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  • Writer's pictureASWIS

Creativity, Sports, and Social Work (By Traci Nigg)

While trekking the town on my bike I listened to Liz Gilbert’s, the well-known author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, podcast “Magic Lessons.” She featured her dear friend and our fellow social worker, Dr. Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. Brené has gained notoriety through her research on shame and vulnerability which consequently have contributed to her emphasis on compassionate, whole-hearted living. The theme of this podcast was creativity and the moment that resonated with me most was when Brené confidently stated:

“The only unique contribution that we will make in this world will be born of creativity.” As NASWIS draws upon a collective mindset of passionate social workers in sports, we are relying on our creativity and willingness to step outside of our comfort zone to address the needs of athletes everywhere.

What fuels your passion for the sports in social work movement?

In a survey conducted by Dr. Matt Moore of the current members of NASWIS, he received various, yet comparable responses, to this question. Whether the respondents were former athletes themselves or simply sports fans, the following themes were overwhelmingly represented.

  1. Using sport to empower healthy development of athletes from childhood to adulthood.

  2. Reduce the exploitation of athletes.

  3. Promote social justice for all athletes.

  4. Address the all too frequently overlooked mental health needs of athletes.

Relating again to the “Magic Lessons” podcast, Brené reported in her research on shame 13 years ago, that 85% of men and women interviewed remembered an event in school that was so shaming it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. Half of this 85% reported that their shame wounds were around creativity. Personally, my creative outlet has always been sports. I find a unique sense of self in being a multi-sport athlete and learning how to use innate talents to be competitive in whatever sport I’m participating in. Many children grown up participating in various sports and navigating their way through what suits them best until they find their niche. I imagine that comparable statistics would be found if research were to be drawn on developing athletes throughout childhood that encountered a similar experience where they had their dreams suppressed by a comment that wounded their creative spirit and passion for sport. Can you remember a time when you were told you weren’t good enough? Maybe you should try something else? Or what about when you showed emotion after being told you didn’t make the team or you get yelled at by your coach for making a bad play but you knew that if you didn’t toughen up that your response would be frowned upon because there’s no crying in baseball. From the age of 6 I had dreams of becoming a UNC Tarheel and playing soccer for the USA Women’s National Team just like Mia Hamm. I practiced day in and day out perfecting my technical skill and working on my shot. I played on multiple club teams and competed for my high school. I received city league honors and state recognition as a freshman and sophomore. I was sure I was going places and maintained that dream of playing for a division I program. The strain I had been putting on my young body finally met its limit when I tore my ACL playing outdoor soccer at the age of 16. The one comment I remember was my coach saying “You will never play the same again.” Seven other girls on my club team tore their ACLs too. We were all under the impression that this set back not only would inhibit our abilities to get recruited, but our athleticism would never be the same again. This mentality shifted from an outside source and became my inner thoughts and beliefs. His voice became my voice and nearly shattered by entire sense of self as an athlete.

Thankfully, through parental and friend support, I rehabbed this injury and chose not to let it define me or my future. I set out to defy my coach’s belief and hit the gym every day, lifting, cycling, re-learning how to run, and spending quality time with myself. I played soccer for my high school and club teams my junior and senior years. I earned all-city honors and state recognition, just as I had prior to injury. No I didn’t get recruited for a division I school but I was picked up by a local division II school where I was told I wouldn’t start or get much playing time but that I could be on the team. I responded to that coach as I did to the last coach who casted doubt upon me and became a 4 year starter, received conference honors, and was team captain for 2 years. Brené would define this as a shame-resilient response. That shame could have defined me and became my belief about myself and defeated my worth as an athlete. But how did I overcome it? Because someone cared about me and believed in me. My teammates frequently checked in on me to see how recovery was going and if I was going to make it back in time for season. My parents created incentives for my rehab by saying they would buy me a soccer ball spare ball for bowling season if I could get my slide leg, which happened to be my surgery leg, up to strength so that I would be approved for competition by my physical therapist. Reflecting on this time I now realize that the encouraging voices were louder than the negative comments. This mentality is part of why I am a social worker today. I want to be that positive, empowering voice that promotes shame-resilience and assures all athletes that they have dignity and worth as humans and as competitors.

What do you hope NASWIS accomplishes for athletes?

Of the NASWIS member responses, the collective goals include:

  1. Raising awareness of the vulnerabilities, mental health, and challenges of athletes.

  2. Enhance the well-being of athletes through educating professionals across disciplines who support athletics as well as educating the general populous to see athletes as human beings.

  3. Advocate for mental health services and destigmatize therapy or counseling for athletes.

  4. Provide resources and research to provide competent intervention and therapeutic approaches to serve the specific profile of an athlete.

  5. Promote a strengths based approach to coaching, team cohesion, and therapy.

Brené offered a concise response to Liz’s question, “What is the antidote to shame?” She stated, “Empathy.” Brené elaborated by saying “Kindness, talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love.” From a strengths based approach social workers assist others in realizing their dignity and worth along with empower them to realize their potential in any aspect of life. Athletes have a wide array of strengths that often go unrecognized because they are so focused on their training and sport that they don’t realize how resilient, dedicated, passionate, disciplined and motivated they are. Athletes are a unique population that many assume already have their lives figured out because they are focused and routine in their habits surrounding training and sport. It is assumed that they have more support than most because they have their coaches, teammates, and fans backing them. A goal of NASWIS is to no longer operate on these assumptions but rather offer services to allow personal discovery and growth as a human within and outside of their sport.

Why should you get involved?

NASWIS is a national movement that draws on unique skills of social workers to address the needs of athletes. Social workers provide services from a strengths based perspective and foster this mentality among athletic departments, coaches, and institutions. This organization creates a platform for networking among colleagues, research to raise awareness of athletes’ vulnerabilities, and resources to connect athletes with individualized services.

Ideas come and go in our minds daily. The world is missing out on your unique contribution to us if your idea remains a thought and is not put into action. We are acting out of our individual and collective, creative ideas to establish an organization where we can develop our interests and talents to meet the unique needs of athletes. We want and need you to be a part of NASWIS. I’ll leave you with this final thought from eloquent words of Brené:

“Creativity, we don’t have to do it alone, we were never meant to.”

As I look back on myself as a little girl with big dreams, I hope to ignite passion within all athletes to remind them to love themselves as much as they love their sport. All the hours, practices, and coaches have contributed to the person I am today. Because of them I am a social worker. Because of my journey I wish to serve developing athletes to achieve their full potential within their sport as well as in self-discovery and life. Let’s dream and create this inviting, empowering world of social workers in sports together.Become a member today!

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