College Athletes Learn Skills, Find Support

By Alison Laurio

graphic of people playing various sports, with text College Athletes Learn Skills, Find Support

Among the many trails Jane Addams blazed to set the foundation for the social work profession is that she may have been the first female athletic director.

"She used sports like boxing to help immigrants acculturate into society and take those values with them," said Emmett Gill, citing a doctoral candidate's research on Addams. "That really goes hand-in-hand with her work."

Sports enthusiasts remember the golden plays and criticize the mistakes made by their favorite players and teams but often don't think about the challenges athletes overcome to reach the spotlight. 

They face hours of practice, pain, pressure to win, and injuries, while at the same time dealing with all of the ups and downs that life hands to everyone. Sports social workers focus on helping with it all, because they see an athlete as a person.

Life Skills

Gill, MSW, PhD, is clinical assistant professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin and president of the Alliance of Social Workers in Sports. While at North Carolina Central University, Gill developed The Student-Athletes Wellness Center, a collaboration between the school's MSW program and athletics.

In the wellness and personal development areas, sports social workers can provide help with substance use, eating disorders, depression and anxiety in "what you might call the youth development model," he said. "With general well-being, I don't think it's a standard model. What we call it is life skills."

A standard approach is not used at the professional level, "because of what they do and how they do it," Gill said.

"We're making sure there's a pool of clinicians in the major league NBA, NFL and MLB cities. With college sports, in providing therapy, we're much farther ahead than at the pro level."

In Division 1, 2 and 3 programs, there are 450,000 student athletes, far more than in professional leagues, Gill said. And they have found student athletes are more in tune with and less judgmental about issues like mental health. They're more willing to address them, and colleges are more willing to respond.

"Professional athletes are a little more reluctant, and because professional sports is much more about profit, the organizations are not as willing to bring these issues to the forefront," he said.

At the collegiate level, there is a greater sense of ownership in the programs, said Matt A. Moore, MSW, PhD, assistant professor of social work and BSW program director at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and co-founder and vice president of ASWIS.

"Ideally, education is first when you have a student," he said. "There's a difference in the nature of what a college athlete is versus what a pro athlete is."

"With the scope of the practice, we see individuals providing clinical services to athletes' behavioral health, academic advice and advocacy, and social skills development. When there's a traumatic injury, we help them turn those into moments of growth for them instead of moments of trauma."

Addressing Issues

athlete running in yellow pants and top

Anita A. Daniels' interest in sports social work began while watching the 2009 Super Bowl pregame show, when the self-proclaimed sports fanatic saw one of the commentators being asked about his son, who was playing in the game. The son had received a call about his mother and was told he needed to go home.

"He elected to stay at his practice, and by the time he got home his mother was in a coma and never regained consciousness," she said. "I remember pointing to the TV and saying, 'He's going to need a therapist.' That's what sparked my interest. I had never thought about working with athletes before."

Daniels, LCSW, LC, AS, CCS, is a founding member of ASWIS where she is vice president-elect and pro sports committee co-chair. Her private practice, actualities limited, is in Durham, N.C., where she also is an adjunct instructor at the North Carolina Central University Department of Social Work.

Daniels conducts individual counseling sessions with student athletes to address stress, anxiety, depression, grief, and loss associated with transitions to college and life after sport.

"People think because athletes are big, strong people, they don't have all these issues," she said. "Athletes live in a bubble. If they do something, everyone is going to know. They're always under a microscope, starting from high school."

Many need stress-management help, Daniels said, and their schedules are one reason why.

College athletes get up early to be at 6 a.m. practices, then watch a video or meet with section teams. After that, they have to eat and get to classes before another practice, she said.

"Then they have to figure out how to get school work done, because they have to pass to play and they have to play to become pro," Daniels said. "They are exhausted, and they need to have someone who can appreciate all that from all the different angles. They need to feel like someone really has their back. And because they don't get paid, they may need help managing their money."

College athletes also need to learn how to have healthy boundaries, because everyone wants to reach out to them, she said.

"What we deal with most is stress and anxiety," Daniels said. "In high school, a lot of players are given a pass. In college, that doesn't happen. If you are not ready, you will not be here. We help them put together answers to questions like, 'How do I manage all the different pieces of the puzzle?' and 'How do I make sure I have the grades and get an education?'"

College-level sports social workers stress that degrees are important and they help prepare student athletes for life.

"Every athlete expects to go pro, but that's not possible," Daniels said. "Everybody is not going to play pro. And those who do are not going to play forever. What are they going to do after?"

A Better Person

Greg Harden carved out his own place in the field of sports social work, but if you ask, he might say, "It came to me."

While working in a hospital-based, alcohol- and drug-treatment program, he earned "a reputation for didactic lectures."

"I was good about talking about subjects to young people," said Harden, MSW, executive associate athletic director at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

He became a speaker and consultant, developing a client base that included major companies like Dow Chemical and Ford, drawing the attention of Bo Schembechler, head coach of Michigan Wolverines football, who in 1986 asked Harden to talk to football players about substance abuse.

"I said 'No,'" Harden said. "They were curious and wanted to know why. I suggested they needed to institutionalize how people worked with the student population, with the athletes. They needed to start thinking differently. I said they needed to do prevention with a capital P, intervention with a capital I, and retention with a capital R to keep people from falling off. If you're serious about getting the best from your students who are athletes, you have to prevent problems from building up, and look at strengths, not just weaknesses."

The team became his client, then his "best client," then his "favorite client."

"In 1990, I was invested," Harden said. "In 1994, they asked me to come inside to institutionalize it and make it part of their program. There are standards on how we help people who are struggling and redirect them: evidence-based formulas."

Athletes need to be seen as people, he said, but once they're labeled an athlete, it's hard to see them as anything else.

"You have to look at the environment," Harden said. "The pressure and intensity on an athlete continues to be intensified by culture, coaches, the media, and it continues to grow. It's a pressure cooker."

If things are not going well, athletes can question their self-identity by thinking people like them when they perform well and don't like them if their performance is off. And college athletes often carry expectations from their families, communities, campuses, coaches - from everyone they know, he said.

"Only 2 percent, just a handful of people, are going to be professional players," Harden said. "It's not just about sports. Life after sports has to be planned."

Social workers on campus can help by de-stigmatizing issues of mental health, working with coaches to help them understand, and helping create a network or safety net for those who experience problems. They also can introduce the idea of continual health care, he said.

Harden said three things are most important for social workers in sports: Teach people how to understand self-acceptance and realize that their self-esteem and self-worth are not based on performance; teach them how to identify healthy versus unhealthy relationships to people, places and things; and teach people how to see and identify what's working and what's not working in their lives and change those unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.

"How to transform yourself is an ability," he said.

In an article published by the university titled "Social Work and Athletics: A Winning Combination," Harden answered the question of why it's a good combination by saying, "There are many people who want to help student athletes be better athletes. The social work perspective is that if you're a better person, you'll be a better athlete. If you can evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, your values and behavior, you will increase the chances that you will become not only a superior athlete, but be able to use your athletic experience as a training ground to take on the world that is awaiting you."

In the News

Daniels attended a symposium about pro football players kneeling while the national anthem is played, and found the views expressed "very interesting."

One former athlete said, "We know what we have seen. We know how things are unfair. We understand. We took a knee to say we understand."

To be told to ignore what happens in their communities "is like a slap in the face," Daniels said. 

But, she said, after an administrator said they need to figure out this and figure out that, one of the panelists said, "African-Americans did not create racism. They do not have to fix it. That is the responsibility of those who created it."

Gill said the alliance is continually monitoring the issue and eyeing the player's association and its potential power as players continue to speak out.

The group also is talking about how sports social workers can best address the issue of sexual assault on athletes, Daniels said.

Within the last year, as reported sexual assaults of female Olympic gymnasts and male Ohio State wrestlers have been in the news, she said the Alliance is considering how to help install protocols that reduce the number of athletes who will become victims.

"If we can help put processes and protocols in place, we can help decrease these incidences and bring attention to that blatant wrong," she said. They also can provide a safe place for players to go if it does happen.

A Student's View

graphic of athlete jumping and reaching to yellow ball

When graduate student Jacob Singer decided medical school was not for him, working at a nonprofit for adults and children with special needs led him to a University of Michigan mini course on social work in sports.

"I grew up just loving sports, and I think sports are really good for youth, because there are so many things they can learn," he said. "It was a good fit for me."

Now Singer is co-president of the Social Work & Sport Association, a graduate student-run organization for University of Michigan School of Social Work students, and will earn his MSW in December.

He sees many advocacy issues he'd like social workers to address, starting with the stigma that players are always supposed to be tough. "I think it's important to end that stigma and advocate for athletes' physical and mental health, and economic and social justice issues too." 

At the pro level, the NFL makes more than $14 billion a year, and the profits are not distributed, he said. When athletes leave the league, they're on their own. He believes the league should make classes available on economics and how to save money to help players when their careers end.

"Many don't know how to invest, and giving them tools and knowledge to do that is very important." Singer said.

College athletes are not paid, despite the fact universities rake in big money because of them, he said.

"Using that money to support athletes is important," Singer said. "College athletes have all these stresses, and they make no money. Schools need to do a better job of supporting college athletes - all of them and not just the ones who play all the time."

He also would like to see more advocacy toward diversifying coaching positions, as most are filled by white males.

The pressure on athletes to win begins in Little League, Singer said. "It's all about winning. Not that winning isn't important. It is, but there's more. And lots of pressure can affect a kid, especially at a young age."

Coaches, especially at that level, could be trained so they know what works and what doesn't work to improve a child's skills and performance so youths can enjoy the game and get better at it without the crushing pressure of thinking winning is everything, he said.

Singer said mental health is his "No. 1 concern," and social workers can not only advocate for the issue, they can inform and help train coaches.

"If coaches have the knowledge of mental health issues and know where to get help for their players, that would really help," he said. "Mental health is huge."

Coaches and others also need to be attentive to making sure athletes don't go back on the field if there is even a question of injury, Singer said.

"These people are human beings, so we've got to remember that and look out for them," he said. "Athletes have so much stress, and they keep it inside them. It's really important to make sure they know it's OK to talk about it and to make sure they know where to go for help."

Before he started graduate school, Singer worked at Friendship Circle and coached a Miracle League team, a baseball league for children with special needs.

"When you have sports for children with special needs, you make the focus on fun and on teamwork," he said. "A lot of kids at first are afraid to play. They don't want to be judged."

That changes when they understand it's all about having fun and getting better at doing it, Singer said. "That competitive thing that 'it's all about winning' is not just about sports. We have to change that in society, too. It's about helping people become more successful." 

Alliance Supports, Promotes Sports Social Workers

A conversation sparked the formation of a national organization for social workers who work in sports. Emmett Gill said he and Matt A. Moore began talking about getting together people working in that area.

"We were pondering the idea, and he helped me realize that there are other folks our there doing the work - the practice, the research, the advocacy - and I wanted to see if we could bring them together."

When a November 2015 symposium was held in Denver, social workers in sports came from across the country, many meeting each other for the first time.

They all recognized there was a strong need for an organization of like-minded individuals, education was needed in the area, and they all created the alliance, Moore said. 

"All of us have strong advocacy backgrounds and a belief that we could be stronger together," he said. "The people at one of the tables became the foundation for our executive team. We had a group of founding members with a diverse set of talent. We all sort of clicked, and we all bring certain things to the table. Some of them overlap, some are different."

Moore is co-founder and vice president, and Gill is president of the Alliance of Social Workers in Sports, which was established in 2015, finalized its incorporation in June 2016 and became an official 501(c)(3) in March 2017.

The Alliance recently reached its goal of launching a sport social work certificate program. The equivalent of two academic semesters, the four courses each last approximately one month and include diversity and social justice in sports, assessments of athletes' needs, and research, Gill said.

"We're excited, because right now we feel we're the only place where students can receive and complete certification," he said. "The second piece is field experience. We're looking to provide students with a significant number of field hours. It's important for them to experience working with the population. We just finished our first cohort this spring."

Moore said the overall design and development of curriculum includes all aspects of certification.

"We looked hard at it to make sure the competencies we're offering match equivalencies with the social work model," he said. 

Gill noted the courses are taught by people who are doing the work and will include social workers from the NBA and NFL.

"The group is doing work on evidence-based practices," he said. "We're also looking for more athletes to become social workers. We hope when they leave college or return to college, they have a passion for others, a passion for the environment."

Moore said Alliance members are looking beyond electives. "We'd like to see a concentration possible in the future." 

A book Moore said is "the first ever sports social work textbook" will come out this year. He co-authored "Sport Social Work: Promoting the Functioning and Well-being of College and Professional Athletes" with Ginger Gummelt, LCSW, PhD, assistant professor and interim director of the social work program at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

Anyone interested in sports social work can attend the Alliance's annual conference Nov. 5-7, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. Learn more on the Alliance website.