I love sports and working in the field of social work. I have worked in the field of social service for a large part of my life. The idea to merge my two loves and create a career began a short time after graduating from graduate school. As I began the journey to a private practice, I was encouraged by an adviser to produce written materials related to this topic and that is how I decided to write this blog on the subject of social work and sports.

Working with athletes and within sports organizations is an emerging practice in the field of social work. More than ever, social workers are finding themselves working with athletes on the high school, collegiate and professional levels. This month I was thinking about the history of mental health professionals working with sports and athletes. I then thought about current developments in the field and came to the realization that there is a need to provide a brief history, highlight some leaders in the field and note relevant topics and discussion happening today in this area.

There is a history with athletes and mental health professionals as it relates to performance enhancement. It started with physical education and coaching.

In 1897, research was conducted on a group of cyclists by Norman Triplett, PhD, professor at Indiana University. Dr. Triplett is now known as the grandfather of sports psychology. Dr. Triplett was interested in cycling and conducted the first experiments with athletes. He discovered that cyclist performed better, when they were with other cyclists. 

In the early 1920’s enhancing the performance for athletes had been a point of interest for coaches. Olympic team personnel across the country invited mental health professionals for clinical consultations and interventions for their athletes.

In 1925, Coleman Griffith, PhD, had a sports psychology laboratory at the University of Illinois. There, he studied personality, motor learning and motivation of athletes. He began working informally with Illinois’ football coach, then Notre Dame’s football coach and other teams in the Big Ten Conference, to assist with ways in which coaches handled the psychological aspect of the game with their players. Dr. Griffith also served as a consultant to Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs. In these early stages, sports psychologists worked with the athletes focusing on cognitive learning framework. Concurrently, research was happening on the psychology of sports.

In 1967, Dr. Harry Edwards, Sports Sociologist at the University of California at Berkley, and author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete; organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which lead to the invocation Black Power Salute by medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the award ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. Dr. Edwards’ work centers on race, sports and society. Dr. Edwards has served as a staff consultant to the San Francisco 49ers football team and the Golden State Warriors basketball team. Dr. Edwards received the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award for his lifetime commitment to the rights and academic opportunities for college athletes.

In 1993, Edward A. Hanna, PhD, wrote in the Clinical Social Work Journal a preliminary report titled The Psychodynamically Oriented Clinical Social Worker as Sports Consultant. Given the nature of the professional training that clinical social workers possess, Dr. Hanna observed that clinical social workers were well suited to address and treat the needs of athletes. In his paper, Dr. Hanna noted his diagnostic work and interventions conducted with an Olympics wresting team.

As recently as October 2011, Emmett Gill, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor of the School of Social Work at North Carolina Central University presented a workshop at the Illinois Association of School Social Workers Conference (which I attended) titled School and Sports Inappropriate Relationships and Sexual Abuse (before the Penn State scandal became public). In this workshop, he discussed mandated reporting, and how coaches and sports personnel can “push back the boundaries of accepted behavior”.

He also noted the large amounts of time athletes spend with their coaches and the trust that is placed in them. (In my opinion, for a predator, this is an ideal environment to victimized children). Dr. Gill also worked with the Rutgers University women’s basketball team after Don Imus made racial and misogynistic slurs about the women during a radio broadcast.

Some of Dr. Gill’s focus areas include, Title IX, (where it states “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”) and social justice in college sports.

In November 2011, I attended the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, Social Work and Sports Panel hosted by William Banderwill, MSW, LMSW, ACSW, LMFT, BCD Field Educator/ Lecturer and the Office of Field Instruction. During the panel, a variety of topics were discussed. The moderator Dale Romisnski, LMSW posed the question, “How can social work and sports be integrated?”

There were excellent presenters that shared and initiated a dialogue in an attempt to answer that very question. There were six panelists, including Dr. John Hagen who discussed research with student athletes and students who were diagnosed with learning disabilities and related difficulties.

In the area of youth development, presenter Alisa Jacobs, BSW discussed the need for training coaches who work with at risk youth and how to use sports as a therapeutic tool.

Nate Recknagel, B.A. and former professional baseball player for the Cleveland Indians, discussed enhancing sport performance. Nate also shared with me personally his thoughts on the Penn State scandal. He said “As regards to PSU, it’s very unfortunate for many involved, especially the children. On a sport performance note, I can’t imagine how stressful it is for football players to maintain focus with the intense media scope and the criticism PSU athletics is receiving. It’s a very sad time for PSU and the reflection of collegiate athletics as a whole.” 

Measie James, LMSW, discussed diversity on a deeper level bring attention to the “pay to play” rule in sports and how that effects the athletes that cannot afford to participate and Title IX was also discussed.

Warren Clark, LMSW, introduced careers in social work and sport and encouraged the development of curriculum for coaches.

Greg Harden, MSW, and the Associate Athletic Director/Director of Athletic Counseling for the University of Michigan, discussed his work at the university and explained how each sport has its own culture. He also reinforced how social workers are attuned, through their training, for working with athletes. Mr. Harden went on to say that sport psychologist “work from the neck up” but social workers work with the “total athlete”.

When we look at athletes and sports as a population with vulnerabilities there is an array of target areas social workers can specialize in both on a micro and macro level. These include substance abuse, learning disorders, relationship building, depression, stress and pressure just to name a few.

Social workers have the ability and should be the leaders in developing training, curriculum, community groups and so much more. I am excited for the future. I foresee this area of social work and sports producing research, private practices, and certification programs, areas of concentrations in schools for social work, professional organizations and conferences. I look forward in seeing what’s to come!

Play hard. Live well.


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