Sports have an indisputable effect on society, transcending boundaries, and connecting people from diverse backgrounds. Athletes are often seen as role models, inspiring the next generation and captivating audiences worldwide. However, the world of sports is not devoid of challenges, and athletes experience unique pressures both on and off the field/court, which can impact their performance and more importantly, their well-being. This is where sports social work comes into play. In this blog, we will explore what sports social work is, its significance, and the vital role it plays in supporting athletes’ well-being.
What is Sports Social Work?
Sports social work is a specialized field within the social work profession. It focuses on addressing the unique needs and challenges of athletes and individuals involved in sports (Gricus,2020). It is a multidisciplinary approach that combines social work principles with sports-related knowledge and expertise. Sport Social Workers focus on promoting the overall well-being of athletes, coaches, and the sports community as a whole; they do this work through advocacy, policy development, community organizing, education, and the delivery of targeted programming to individuals, teams, coaches, and organizations. Some of specific foci for Sport Social Workers, are described in detail, below.
Mental Health Support
As part of their role, athletes are expected to perform optimally, consistently. They have demanding training and competition schedules that often require prolonged time away from home and their loved ones. These training and competition expectations, as well as the pressure to perform, can take a toll on their mental health. Sports social workers provide counselling and therapy services to assist athletes with managing stress related to their sport, but also treat anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues using different types of emotional, behavioural, and cognitive interventions.
Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment
Substance abuse is a prevalent problem in the sports world. Sports social workers work on educating athletes about the risks of substance abuse, including banned substances, as well as provide referral and treatment options for substance use challenges, when needed (Gricus,2020).
Athlete Identity Development and Career Transitions
While many young athletes have the goal of playing their sport at the collegiate, semi-professional or professional level. Only a minority of competitive high school athletes will go on to compete at the collegiate level, and even fewer will play semi-professional or professional sport. While there isn’t great data in Canada, information from the United States indicates that for competitive high school female athletes in ice hockey, soccer, and track and field, only 26.2%, 7.2%, and 6.2% of those athletes will continue to complete in their sport at the NCAA I, II, or III level, respectively (see more info, here: https://www.ncaa.org/sports/2015/3/2/estimated-probability-of-competing-in-college-athletics.aspx). Similarly, across all sports and genders, fewer than 2% of elite collegiate athletes will continue with their sport at the professional level. Thus, a core element of Sport Social Work practice includes supporting athlete identity development and transitions, including the transition out of competitive and elite sport (e.g., due to being cut from a team, due to injury, due to retirement, etc.). Sport Social Workers assist athletes in planning for their post-sports careers, offering guidance on education, job placement, and skill development.
Family and Relationship Support
The demanding nature of sports can strain personal relationships. Sports social workers offer family counselling and support to help athletes develop and maintain healthy relationships, even despite demanding training and competition schedules.
Key elements of social work practice are advocacy and the pursuit of social justice. Sport Social Workers advocate for athletes’ rights, as well as equitable policies and practices related to inclusion, representation, financial compensation, among others. Sport Social Workers also provide support during difficult situations, such as legal issues.
Athletes often play a crucial role in their communities. Sport Social Workers strengthen the athlete-community connection through organizing community outreach programs, charity events, and social initiatives (Khabbaz, 2021).
Why Does it Matter?
Mental Health Awareness
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the mental health challenges athletes face. Sport Social Workers play a pivotal role in reducing the stigma around mental health in sports and ensuring athletes have access to the care that they need, and deserve.
Holistic Athlete Development
Sport Social Workers emphasize a holistic approach to athlete development, not only addressing their physical skills but also their emotional, mental, and social well-being. Contributing to more well-rounded and resilient individuals, who are also athletes. A core mantra that Sport Social Workers try to instill in athletes is that “sport is something that we do, it is not who we are.”
Preventing Substance Abuse
By providing education and support for athletes, Sport Social Workers assist with prevention efforts around reducing the proportion of athletes who develop substance abuse problems, which can derail a promising sport career, and have short and long-term physical and mental health impacts.
Promoting Positive Role Models
Athletes are often ‘icons’ for young people around the world. Sport Social Workers assist athletes to harness their role model potential, while also assisting them to maintain their integrity and be reasonably boundaried with their time and energy.
Sport Social Work is a crucial sub-specialty that recognizes the unique challenges athletes face and provides them with the tools and support needed to navigate the demanding world of sport (College of St. Scholastica,2021). At the core of Sport Social Work is an appreciation for the environmental factors that make elite sport exciting – but also, challenging. Sports Social Workers contribute not only to the well-being of individual athletes but also to health and wellbeing of the entire sport community.
- Gricus, M. (2020, August 28). What do sports social workers do?. Continued Social Work. [Online]. Available: https://www.continued.com/social-work/ask-the-experts/what-do-sports-social-workers-59
- Khabbaz, R. (2021, August 27). Sports and social justice. Harvard Business Review. [Online]. Available: https://hbr.org/2021/01/sports-and-social-justice
- OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT (September 25 Version) [Large language model].” [Online]. Available: https://chat.openai.com
- The College of St. Scholastica. (2021, August 18). “Social Workers in sports: Support the well-being of athletes.” Social workers in sports: Support the well-being of athletes. [Online]. Available: https://www.css.edu/about/blog/social-workers-in-sports-support-the-well-being-of-athletes/