Coaching Female Athletes

This article was first published in Athletic Management Magazine in January of 2016 and highlights the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program (YAAPP) organized  through Family Crisis Services based in Portland, ME which the NRF has previously supported. This article provides thought provoking insights on how to positively coach, mentor and develop young female athletes to be not only successful on the sports field but also to be strong and confident young women in other aspects of life. Information on this topic proves to to be important with increasing self-confidence and social-comparison issues among youth, stemming from the media and other social interaction. While it is a hope that home may be a safe place for young people, a fact is that sometimes it is not. As a programmers it is important to make sure that our programs offer safe and non-toxic environments for youth to be themselves, build confidence, and have positive interactions with others.

By Todd Livingston

“Todd Livingston is the 6-12 Athletic Administrator for the South Portland School Department in South Portland, ME.  He is in his 13th year as an athletic administrator after teaching physical education/health and coaching several sports for 11 years.”

“South Portland High School has a longstanding relationship with the organization Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program (YAAPP) and the many programs they offer that enable youth to make decisions within their relationships that are safe, healthy and informed.  In the fall of 2012 YAAPP staffer Carlin Whitehouse pitched the program “Coaching Boys Into Men” (CBIM) to the administrative team at South Portland High School.  Upon administrative approval to implement the program, it was presented to the varsity football, boys’ soccer, baseball and boys’ basketball coaches.  During the 2012-13 season, varsity boys’ basketball coach Phil Conley fully embraced serving as the pilot program for implementing “Coaching Boys Into Men” at South Portland High School.  The success of using the program with his team played a key role in developing the team chemistry that led the Red Riots to a birth in the state championship game.

In February 2013 there was an article published in the Portland Press Herald (http://www.pressherald.com/2013/02/27/new-playbook-leads-team-to-hidden-strengths_2013-02-27/) written by columnist Bill Nemitz highlighting the success of the program Coach Conley had piloted and shortly thereafter, Carlin Whitehouse secured funding for the creation of a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzmQwY6JFLY) that successfully highlighted the program as well.  In the seasons to follow each male sport program at South Portland High School implemented the “Coaching Boys Into Men” curriculum.

Shortly after the Portland Press Herald article was published we received several congratulatory correspondences about the great work we were doing with our male athletes, but one correspondence in particular, from a South Portland parent, got my attention.  The correspondence started by stating; “Congratulations on this morning’s article, but most of all, congratulations on being brave enough to do the pilot testing for the Boys Into Men project.  Hooray!  Please expand the project to all the teams and adapt if for the girls.”  This email prompted discussions regarding the creation of a similar program that could be created and offered for our female student-athletes.

The YAAPP staff fully embraced the feedback and began working on a curriculum for the development of a program they initially entitled “Coaching Girls into Women” (CGIW).  In October of 2013, Sarah Gordon from YAAPP contacted me about piloting the program with our female teams.  Knowing the success we had experienced with CBIM we began to make plans to pilot CGIW and piloted the program with our varsity and junior varsity girls’ basketball, girls’ indoor track and girls’ tennis teams during the 2013-14 school year.   The CGIW curriculum was fine tuned through a focus group of twelve young women who participated in the pilot program and YAAPP then published the Coaching Female Athletes curriculum in 2014.

The Coaching Female Athletes (CFA) curriculum aims to educate, offer new views, model healthy and respectful behavior, and promote active bystander intervention.  It is a prevention program for athletic coaches to inspire and empower young women to grow into leaders and role models in today’s society by experiencing equality and safety in their lives, and supporting each other on and off the field.  You can find more information about the program by visiting the YAAPP website at http://www.yaapp.org/about/.  According to YAAPP Youth Advocate Sarah Gordon; “I wrote CFA in response to Athletic Directors and coaches who continued to ask us for a program similar to CBIM for females.  So we created just that – a way to reach females around tough topics.  The curriculum focuses on respect, support and leadership”.  According to a December 3, 2014 press releases, YAAPP’s CFA program has received national interest.  From Hawaii to Illinois, organizations are requesting CFA to educate female athletes on issues of self-esteem, healthy relationships, and female competition.

Each August, I coordinate with the YAAPP staff to offer training for our coaches around the CFA and CBIM programs.  At this point in time, this is a refresher for most of our coaches, but also provides a comprehensive training for those coaches that are new to the program/s.  I’m sure most coaches out there who read this article will think, “This is just one more thing added to my already busy coaching responsibilities”.  Although our coaches voluntarily participate in these programs they have all fully embraced implementing them with their teams and programs because they have observed the great benefits they provide and offer our student-athletes.  After the trainings, our coaches work with the YAAPP staff as needed throughout their season while they implement the program.  The YAAPP staff is great about sending weekly reminders to our coaches regarding the topic of the week and some helpful hints regarding the conversations they will have with their team members.

Each of our coaches is provided with a Coaching Female Athletes tool kit.  The toolkit contains informational cards about the program, the coaches’ playbook, playbook definitions and pre and post program surveys.  The playbook includes definitions that apply to each of the twelve discussion topics, along with facts and information about the topics, and helpful statistics that can be used to guide the discussions.  Included in the playbook are the twelve-week discussion cards that provide coaches with the tools to lead discussion with their female student-athletes regarding challenging gender stereotypes, treating one another with respect on and off the court, and pursuing female leadership roles.  The cards provide objectives for each lesson, tips/tactics on how to talk with the athletes, information/examples of how to be a positive active bystander, and helpful positive wrap up quotes to conclude each conversation.  

Our coaches typically pick one day each week that they will devote fifteen to twenty minutes to the CFA discussions and most choose a day each week that doesn’t fall on game day.  The CFA discussions are built into the practice plan for the day and the girls know that they are to arrive 30 minute early on these days.

The Coaches Playbook provides the coach with the education around the following twelve topics:

Week #1: Program Preview

Week #2: Gender Stereotypes

Week #3: Women Sexualized in the Media

Week #4: Body Image

Week #5: Bystander intervention

Week #6: Female Competition

Week #7: Digital Dating

Week #8: Dating Abuse

Week #9: Victim Blaming

Week #10: Female Leadership

Week #11: Working Collaboratively

Week #12: Season Wrap Up

The playbook includes definitions for the following: anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, body image, bulimia nervosa, bystander, bystander options (distraction, group intervention, checking in, humor, find help), consent, dating abuse/violence, jealousy, leadership, LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, allies), media, sexual assault, stalking, and victim blaming.

 

Here are examples from the coach cards for the first two weeks of the program.

WEEK ONE: CFA Preview

THIS TRAINING WILL HELP ATHLETES:

  • Understand the team expectations for the upcoming season.
  • Acquire knowledge of CFA.
  • Collaborate with each other on team rules for the CFA series.

DISCUSSION POINTS:

  • As a team, our goals this season are bigger than on the court/field.  We are going to support each other, women athletes, and women everywhere.
  • As a team we will respect each other on and off the court/field.  As athletes, people will watch you, and many look up to you.  How you act and treat others is very important.
  • Since we will be talking about issue that go beyond the court/field, we will have some new rules to follow this season.
  • Some of these rules, including confidentially, are included for the safety of your teammates.
  • What does respect mean to you?  How can we shoe respect to our teammates?  How can we show respect to other women?

TEAM RULES:

  • Be respectful
  • No Judging
  • Confidentiality
  • Keep a Positive Attitide
  • Listen to Everyone
  • Drama Free Zone
  • ______________________________________
  • ______________________________________
  • ______________________________________

COACH’S NOTE:

Discuss group rules with the team.  Make sure everyone understands the importance of the rules, as they will be repeated at the beginning of every CFA session.  Have the team come up with additional rules that apply specifically to your team.  This will allow them to take ownership over the program and have a voice.

WRAP UP:

“Respect your efforts, respect yourself.  Self-respect leads to self-discipline.  When you have both firmly under your belt, that’s real power.” – Clint Eastwood

WEEK  TWO: GENDER STEREOTYPES

THIS TRAINING WILL HELP ATHLETES:

  • Create opportunities to challenge gender stereotypes critically.
  • Understand societal pressures against women and girls.

DISCUSSION POINTS:

  • How many of us have been told to act like a lady, be more lady like?
  • What does a stereotypical lady look like, wear, eat?  What does a stereotypical lady do for fun or for work?
  • These stereotypes create a small narrow box of who woman are supposed to be.  Then, we as a team, school, community, have created consequences for people who don’t fit in that narrow box.
  • What are some names we’ve been called by not fitting into these stereotypes?  Are there names specific to female athletes?
  • Personally, how mnay of you have called someone else fat, ugly, bitch, slut, whore, or any other name that might make someone feel badly about themselves.  How did you feel when it was said?
  • Now, how many of us have ever used those words against another woman, maybe even someone on this team?
  • How can we expect others to respect us as female athletes?
  • How can we show support for each other?

COACH’S NOTE:

Remind the athletes that this is a stereotype, not an ideal, not a reality.  This is what comes to mind when we hear the word lady in our society.  Make sure that there is no judging.  It is perfectly fine to be any or none of these things, but it is impossible to be all.   (Example: sexy, but innocent, fit, but not athletic, etc.)

WRAP UP:

“Once you label me, you negate me.” – Soren Kierkgaard, philosopher

All of our sports programs hold “Meet the Riots” nights where the coaches have an opportunity to meet with the parents of their student-athletes.  This is an opportunity for our coaches to share information about their program and to introduce the members of each team within their program.  We also take advantage of this opportunity to share an information letter from YAAPP regarding the Coaching Female Athletes program and curriculum.  The letter shares some of the topics that will be discussed and informs the parents that the Red Riots coaching staff has received training relative to the program and will have ongoing support from YAAPP advocates and from our high school social workers.  It also encourages parents to ask their child about the discussions and to keep the conversation going at home.

As you might expect, our coaches have found the first few weekly discussions to be mostly coach driven.  However, once the weekly discussion have become an established part of the practice routine and the girls feel more comfortable with the topics and their teammates we have found that the discussion have been robust and very productive.  Most of our coaches have also found it helpful to connect each weekly discussion with something that has recently occurred and received national media attention.  This certainly allows the student-athletes to relate what they are learning about to real life situations.  There is no question that the implementation of this program has benefitted our student-athletes and coaches.

Here are some quotes from our coaches regarding CFA:

  • “I believe the students have a better understanding of the importance of treating others with respect”
  • “It has given us an opportunity to talk in an open forum about some of the issues that are facing young women in general and to really focus on some of the issues in female athletics. We have discussed some stereotypes, body image and how to handle relationships both good and bad. It has made us more open with each other, more trusting and built stronger relationships between players and between players and coaches. We have had some good laughs and some serious conversations and hopefully this program will make a positive impact on the girls”
  • “I think that the girls are more open with each other. I think they are more likely to take a stand and speak up. They have developed some ideas about what they believe in and are more willing to share some of those ideas”
  • “It is a good start at awareness of self, awareness of teammates, and awareness of how to make all that work successfully. It also helps girls deal with being an athlete and the desire to be the best in a world that doesn’t always want them to have the swagger and desire to be a hard working, assertive, capable young women”

Here are some thoughts that our student-athletes shared about the program:

  • “Our team is really respectful of one another now. The drama from the beginning of the year is not even here. We respect one another”
  • “We really stressed respect to one another and that really helped our team to win this championship”
  • “It helped with team bonding. If you’re talking about a topic that everyone can relate to, they contribute”
  • “I can see this program spreading. I think it helps a lot and its very beneficial”
  • “It was always kind of there, but no one ever talked about it”
  • “It helped us realize how much we do effect younger kids. I didn’t think about it before. They look up to us every day”
  • “We always kept the conversation light. We were comfortable with our coaching staff and really open.”
  • “We had to have a leader or someone to break the ice”
  • “She used Pat Summit (Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach). She related a lot of it to things she looked up. They were relevant to things and people we were interested in”

 

CFA was piloted only by female coaches and currently is only implemented with our female teams that have female coaches.   At South Portland High School we are fortunate that ten of our thirteen female athletic programs have female head coaches.  I have had discussions with YAAPP regarding expanding the program to our male led female sports programs as well, which may require some additional training on each of the topics due to their nature.

 

YAAPP was able to secure grant funding to help with CFA initiatives.  In the spring of 2014, Sarah Gordon coordinated with a photographer, our coaches and myself to visit SPHS to take photos of some of female student-athletes who participated in the program.  These photos were used for the creation of the posters below.  We hung the posters in the hallways at South Portland High School and distributed them to our two middle and five elementary schools that also hung them.  The posters have definitely assisted to spread word about the program and to bring awareness to the importance of its message.

One pitfall we have experienced with both CFA and CBIM is that the curriculum remains the same each time a coach implements the program with their respective team.  This means that an athlete who is on a particular roster in a subsequent year will be exposed to the same curriculum, which could become redundant.  While the myriad of topics are relevant and important, we have had discussions with YAAPP regarding expanding the program to possibly include CFA II or even breaking the ten lessons down into seven per year, which would provide the opportunity for five of the ten topics to discussed in alternating years (week one is a preview and week twelve is a wrap up).  However, having said this, our coaches have found that having student-athletes who have gone through the program already is very beneficial to driving the conversations and helping those new to the program feel more comfortable with the subject matter and discussions.

As an athletic administrator, I feel that the more tools we can provide our student-athletes with – the better.  It’s not all about the wins and the losses; it’s also about developing our young people to be more productive citizens, and inspiring and empowering them to become leaders and roles models, while supporting one another on and off the field by providing them with some of the tools to do so.  I certainly feel fortunate that YAAPP is embedded in our school culture at South Portland High School and that they are willing to take such an active role to help implement and continue the Coaching Female Athletes program with our coaches and student-athletes.  If this program interests you, I would encourage you to contact YAAPP (http://www.yaapp.org) and I’m certain their staff would help you access the materials needed to implement this program with your female student-athletes or explore the program yourself at http://www.yaapp.org/about/ and by clicking on the Coaching Female Athletes link.”

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