WESTBROOK — Most sports practices start with stretches or drills.
For many high school teams in southern Maine, however, the work now begins with frank conversations about healthy relationships, consent and respect.
“Often we allude to these ideas as coaches, but this program makes it more formal and allows for structured conversations,” Westbrook High School football coach Jeffrey Guerette said. “I was interested because as coaches we’re always looking to help student-athletes be better people.”
Westbrook is one of several schools in the area taking part in Coaching Boys into Men and Coaching Female Athletes, two programs run by the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program. Other participating high schools include Deering, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Gorham, Bonny Eagle and Lake Region.
Dana Roberts, the coaching facilitator at YAAPP, has trained coaches for boys’ and girls’ sports teams on how to implement the programs. South Portland High School piloted Coaching Boys into Men a few years ago and the other schools began doing the two programs last spring and this fall.
“It works because coaches are role models and mentors and when they bring it to students it sticks better,” Roberts said. “They can use their power to influence them.”
The programs are designed like sports playbooks; teams participate in one discussion each week for 20 minutes or so, although many coaches said conversations last longer. Each week focuses on a different topic related to gender stereotypes, relationships, gender-based violence, equality, and bullying.
The conversations are led by the coaches and are intended to create open discussions among the students. Many students have similar programming in school from either a health teacher or guest speaker, but conversations often go deeper with teammates.
“The athletic setting gives us more opportunity to dig into these topics than they could in the classroom,” Bonny Eagle High School Athletic Director Eric Curtis said. “There’s a stronger bond there and they feel safer, whereas in the classroom there’s more kids.”
Most of the coaches using the programs said their players were open and honest in their discussions and they embraced the topics each week. Cape Elizabeth High School football coach Aaron Filieo said the program was a good lesson for his players on the importance of opening up.
“I hope one thing they take away is that they can always talk about this,” he said. “There are some things guys don’t talk about, but we want to create a model that shows them it’s OK to.”
Deering High School football coach Jason Jackson said he’s experienced the same thing with his players.
“They struggle thinking everything should be manly and things should be a certain way,” he said. “I want to make them feel comfortable.”
Roberts said a key component of Coaching Boys into Men, which was created by the organization Futures Without Violence, is teaching boys about toxic masculinity.
“It’s about accentuating that violence doesn’t equal strength,” she said.
With Coaching Female Athletes, which YAAPP created, the focus is more on body image, self-esteem, and the media’s portrayal of women. Amy Ashley, a former softball and field hockey coach at Yarmouth High School, said the program allowed her to teach her players about issues that play a huge role in their lives.
“As a coach you just have the ability to connect with the kids on so many levels and you have the opportunity to teach them more than sports,” said Ashley, who’s now the athletic director at Cheverus High School. “It brought us so much closer, and the girls said it was one of their favorite parts of the season.”
Many coaches said the programs brought their teammates closer together and reinforced the trust they had in their coach.
“Coaching is really about relationships and for a lot of athletes, coaches can be some of the most important people in their lives,” Guerette said.
Jackson agreed and said by talking about these issues with the players it showed them that “someone cares about them on and off the field.” He said he told his players how important it was to use what they learned in the program in their everyday lives.
“The big thing I hope for these boys is that when they’re in tough situations they make the right decisions,” Jackson said. “I want them to think about what they’re doing.”
Filieo said he’s grateful for the program because it allowed the team to discuss the issues comfortably instead of in response to an incident.
“We have conversations with our guys all the time, but they’re impromptu and reactive instead of proactive,” he said. “I think anytime you talk about these things it helps.”
In addition to having the conversations with each other, players are bringing the conversations outside of the team as well.
“We had a lot of positive feedback from parents this fall,” Curtis said. “Students were bringing this home and talking about it with their parents.”
Ashley said she hopes the girls from her teams use what they learned in the program to stand up for other girls and intervene if they hear people gossiping or bullying.
“I hope that they take away confidence in who they are and I hope they become a sounding board for people who haven’t gone through the program,” Ashley said.
Roberts said this is what YAAPP hopes too. Her biggest goal is to get the programs into every high school athletic program in Cumberland County. She said the programs have the ability to affect the wider school population and not just athletes.
“Athletes already tend to be leaders in school,” Roberts said. “So when athletes demonstrate these behaviors it can have a trickle-down effect and change the culture of the school.”
Dana Roberts, the coaching facilitator at the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program, has implemented two programs, Coaching Boys into Men and Coaching Female Athletes, into several high school athletic programs in Cumberland county.
The Cape Elizabeth High School football team has participated in the Coaching Boys into Men program run by the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program.