Abstract: Social Workers in Sport: Playmakers in the Athletic Arena (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

282P Social Workers in Sport: Playmakers in the Athletic Arena

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Tarkington Newman, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH
Erica Magier, MSW, Doctoral Student, The Ohio State University, Columbus
Carlyn Kimiecik, MSW, Doctoral Student, Purdue University
Cecelia Tarr, BS, Masters Student, University of New Hampshire
Lauren Beasley, LMSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
Katlin Okamoto, MS, Doctoral Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Lauren Shute, Doctoral Student, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, LA

Sport has been recognized as a setting for social work practice for decades, with social workers practicing in diverse sport systems, from community recreation to professional sport. For instance, within youth sport settings, social workers create and implement programming designed to promote the development of life skills. In collegiate athletics, social workers provide mental and behavioral healthcare services to student-athletes. Due to the complex nature of sport and the diverse needs of sport participants, social workers are optimally positioned to be critical change agents. However, as an emerging area of practice, little is known about the roles social workers fulfill in sport or how they have prepared to work in different sport systems. The current study, within the context of sport, explored where and how social workers actively enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs. Additionally, the study explored the educational pathways and learning opportunities currently available.


Participants were recruited to participate in individual semi-structured interviews through the Alliance of Social Workers in Sports email listservs. Participants had to meet three inclusion criteria: 1) be at least a bachelor-level social worker; 2) have a professional career (i.e., paid position) within sport; and 3) use their social work education in sport. Example interview questions included: “How do you use your social work background when working in sport?” and “How have you prepared to work as a social worker in sport?” On average, interviews were 60 minutes in length. Fifteen social workers engaged in interviews, who had an average of 12.7 years of experience as a social worker in sport. Participants were employed in a variety of sport settings, such as at the youth, high school, collegiate, and professional levels.


A reflexive thematic analysis was used to inductively analyze the data. Trustworthiness was enhanced through constant memo writing, peer debriefs, and member checks. Findings highlight the dynamic and diverse roles social workers fulfill as change agents who enhance human wellbeing throughout a variety of sport systems. For example, social workers provide community-based programming for economically disadvantaged youth, use strengths-based practices when coaching high school sport, worked on interdisciplinary behavioral healthcare teams within collegiate athletics, and offered financial services to retired professional athletes. Additionally, findings indicate that to prepare for their work in sport, social workers engaged in a number of different opportunities, including formal education, informal learning (e.g., mentors), and personal experiences as an athlete. Interviewees also identified the need to become more professionalized and the need for sport-specific education and training.


The current study helps to not only advance the social work profession, but also advocates for the utility of social workers in sport systems. Organizations such as NASW and CSWE may consider specialty practice areas and social work specializations, which would allow social work students to individualize their education and prepare for careers in sport. In the end, social workers are optimally positioned to be playmakers in the athletic arena; however, there is a need to expand scholarship, formalized education, and training opportunities.