One Athlete's Past (By Chris Hutchinson)
As I look back on my upbringing, I analyze how different my choices would have been with a two-parent household. My mother was my rock, pushing me to expand my interests. I was fortunate to have a strong, single parent who had my best interests as her top priority. She never let me quit and never let me down. I cannot imagine how having two parents at home could have been any different. I do, however, imagine there is vast, unexplored research regarding athletes raised by divorced parents versus two parent households.
Although my mother never let me feel disadvantaged, parents and the system I grew up in constantly reminded me I was a child of divorce first before an athlete. To this day I will always remember hearing a mother of a peer say, “how can they afford to live in our town?” to her husband and another couple. To further compound my challenges, I excelled at soccer in a football-driven community. Football was a deity in this town; we had a perennial championship program. Ostracized because of my lack of knowledge and skill in football, I was immediately viewed as deficient by my peers.
At this point I was facing barriers to success including marginalization because of divorced parents and my chosen sport being less popular. Aside from soccer, I played baseball and basketball. Even my solid skills in those sports didn’t overcome the stigma of being seen as just a soccer player, not an “athlete” as defined by my town. I had friends tell me during the last week of middle school they would not continue our friendship if I did not play football.
Poised to breakout as a pitcher, a striker, and coachable in basketball, I endured a life changing injury. I dislocated my right shoulder. My athletic future in high school sports was completely over at that moment and I had no idea. Physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic care, and a prestigious surgeon performing an arthroscopic procedure on my arm could not save me from uneducated coaching.
Beginning football camp three months after surgery was a bad idea. I was 14 years old; desperate to fit in, and learn a new sport others had dedicated their lives to. I had not watched a single down before. Three months was insufficient for my body to heal. I had to bear crawl, push up, bench press, and complete other drills detrimental to the healing of my shoulder. I was lucky to merit a helmet as a freshman and my limitations from recent surgery hindered my abilities further. The trainer did his best, but I was not a star or a commodity on this team. Coaches prioritized players. They would set me up to fail, not to improve my skills or craft me into a better football player, but to cater to star players and their entertainment. I did not come from a football family; no older siblings played for the school or established a respected last name. I was hazed, ridiculed, ganged up on, and the coaches knew it. I was already spending a majority of the season in a sling, but coaches did not care. If I did not complete drills and practice, I was a target. The same friends, who stated they would not be friends with me if I didn’t play, completely ignored me during the football season. To this day I don’t know why I sought the approval and acceptance from people in this environment.
Eventually reality kicked in, these coaches were not gods. They were bullies empowering bullies. After several more dislocations, I took the verbal harassment in stride. I was called every name in the book a coach or “teammate” should call no one’s child. I began focusing less on sports and more on academics. I was no longer able to call myself an athlete. I had lost the identity I desperately sought. I like to believe my experience is unique and in other towns they empower every player willing to sacrifice time, blood, sweat, and effort to participate in any sport. I graduated with three years of varsity football, I played 3 varsity downs in that time. From 8th grade to my freshman year of college, it felt like a stasis of injury, rehab, injury, rehab, injury, rehab. I had literally given my right arm for high school sports. I received my high school diploma, 24 hours later I was healing from my second arthroscopic surgery during which my surgeon commented the shoulder was “demolished”.
College was a welcoming experience. Coincidentally there was no football team. I spent all my nights in the weight room. I fell in love with weight-lifting; filling the void left by every coach and teammate in high school. I became interested in organizations, academics, and furthering my education. College became the land of opportunity. I managed to heal my shoulder and engage in intramural sports, even winning a flag football championship. Back in football town, however, one of my coaches had been arrested. To protect everyone involved I am not going to publicize any details. It was tragic and devastated the town, as well as multiple families. In my own perception however, this deity was not only mortal, but criminal. This was the spark in finding direction towards a future of working with athletes. The burning questions in my mind multiplied. Why had a highly regarded coach made such an atrocious decision? Why did this same man have such power over his players’ sense of identity? Why were statistics more valuable than players’ well being? What part did the school play in this?
While in college I began working at residential programs for mentally ill juveniles. I loved the work. I enjoyed every day working with kids dealing with insurmountable trauma and making their days better. Coupling my passion for athletics and working with teens, I often utilized sports as a medium for a strength-based approach. I saw the tremendous value of sports as character-building and physically rewarding experiences, so different than the narrow definition in my town. I have been able to introduce my clientele to a local charitable organization and show them sports are more than winning the game. Sports can bring communities together for positive causes. I instill with my athlete clients a higher sense of responsibility, leadership, and community involvement, that being an athlete isn’t just about success on the field.
Now, I am currently in the MSW program, utilizing coursework to focus on young athletes whenever possible. Most recently, I have found a fantastic article in the Journal of Social Work titled “The Social Worker’s Role in Serving Vulnerable Athletes”. My teachers and peers were shocked there was research identifying athletes as at-risk. I want to continue to enlighten classmates and professors of the at-risk population, albeit unorthodox, that is the high school and collegiate athlete. I want young people to experience sports as a catalyst for engagement; personal challenge; healthy physical, emotional, and social development. I was resilient; I want to help other kids be resilient as well.
Dean, C., & Rowan, D. (2014). The social worker's role in serving vulnerable athletes. Journal of Social Work Practice, 28(2), 219-227.