Monday, December 19, 2011

Social Work & Sports: A Look at Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

As I have previous stated in my introductory blog post, 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 cyclist 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 cyclist. 

In the early1920’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 with Notre Dame’s football coach and other teams in the Big Ten Conference to assist the 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. This year Dr. Edwards is the recipient of 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 posses, 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 recent 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 (in 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, which would 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 trainings, 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!  

To be continued…

All the Best,
Natalie Graves, AM
"The Other Coach"

School of Social Work: Social Work & Sports Panel

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Penn State University - Too BIG to Tell

Here is an obvious question, why didn’t anyone call the police? Was the desire to maintain a Big Ten Football legacy so strong that children were allowed to be victimized?  What was the culture at Penn State University, where it allowed coaches and staff to think it was acceptable to pass the buck and turn a blind eye to child abuse?  Where students rioted on campus, but not because they are outraged for the victimization of young children, but because their beloved Coach Joe Paterno was fired.  

I find the duality of the Penn State’s football program quite ironic. Outwardly, there is a quest for football excellence, yet go deeper and find the ignoring and hiding of horrific crimes against minors and the protection for a predator. The layers of inexcusable behaviors are numerous and it all begins with Jerry Sandusky.  He satisfied his sexual desires by preying on young boys for many years. He destroyed their lives for his deviant satisfaction. It is just as appalling the lack of action from both a janitor and a grad-assistant that witnessed Sandusky doing unspeakable acts with boys. A janitor saw Sandusky in the shower with a child. A grad-assistant walked in on Sandusky raping a child.  Neither called the police. At some point Joe Paterno received this information and he casually passed it along. Arguably “Joe Pa”, the most powerful person on Penn State’s campus never followed-up on what was told to him.  Did he just see Sandusky on the football field and pretend not to know? Did he toss the thought out of his mind and went on with the business of winning football games? By doing nothing, Paterno sent the message to Sandusky that Penn State University was a safe place to be a sexual predator.  Also, Paterno’s inactions conveyed to the other coaches and staff that not reporting Sandusky to the police was acceptable. 
Looking at Penn State’s Football Program from a system theory perspective according to Warren (1978) a social system is a structural organization of the interaction of parts that endures over time, i.e. a family structure, a community and organizations… a social system must establish and maintain boundaries in order to survive; when their boundaries become blurred, social systems become less viable. Often football teams describe themselves as a family and function much like a family structure.  In this case, Penn State's Football Program functioned as a family that was dysfunctional and Joe Paterno was its paternal figurehead. In this family system it functioned closed; whereas it isolated itself from its environment and was highly resistant to influences from outside forces.  This football program wanted to play by its own rules no matter what the cost. In addition, the staff that witnessed these crimes suffered from “bystander apathy” the unwillingness to do the right thing. This was the perfect environment for a person in power within this type of structure to prey and abuse the helpless and at the same time be celebrated as a great coach and leader. 
 Finally, the silence was broken for the victims, but the road ahead is a difficult one.  Research shows that sexual abuse victims recover the best with family support along with psychotherapy and I would also add prayer . I hope the social workers and other mental health professionals are in their rightful place to provide the needed support for the children and their families.
Penn State University has the task of looking inward to begin the course of corrective action with its football program and campus as a whole. The firing and placing staff on administration leave is just a small step. A fundamental cultural shift must occur on the campus. No longer can a sports program be allowed to operate in isolation to abandon its moral responsibilities when it is convenient. Nor can they place people on pedestals and then ignore their wrongdoings. The pursuit for environmental change should include an open and honest dialog, a task-centered approach and staff accountability. There is a need for intensive training for Penn State's Football coaches and staff on the proper protocols with children on campus, i.e. mandating reporting, how to report abuse, working with at risk children, adult roles & boundaries with children and what sexual abuse is.  Putting these recommendations in place is the start of building a new Penn State.

I have included the following links of the Grand Jury Report and the Scandal Timeline.

All the best, 
Natalie Graves, A.M. 
"The Other Coach”

Jerry Sandusky arrested: Grand jury report - The Washington Post

College football: Penn State scandal timeline -

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The other coach "SOCIAL WORKER"

My name is Natalie Graves and I have been interested in sports since I was a young girl. Watching sporting events was something I did with my father, mother and younger brother. Living in Chicago, the Bears and the Bulls were very important to my family. I remember fondly cheering for Walter Payton and Michael Jordan as they did something unbelievable in the game. We would scream and give each other high fives in celebration of a good play. These are wonderful memories of my childhood. Being a sports fan has always been a part of my life growing up and as an adult it still is.

Another big part of my life is my career in social work. I have always loved helping people and the field of social work allows me to do just that. I have worked for over ten years with at risk children and adolescents in social services agencies. I also worked as a certified School Social Worker in elementary and junior high schools. I am currently consulting with parents, schools and social service agencies, while studying for my clinical license exam. I am also in the process of developing a private practice working with athletes and sports programs.

My theoretical point of view is based on the Biopsychosocial Perspective. This is a multidimensional framework which focuses on three basic dimensions, biophysical, psychological and social. Each dimension deals with a part of human development and behavior. This concept suggests that no one element is the sole cause or reason for a person or in this case an athlete's behavioral response. Instead, human behavior is the result of interactions between a person and his or her environment. To give an example - An athlete is stellar on the hockey field and he is emotionally and physically abusive towards his girlfriend. The social worker would look at the athlete's early development, psychological functioning and family supports and dynamics to address the issue.

For many years I wanted to integrate my two loves, social work and sports. When I began to take notice of some athletes and the problems they were facing off the field, I began thinking here is a population that could benefit from the support of mental health services. I am writing this blog to discuss topics and issues as it relates to sports athletes from a social work perspective.