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Social Work and Athletics: A Winning Combination

Greg Harden, MSW ’81

For more than 25 years, Greg Harden, MSW ’81 and associate athletic director at the Universityof Michigan, has been a pioneer in the field of social work and college sports. Harden is responsible for embedding mental health services for student athletes at U-M. He is credited with helping thousands of student athletes overcome hurdles to achieve success in sports, academics, relationships and life, including Desmond Howard, Tom Brady, Michael Phelps andFox Sports TV reporter Michelle McMahon.

Howard Brabson, a School of Social Work professor and a mentor to Harden encouraged him topursue an MSW to advance his career.  According to Harden, the school’s curriculum enthralledhim. “I learned how to assess needs, listen to others and create programs that would changeindividuals’ lives for the better,” says Harden.  By attending the MSW program, Harden realizedhe had the personality and passion to be a change agent.

Why social work in college athletics?

“Student athletes are under immense pressure to perform for their coaches, fans, professors,family and friends,” says Harden.  Social work provides college athletes with an array ofintegrated behavioral health services to address their physical, emotional, mental andeducational needs.

“As a social worker, I’m less concerned about the next big game and more concerned about thegame of life.”  

The combination of social work and sports is firmly rooted at U-M thanks to Harden.  

“U-M is committed to seeing the whole person not just the athletic performer,” says Harden

How did Harden champion social work in U-M athletics?

It all began when Harden was a social worker at Beyer Memorial Hospital and he turned downBo Schembechler’s request to do a 60-minute drug and alcohol presentation for the footballteam.  Harden told Schembechler the program would be ineffective. The result: Harden washired to do a series of presentations, which ultimately led him to being hired full-time by theUniversity of Michigan Athletic Department.

Harden soon convinced administrators and coaches they were missing a big opportunity tobuild their athlete’s mental strength if they only focused on drug and alcohol issues.  Hardenadvocated for athletes to be able to talk to a social worker who is not obsessed with theirathletic performance but interested in how their life is working.  

“Student athletes need someone to talk to about daily life problems, money concerns, self-defeating attitudes, drugs and alcohol and academics,” says Harden.

Why is sports and social work a winning combination?

Harden’s perspective is straightforward.

“There are many people who want to help student athletes be better athletes,” said Harden.“The social work perspective is that if you’re a better person, you’ll be a better athlete.  If youcan evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, your values and behavior, you will increase thechances that you will become not only a superior athlete, but be able to use your athleticexperience as a training ground to take on the world that is awaiting you.”

What is the future?

As more is understood about the pressures student athletes are under and the toll suchpressures can inflict, social workers are an asset to enhancing athletic performance at everylevel – professional, college and high school. Social worker’s skills in seeing the whole personand focusing on their strengths, supporting change in them and their environment and being achange-agent in their lives helps athletes personally and professionally.

For Harden, the future is a soon-to-be-published book, Control the Controllables.

“The book contains core lessons and helps to examine  and conquer self-defeating behaviors, sothat individuals can become committed to becoming happy and healthy. The goal of the book isto make people experts on themselves.”


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