Social work skills a good fit for athletics (2012)

Cartoon: woman of color hitting finish tape“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” — Michael Jordan

“Athletes are complex,” said Vince Lodato, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of the National Sports Performance Institute. “The layers of complexity go beyond just being a good athlete. They have to outperform at their highest level every day.”

Considering the range of issues athletes may face — from stress to substance abuse — it makes sense for social workers to be involved at all levels, said Emmett Gill, assistant professor at the Department of Social Work at North Carolina Central University in Durham.

Gill worked with the Rutgers University women’s basketball team to help them cope with the aftermath of the Don Imus scandal in 2007, when the radio host made alleged racial slurs about the team on his show “Imus in the Morning.”

“Athletics can be a closed system,” Gill said. “As social workers, we have a unique skill set. We’re set to break down the barriers athletics presents. In working with Rutgers, it was a way to get the young ladies to think about their life outside of sports. ”

It is becoming increasingly more common to have social workers in collegiate athletic environments, Gill said, because late adolescent and early adulthood are time periods where males and females experience meaningful identity development issues. And social work is the profession best equipped to deal with issues of social functioning, he added.

NASW member Larry Mabry said it’s not yet common for social workers to work with professional athletes, even though their training is well-suited for it.

“ … It’s more a sports psychologist or psychologist,” he said. “But social workers have the right skills to deal with crisis and mental health (issues).”

Lodato, who also is the director of the employee assistance programs for two major league organizations, said in addition to substance abuse and stress, athletes deal with issues like eating disorders, being an LGBT athlete and everyday life problems that become magnified as they juggle erratic schedules and competitive environments.

“Most of the time, when their performance suffers, there is a lot of stuff off field that is going on,” he said.

Time management is also a big issue for student athletes, said social worker Warde Manuel, director of athletics at the University of Connecticut. College athletes spend a minimum of 20 hours a week playing and practicing, which means 20 hours taken away from other areas, he said.

“(They) arrive into a tough academic environment, some are homesick, and they are overwhelmed with tight schedules,” Manuel said. “They have to do more than what they have ever done before.”

As a social worker and a former athlete, Manuel said he can relate to the student athletes he works with.

“I vividly remember the issues I was facing as a student athlete, and I had to work hard to prove myself,” he said.

Mabry, an EAP counselor to minor league baseball teams in Florida, also personally understands the struggles athletes go through, especially internally, as he has played sports competitively and battled addiction.

“In my role, I’ve helped athletes deal“with crisis,” he said. “When they figure out I used to be in their shoes, they become more willing to reach out. As a former athlete myself, I understand that the pressure and situations people put themselves into (are) not always by choice.”

Mabry said he has seen firsthand what troubled athletes can get into, from drug use and addiction to tearing up hotel rooms to cheating on their spouse.

“… Any adolescent impulsiveness you can think of, a baseball player does,” he said. “Being cooped up on a bus, they can act out from anxiety, depression, boredom, passive aggressiveness. In the minor league, everyone is good and everyone is a star just like everyone else. So acting out is a way to draw attention to themselves.”

But coming from an athletic background isn’t always necessary in order to work with athletes.

NASW member Edward Hanna, professor emeritus at the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, said he was approached by an Olympic coach in the 1970s to help a team of Olympic-bound Greco-Roman wrestlers in training. The coach believed the wrestlers were plagued with mental health issues that contributed to diminished performances, and he wanted Hanna to help them.

“I knew nothing of the subject and I had no exposure to athletes prior to this,” Hanna said. “All I promised was to take a look at the potential personal problems the athletes may have been facing.”

Hanna was not particularly interested in working with athletes, but said that outlook allowed him to see the situation neutrally. And he found it was as important to work with the coaches as it was the athletes.

As Hanna visited training camps to observe, he saw that the way some coaches interacted with the athletes had a negative transference and something akin to project identification, where a coach’s behavior can trigger a past emotional upset the athlete may have faced.

“Some of the athletes left home to live with their coaches, and something in the dynamic of the coach could remind the athlete of their parents,” Hanna said. “There is a degree of intensity between the coach and athlete. I tried to gently increase the coaches’ empathy for what was going on, changing perspective and the way they were intervening (with the athlete).”

Manuel said he works with coaches daily in his role as an athletic director.

“I work with them to address any needs for a particular team or player,” he said. “I have daily hands-on exposure, and it gives me a way to interact with the coaches and their admin staff to help the athletes be successful all around.”

Lodato said because professional sports is an extremely competitive field, it’s important for both the athlete and the social worker working with them to find balance.

“At the pro level, there are maybe 750 to 1,200 people out there who have the talent to fill roles as a pro player,” he said. “There are not a lot of jobs and it’s extremely competitive. There are so many different issues I deal with from so many people from various backgrounds. It’s about understanding what they want to accomplish as an athlete, and it’s about me finding balance and being centered and imparting that.”

Working with this group can be as difficult to break into as becoming an actual athlete, Gill said, but local sports teams are a good place to start for social workers who see themselves working with athletes.

“Athletic departments are becoming more open to the idea of athletes doing as well on the court as off,” he said. “Contact high school athletic departments, and aim to work with high school students who are going on to play sports in college. Offer pro bono services to minor league teams. Social workers should be specific about what they can bring to the table, and need to have a game plan — athletic departments will probably like the idea of a social worker working with them, but they won’t know how. Give them the vision.”

Having an understanding of the culture of a sport can also help, he said.

“Amateur and professional athletes, and the athletic setting, can be very intimidating to an outsider,” Gill said. “Social workers need to understand how the culture of a sport, a team, and the environment in which sports operates impacts social challenges that athletes experience. Issues like eating disorders and substance abuse have a different spin in an athletic setting.”

The coaches are the gatekeepers to the team, Lodato said, so it’s important to start with them.

“Make yourself available to the people who coach the teams,” he said. “If you have some knowledge of a sport or play one yourself, start looking for those teams. It takes two to three seasons to gain some credibility and if you’re already involved in a particular sport, it can open up huge doors. It’s important to know that social workers are valued because they have the training to navigate intricate organizations.”

Understanding the life of an athlete can help, Mabry said, as they have a completely different mentality.

But it’s worth the effort, he said.

“Athletes are amazing to me,” Mabry said. “They’re capable of anything. One player I worked with said that if he didn’t make it into the major leagues, he was going to go back to school to be a social worker because he wants to help other people. So helping them is very rewarding.”

Getting started

There are a couple of beneficial organizations that social workers can look into to familiarize themselves with the athletic world.

According to Emmett Gill, assistant professor at the Department of Social Work at North Carolina Central University, the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (NH4) and the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) will help provide insight.

“NH4 is an excellent resource for understanding the person in the environment,” Gill said. “NASSS takes more of a sociological perspective, but these are the folks who are doing the majority of the scholarly writing on student-athlete development.”

For more information on NH4, visit The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics; or The North American Society for the Sociology of Sport.