By: Jeremy Thode, CMAA - Center Moriches School District (NY)
Several years ago, I made a proposal to the Executive Director of Section XI in New York to begin offering a coaching certification course called the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA). This course is the required New York State Anti-Bullying course for educators and coaches that enable individuals to work in our schools with adolescents.
DASA is a critical component for all educators to experience to help them to understand the complexity of the social and emotional damage that students are potentially facing in their educational and athletic experiences. Prior to proposing the course, I had attended various anti-bullying workshops and courses due to my interest on the topic. I didn't feel especially fulfilled in those opportunities and really wanted to dig deeper into the issues out there which for years, I believe, went inadequately addressed in our schools.
Although there were several high-profile bullying stories and issues out there at the time, there was also a deep-rooted culture of bullying and intimidation in schools that really was bothering me. I wanted to understand more about it and find ways to address and eliminate it. This took me on a journey of reflection, observation, and inquiry. I reflected on my own educational and athletic career as a student, athlete, coach, educator, and parent. I took time to observe more at the youth, school, collegiate, and professional levels of athletics. I watched and listened to players, coaches, parents, referees, and spectators. I also inquired and asked questions of our students, athletes, parents, teachers, coaches, and administrators. Ultimately, the work I put in to educate myself led me to make the proposal to offer this New York State required course for our coaches in Suffolk County, New York through our local Athletic Association (Section XI).
I felt I was ready to help our coaches and, most importantly, our students and athletes. Upon completing the necessary credentials to offer the course, I was blessed with a handful of professionals willing to assist me in this endeavor. Ultimately, I found a dynamic co-instructor - Lisa Lally, the former Athletic Director in the Miller Place School District who has since retired and moved to Minnesota - who developed the initial course and instruction with me. Each class we taught we found unique connections for coaches to understand the positive impact they could have on students in the social and emotional realm, while preventing bullying.
We also discussed and dissected, among other topics, how the competitive world of athletics can be a detriment to the educational process. Our course design and its ongoing development really began to take shape in the form of using the real life experiences of our students, educators and coaches to drive the central themes of the curriculum. We started, rather quickly, to understand that being competitive, pushing for victory, and making the tough calls as a coach were not mutually exclusive to giving students and athletes the ability to be in a positive environment as it related to social interactions. These lessons would assist coaches in helping adolescents appropriately and meaningfully navigate societal norms outside the athletic and educational world.
Ultimately, we zeroed in on some very specific activities and important areas within the very comprehensive curriculum of positive coaching practices as it related to the social and emotional, as well as, the mental health of student-athletes. One such area relates to a very long standing "motivational technique" that has been and still is consistently used in the athletic arena at all levels. In one course activity, we ask our adult students (coaches and educators) to take the time to go out to any game or practice played by males at the youth level (as young as 4 or 5 year old) through middle school all the way up to the professional level. We ask them to listen to the dialogue and comments given to male athletes from the sidelines, from the parents, grandparents, siblings or spectators. We ask them to tell us what these males athletes (youth to professional) hear from all stakeholders (including teammates) that is specifically designed and intended to motivate them to play harder, be tougher, stronger, move faster or perform better THAT is a direct specific negative reference or insult to a female? The amount of hands that immediately rise by both our male and female coaches and educators is overwhelming.
Comments such as "you throw like a girl" or "are you going to cry like a girl" or "don't be a sissy" and "my sister is tougher than you" to name a few of the more popular quotes from our students in this class. Additionally, we hear other comments in this classroom exercise that directly question a males' identity such as "are you a boy or a girl?" and the ever popular "man-up."
These are just a small sample of what we all hear and, quite frankly, these are the less colorful and less crude quotes we heard from our students during this mini lesson. The point is that male athletes as young as 3- or 4-years-old, from the very beginning of their athletic career, hear comments that are berating females which are usually intended to motivate them (this is not to mention other comments that are also made about sexual identity or sexual expression).
Many times, negative comments are made from well-intended parents or family members who are truly trying to motivate their child. Other times, it may be from embarrassment or shame that their child may be spinning in circles or picking daisies on the youth soccer field when other children are shining in their athletic debuts. At times it is their coaches or teammates who don't realize the ramifications of such comments or the damage such comments can make. Inevitably, there is emotional scarring being done when the male athlete (of all ages) is being told directly or indirectly that they aren't good enough as they are and simultaneously, they are getting subliminal negative messages about the female gender.
This potentially starts and continues a view of females that is not positive or conducive to overall respect for females. It certainly is not productive for any type of perception or equity in a school athletic program. These so-called "motivational techniques" and types of references are also littered in our everyday lives from movies, television, media, social media and general personal interactions. It's all around us. I can tell you from direct conversations with male athletes how the power of words from their coaches, parents, teammates and others in their lives become a long-lasting detriment in their self-worth and self-esteem. Athletes tend to internalize and hold onto the harsh more than the positive feedback. Less realized is the wide ranging damage it causes to our female athletes and students. These types of athletic experiences for our male students and athletes coupled with other societal inequities for females have caused great damage across varied interactions in our schools.
The solution is simple and worthwhile. Ultimately, as much as we can, we want to provide a positive experience for ALL our students and athletes. Educators must take the time to get to know their male and female students and athletes. Understand their backgrounds, cultures and traditions. Making the effort to understand the complexities of our students and/or athletes' lives will help guide us in making deep positive connections to them.
Only when we know an adolescent's mindset, interests, and identities are we able to truly find the ways to individually motivate them to be the best they can be and maximize their specific potential. We need to work to make positive connections with each individual student and athlete. Reach beyond their athletic prowess and into their experiences. Ask them about their perceptions and realities. Don't be shy about having difficult conversations about sensitive topics in a professional and safe manner.
Be vulnerable when you can so your students and athletes feel your investment in them. Work to eliminate negative references or comparisons to others in your strategies and under your supervision. There are plenty of options to motivate students and athletes without questioning their toughness or capacity through intimidation, inappropriate comparisons or insult. Be careful with your words and ensure they do not marginalize others. Challenge comments and insults by others. Educate and explain alternative ways to speak to others in positive and productive manners. We don't have to make a public example out of someone who is not aware that they are "destroyers." We just must ensure that words are not used that "destroy" a person's perception of themselves or others.
As educators we can be proactive about setting expectations in our class, locker room, or on the fields, courts, courses, or in our pools. We should focus on being "builders." We must model through our words, conversation and education to "build" up our students and athletes. A positive non-offending environment is created with reflection, effort, buy in and patience. Mistakes made by any stakeholder can be addressed positively and appropriately without conflict. As educators, we need to raise the bar of acceptance and celebration of all. It starts with one conversation at a time.
Jeremy Thode is the Athletic Director at Center Moriches Schools and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org