Sport Social Work Research Lab: Exploring the Impact of Recreation on Youth Development

The University of Kentucky's College of Social Work launches the Kentucky Kinship Resource Center, offering unique support and innovative services like KY-KINS to kinship caregivers, addressing the high rate of kinship care in Kentucky.
Tarkington Neman and the Sport Social Research Lab

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – For Tarkington Newman, associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW), a passion for a career working with kids has evolved into research in a relatively new area: sports and social work. This unique intersection can be used to develop life and social skills, and in many cases, social advocacy.

Arriving at the CoSW in the fall of 2023, Newman, is also the director of the Sport Social Work Research Lab. Through his core research, Newman is looking at how sport can foster places where learning can occur, particularly related to social justice.

“My research is related to youth development, specifically positive youth development, meaning I take a strengths-based approach,” Newman said. “I am interested in life skills, knowledge and promoting social justice.”

Within that framework, Newman explores how sport can be used to promote healthy development in kids and how recreation can be used to facilitate that. Newman has also coached track & field and cross country for the past 15 years, allowing him to be fully immersed in his research.

“I focus on traditional life skills: teamwork, emotional regulation, self-control, time management and goal setting, as well as social justice life skills, meaning anti-racism, LGBTQ+ advocacy and allyship, healthy masculinity, mental health literacy and how those things can be promoted and learned through participation in athletics,” Newman said.

More recently, Newman has been involved in the collegiate athletic space, looking at not only how sport can be used to promote healthy development in youth and young people, but also identifying the necessary supports and services needed for people within those environments, ranging from student-athletes to coaches and administrators.

Another area of Newman’s research involves the recent resurgence of athlete activism in collegiate athletics and the student-athletes’ feelings of autonomy and self-determination for not only their sport careers, but their life trajectory and life ambitions.

“We’ve seen athletes, especially from historically marginalized populations, begin to leverage their social platform to speak out, whether that’s related to sex and gender, race and racism or even ability,” Newman said. “It’s been cool to watch that and to do some of the research on why they want to get involved and why now is the right time to speak out.”

As for the future of sport social work, Newman understands social work offers a unique perspective in the athletic space, bringing a grounded approach in social justice and understanding systems of inequity. Because social work emphasizes mental and behavioral health, social workers can help get to the root of the presenting problem, such as generalized anxiety, and address it, which may lead to improved performance.

“Ultimately, by understanding what’s going on and what practices sport social workers are using, we can use that information and knowledge to then train the future of social workers to go out into the profession and into those communities and be culturally competent and provide appropriate services,” Newman said. “We are looking at sport social work and advocating for it in all athletic spaces.”

To learn more about Newman’s research and the Sport Social Work Research Lab, please contact Tarkington Newman at tarkington.newman@uky.edu.

For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.  

Tarkington Neman and the Sport Social Research Lab

Sport Social Work Research Lab: Exploring the Impact of Recreation on Youth Development