Dozens of high school and college coaches from every corner of the state gathered Tuesday in Casper to discuss tactics.
But they weren’t here to debate offensive lines or zone defenses. Instead, they came to learn how to help their students build healthy relationships and prevent domestic and sexual violence — lessons that will last long after graduation.
At the Holiday Inn, facilitators with the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault gave trainings on two separate programs that aim to teach student athletes those exact lessons. Both programs — “Coaching Boys into Men” for male athletes and “Athletes as Leaders” for female athletes — help students learn about how cultural expectations hurt people of both genders, how to create healthy relationships and the importance of consent.
Coaches drove across state for the training for a number of reasons. Some said they needed to better educate themselves on these issues so they can help their students understand them, especially at a time when sexual assault and harassment is a prominent national conversation. Some have seen the effect of such violence on their own players. Ultimately, all wanted to be better advocates for their players.
Jody Sanborn, a prevention specialist with the coalition, started the session about Athletes as Leaders with a simple national statistic: About a fifth of female high school students and 10 percent of their male peers who date have experienced physical or sexual violence from a dating partner in the last year.
In Wyoming, Sanborn added, those percentages are even higher — closer to a quarter of high school girls who date have experienced dating violence in the past year. It’s easy in this rural state to think that the issues are less prevalent because communities are smaller and more close-knit, she said.
“But we can’t say it doesn’t happen here,” she said. “It’s actually worse.”
For years, lessons on sexual violence have focused on teaching women how to physically prevent themselves from assault. The recommendations are likely familiar to any women: Don’t walk alone at night. Always watch your drink at party, or, don’t drink in unfamiliar places at all. Carry your car keys in your hand so that you can use them as a weapon in the case of an attack.
While these lessons aren’t wrong, Sanborn said, the message needs to change.
“Violence isn’t going to stop by handing out rape whistles,” Sanborn said. “We have to teach people not to rape.”
The two trainings discussed Tuesday attempt to do so by focusing instead on the root causes of domestic and sexual violence. “Athletes as Leaders” help girls have more self-confidence to stand up for themselves and how to intervene if a friend were the victim of abuse. “Coaching Boys into Men” dispels the idea that to be masculine means to be aggressive, perpetually in control and without emotions.
While the boys program has been around for years, the girls’ program was created at a Seattle high school in 2015. Last year, the Lovell High School and Worland High School track teams were two of four test groups across the nation for the program. It was a huge success, Sanborn said.
“I think it can be successful almost anywhere,” she said.
Now, other schools across the state are implementing the program. Wheatland High School is implementing the program with all of its winter sports teams. And Jim Jenkins, girls’ swim coach at Jackson Hole High School, started using the curriculum with his team in the fall and found it to be helpful.
“I think that kids in general like talking about this stuff,” he said. “And they rarely get to talk about it, especially with adults.”
The programs focus on student athletes because they tend to have greater social capital among their peers, said Bob Vines, victim witness coordinator with the Washakie County Attorney’s Office and a leader in the movement to implement these programs. If the athletes are taught to act with respect, then the other students will model their behavior.
“Especially in rural Wyoming, we put these kids on pedestals, we show up on Friday nights and watch them play,” he said. “It has to start with the people who can invoke culture change.”
Coaches are also especially well-placed in a community to effect change. Coaches spend hours every week with their team and many players look up to them as role models. But sometimes they can be hesitant to take on the role, Vines said. Sometimes the coaches don’t feel that they know enough to lead the sessions, or feel that its not their responsibility, or shy away because they think the programs are just about sex. But most of the coaches become strong advocates for the program once they get started and see how their students react, Vines said.
As the programs are adopted across the state and implemented year after year, Vines hopes that there will be a broad culture change. This appears to be the moment to change social norms, he said, referencing the #metoo movement that has brought the topics of sexual assault and harassment to the forefront of national conversation. For years, preventing such violence was seen primarily as the responsibility of women, he said. Now, it’s time for everyone to participate.
“As men, we’re being called to task to do something about changing the culture,” he said. “It is possible.”