a lot of them is video games and virtual reality,” Auld says.

“There’s a lot of evidence in the therapeutic world that virtual reality can be a very effective and efficient way to address anxiety. We know it works with our troops who are getting treatment for post-traumatic stress when it comes to combat deployment. So let’s create a VR platform that is unique to USAFA, to the pool environment, that we can hook them up to in the privacy of our office at a time that works best for the cadet and help them.”

Auld’s idea caught on quickly, leading to a collaborative effort between the Peak Performance Center, the Athletics Department, the Department of Computer and Cyber Sciences, and the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership to create a virtual reality tool.

Cadets in the computer and behavioral sciences departments made it the focus of their senior capstone projects. Computer sciences cadets created the virtual reality platform and behavioral sciences cadets focused on analyzing the complex interactions between the simulated environment and the cadet.

The virtual reality environment mirrors the entire indoor pool facility, including the imposing diving platforms cadets encounter in water survival training. This unique tool can serve as a supplemental aid to an already proven therapeutic approach used in the Peak Performance Center to assist cadets in learning how to better manage their physiological response to anxiety-provoking situations in the aquatics course. 

Cadets 1st Class Mikela Tucker and Samuel San Marco are researching the effectiveness of the virtual reality scenario by monitoring the heart rates, breathing and reactions of test subjects who interact with the program. They only work with cadets who have completed the water survival course.

“We’re not doing anything clinical,” says Dr. Kristen Haring, a civilian researcher who coordinates robotic and virtual reality studies. “We don’t want to do any of the interventions. That will be done through the Peak Performance Center because that is their area of expertise.”

Tucker and San Marco expect others to build upon their research to enhance the effectiveness of the virtual reality program and adapt it to other applications. 

“Long-term, this is the Warfighter Research Center,” San Marco says. “We are developing tomorrow’s warfighters, helping them overcome some of the fears they may have to where all they may need to do is take a leap of faith and find that it’s all good.” 

When the final computer programming and behavioral studies are completed, the virtual reality equipment will be set up in a special room in the Peak Performance Center. To make the program more realistic, the room will be equipped with sensory elements like the smell of chlorine, misting, flooring that simulates the pool environment, and sounds of water splashing and other pool activities, creating the full sensory experience.

Many paths to success 

Venturing into the realm of virtual reality illustrates the forward-looking approach the Peak Performance Center takes toward cadet care and counseling, but it represents only a small part of the center’s larger mission.

In addition to a wide array of counseling options, Auld and her teammates often step outside the center to interact with cadets across the Academy — from speaking in classrooms to attending cadet events to inviting cadets to drive “drunk carts” to challenge their perceptions of drunk driving.

Drunk carts are pedal-operated go-carts that cadets attempt to maneuver through a simple obstacle course while wearing special goggles that simulate different levels of drunkenness. Wearing the same goggles, cadets also are challenged to try to hit a foam ball with a baseball bat, further illustrating the debilitating effects of alcohol use.

Engaging cadets in drunk cart competitions offers them a welcome reprieve from the rigors of Academy life and opens the door for more serious conversations about substance abuse awareness.

Tools like the drunk carts and creating a room in the center to house the virtual reality program are often provided through private gifts from Academy graduates.

Contributing through the United States Air Force Academy Endowment, retired Lt. Gen. Marcus Anderson ’61, former commandant of cadets, included the Peak Performance Center in a significant gift to the Academy that targeted academics, professional development and cadet mental health.

“The Academy shaped my life and provided me the tools for a successful and enjoyable career as well as a set of values I have retained and used ever since being a cadet in the Class of 1961,” Anderson says. “I think every graduate has benefited from his or her four years at the Academy, so it seems logical to help those who follow and enhance their opportunities.”

A third focus for the center is coordinating the Personal Ethics and Education Representative (PEER) program. Through the program, two to three cadet volunteers from each squadron are trained as certified advisers, which means 120 to 130 active PEER volunteers serve within the squadrons each academic year.

PEERs provide cadet education, help coordinate events, are trained to assess situations, and can connect cadets to services and resources that address their needs.   

“PEERs know how to navigate the conversation and direct their fellow cadets to appropriate services,” Auld says. “A lot of times cadets won’t want to come to a permanent party uniformed member but will come to one of their friends.”

The Academy Class of 1980 helped establish the PEER program with a gift through the Association of Graduates. The class gift also provides ongoing support for PEER initiatives each year.

“It really is a blessing, and it’s been fun to be able to see how the donations of the grads can be applied to make what could sometimes be a very dry message much more interactive and attention-grabbing to get the cadets involved, get them interested and get them comfortable talking about matters that they probably wouldn’t talk about otherwise,” Auld says.

The door is always open at the Peak Performance Center. The staff is friendly and no topic of discussion is out of bounds. It’s all about helping cadets overcome challenges and be successful.

As Auld says: “Let’s talk through that.”

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