Coaching Boys Into Men program catches on at local schools
When Highlands athletic director Chuck Debor tries to explain the value of communication between athletes and coaches, he thinks back to his experiences as an athlete.
Outside of his parents, he said, coaches and teachers tended to leave the most lasting impressions.
“I still see that today,” Debor said.
The coach-athlete dynamic, in which coaches reinforce what athletes learn at home from their parents but provide a setting that can make it easier to open up, was a key factor in introducing the district's teams to the Coaching Boys Into Men program.
The program was developed by the nonprofit Futures Without Violence. It encourages open communication between coaches and athletes to promote healthy relationships. It fosters respect for women to prevent relationship violence and sexual assault.
Debor said he first was introduced to Coaching Boys Into Men by Alle-Kiski Area HOPE Center Executive Director Michelle Bond. He became further interested after learning about a couple of well-known coaches in the Pittsburgh area who have adopted the curriculum for their athletes.
Debor attended a coaches seminar in August 2015 in which Pirates manager Clint Hurdle addressed his experience using Coaching Boys Into Men with his players. Debor also was aware of Woodland Hills football coach George Novak's success in implementing the program.
With Bond as a conduit, Debor got in touch with Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief of the adolescent medicine division at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and co-creator of the Coaching Boys Into Men program.
The result was Highlands Middle School taking part in a two-year pilot study in which athletes complete confidential, parent-sanctioned online questionnaires. Among various topics, students were asked about their attitudes regarding sexual harassment, bullying and homophobia.
Highlands Middle School is one of 40 Western Pennsylvania middle schools participating in the study, funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Twenty schools began teaching the Coaching Boys Into Men curriculum in 2015, and the other 20 — Highlands included — were randomly selected to hold off on implementing the program. That will allow researchers to compare results from the schools participating this school year with those such as Highlands that will start next school year.
Miller's study, which she said will combine data from more than 1,000 boys in middle school, intends to measure the effectiveness of the Coaching Boys Into Men program at the middle school level.
The program originally was designed for high school students.
Highlands on deck
Highlands plans to implement the complete Coaching Boys Into Men curriculum at the middle school and high school next fall, Debor said.
Mary Graczyk, development manager for Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, said United Way is in the process of raising money for program materials and coaches' training with Family Services staff at Highlands, Springdale, Riverview and Kiski Area high schools.
Springdale's seventh- and eighth-grade boys soccer, football and basketball players were introduced to the curriculum last fall as part of Miller's study, said Springdale athletic director Ray Davis. He said the varsity boys basketball program at Springdale High School already has the program. Boys soccer and football will follow next year, Davis said.
He said initial feedback has been generally positive, with some athletes responding well to group conversations and others indicating a preference for one-on-one conversations with coaches.
“If we didn't have (Coaching Boys Into Men), these kids would never ask these questions of anybody,” Davis said.
At Highlands Middle School, football coach and eighth-grade boys basketball coach Michael Foster is tasked with helping implement the program. As a basketball coach for 18 years, he said he understands that changing the perspectives of young athletes can be gradual.
“We're not trying to shift the paradigm each day, but each day we'll try to get a little more respectful of each other and others,” Foster said.
Foster addressed a recent incident at Highlands, in which a student was punished for circulating a fake racist hunting license on social media, as the kind of event Coaching Boys Into Men wouldn't address specifically but could help mediate in the future.
“It does address how to intervene,” Foster said of the program. “It will give (middle school athletes) a baseline so they're familiar with it and they're comfortable with it and they're more apt to step in.”
Early intervention key
Bond said early intervention with young adults is a positive step in preventing violence against women.
“The earlier that we attempt social change, the more likely it is to occur,” Bond said. “You can't change society until you change all of society.”
Starting next fall, Foster said, he will set aside time each week to address with his athletes a different topic in the program.
Novak, who retired as Woodland Hills' football coach in November, and Woodland Hills assistant Keith Davis, for example, set aside a half-hour each Monday for discussion with their athletes.
Some of the topics in the curriculum can be uncomfortable, Debor said, but establish a needed dialogue.
“It gives kids an opportunity to talk about it with someone other than Mom and Dad. If we have a coach who embraces it and his or her heart's in the right place, he or she can help,” Debor said. “Our coaches here are willing to do it next year and not just fake it. They're willing to get involved and try to help.”
Andrew Erickson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org