The state of Maine took on the issue of bullying in May 2012 when it passed an act to prohibit bullying in schools. Administrators around the state followed suit with more intense student conduct policies and clear consequences outlined for behavior.
But legislators and teachers — and certainly parents — aren’t the only people with the opportunity or responsibility to help curb what’s been dubbed “an epidemic.” Many different approaches are needed to get to the root of the issue, but one resource in particular may be underused: athletic coaches.
In Maine, some coaches are using their positions of authority to teach athletes how to be strong role models in an effort to stop bullying before it occurs. The state needs more.
The Portland-based program Boys to Men has partnered with the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault to provide mentors, such as coaches, with the tools to teach and inspire primary prevention.
Participants learn about and discuss aspects of dominant traditional masculine culture and how it contributes to sexual violence. They are also taught about the importance of bystander intervention and responsibility.
Prevention can also start on the field with a simple gesture of good sportsmanship.
In February, the Medomak Valley High School boys basketball team made headlines when two players left the rest of the group preparing to take down the nets at Bangor Auditorium and shook hands with the losing team. When interviewed, one of the pair said he simply respected how the other athletes played and wanted to congratulate them.
The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that 52,992 high school students in Maine played sports during the 2011-12 school year. Those thousands are a subset of the 47 percent of nationwide respondents to the University of Maine’s National Study of Student Hazing who said they were hazed while in high school — and most often during high school activities such as athletics.
While bullying and hazing are different by definition, they both tear someone down and cause emotional or physical harm. No one should take bullying or hazing lightly.
Schools can encourage the type of behavior the Medomak Valley team displayed by educating coaches and advisors about bullying and making clear that complaints cannot be dismissed as non-issues or simple pranks.
Coaches can limit situations in which upperclassmen are privileged, whether intentionally or not, as recommended by the United States Olympic Committee. After all, University of Maine research shows that students are at a greater risk of hazing or bullying as a new member of a team or group.
Instead, juniors and seniors should be lauded for demonstrating team-building skills and cohesiveness with younger or less-experienced players.
Coaches can take some time and talk with athletes about “groupthink,” problems that come from forming quick opinions and following a group consensus or one persuasive leader.
Regular group-building exercises and workouts should encourage every player, and praise can focus on the team’s accomplishments rather than individual successes.
Coaches play a unique role in that they are in a position of authority yet connect with athletes in ways teachers and parents can’t. Students look to these men and women for direction, and they can do their part in creating a team mindset that positively impacts experiences on and off the field.