Stopping to Talk

January 29, 2015
The leadership of the NCAA is taking sexual violence prevention seriously. By understanding the nuances of effective training programs, individual schools can do the same.
By Jeffrey O'Brien

Jeffrey O'Brien is Director of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) National Program, which has developed a unique expertise in working with athletic environments to prevent gender violence. The program has delivered domestic and sexual violence prevention training and technical assistance on over 150 campuses, along with all the major pro sports leagues, and every branch of the U.S. military, and is presented in partnership by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society ( and the National Consortium for Academics & Sports ( He can be reached through the program's Web site at:

"Man, this isn't a training, it's a conversation. Thank you!" This statement, from a male student-athlete at the conclusion of one of our Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) training sessions affirms what we have long believed: teaching sexual violence prevention to student-athletes can be a transformative experience for them if done correctly. The question that many have struggled with is, "What exactly is the right way?"

The majority of collegiate athletic administrators realize that working to prevent sexual violence is a prominent issue. The debates usually revolve around strategies to combat it.

From my work with the MVP program, I have seen first-hand the amazing efforts that many of our campuses are taking to prevent domestic and sexual violence. Our company has found that the key to arriving at positive outcomes is training that uses an interactive format, in a conducive setting, with appropriate messengers and relevant content. If it looks and feels like class, it is not likely to change student-athlete social behavior.

Given the spotlight focused on athletic departments, the role athletic administrators and coaches play in creating and maintaining a healthy environment around the issues of sexual violence is critical. Athletics can be a key player in making our campuses safer places for all students.

From the accumulated research we know that 20 to 25 percent of women report experiencing a rape or an attempted rape while in college. Sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by someone, usually male, that the victim knows. All too often our campuses are the scenes of these crimes that have life-changing effects on the survivors.

Those facts are not new. But what is new is a heightened awareness that leaders in college athletics must do more to help stop the violence. In April, the NCAA held its first Summit on Violence Prevention, and President Mark Emmert presented a challenge when he spoke to those attending.

"It [violence] haunts our campuses, it haunts our society and it's something we wrestle with everyday. I don't know of one campus that has not struggled with this problem. What we can't do is pretend this is not a problem. What we can't do is sweep it under the rug," said Emmert, as reported by

Emmert also said that he wants, "athletics, and athletes, to help lead the push against all forms of violence--especially gender violence," according to He is helping administrators understand the urgency of the issue. This is important because every time it has been addressed effectively, it was the result of a leadership mandate to aggressively change the culture.

MVP has worked closely with the Southeastern, Big Ten, and Atlantic-10 conferences on sexual violence prevention. In each case, the leadership of the presidents, commissioners, and athletic directors has been the catalyst for developing prevention strategies. These folks did not wait for unusual spikes in student-athlete perpetration to lead on this issue, nor did they worry about public perception. Rather, they simply did what they felt was right.

As important as it is to have direction from the top, leadership in this area is necessary at every level. Determine what role different individuals will play in your department--senior administrators, junior administrators, coaches, academic advisors, student-athletes, and so on. Talk about the issue as a department so there is a broad-based strategy everyone is aware of.

In addition, all coaches and staff members should be consistent in their formal and informal messages about sexual violence. When the people student-athletes respect most are committed to violence prevention, it resonates. Student-athletes pick up on what is truly important to the leaders they interact with.

It can also be effective to identify specific individuals at each level of the department to more thoroughly educate about the seriousness of these issues. Empower and support them in their role as change agents throughout athletics and the entire campus.

Just as critical is teaching student-athletes to be leaders on this topic, which means engaging student-athletes beyond a single presentation or facilitated discussion. A technique we utilize is to have student-athletes discuss the qualities of a good leader and how they can use those characteristics to lead in the prevention of sexual violence. Help them connect the dots: leadership equals challenging their teammates' behavior.

Along with being leaders on their team in sexual violence prevention, encourage student-athletes to go beyond their normal boundaries. For example, The University of Maine has done a great job for a long time engaging its student-athletes through "Male Athletes Against Violence" and recently developed a public awareness campaign starring student-athletes with positive healthy messages about sexual respect and decision making.

With leaders on board, the best way to begin your educational program is to have goals. Start with the end in mind and develop the outcomes you desire for your programming. To give you an idea, MVP's training goals are to:

• Raise participant awareness of the underlying issues and unique dynamics of all forms of violence against women

• Challenge participants to think critically and personally (empathize) about these issues

• Open dialogue among participants about the dynamics and context of all forms of violence against women

• Inspire participants to be proactive leaders regarding these issues by challenging them to develop concrete options for bystander intervention in potentially dangerous social situations involving teammates and friends.

Once you determine your goals, choose your educators and group facilitators to reflect those goals. Student-athletes will sniff out a fraud in a heartbeat, but conversely, they will embrace someone they feel is there to help and challenge them. We have found it works well to use former athletes as mentors and facilitators. It is helpful for student-athletes to know that their educators have been in their shoes and understand what they are experiencing.

The actual training is best done in team settings, where there are common goals that lead to a shared dynamic in the room. Within teams, you can reinforce the athletes' responsibility for each other. You can also challenge them to have the courage to step up. Just by having this conversation together, student-athletes agree that these are issues they need to address and they will be held accountable by teammates.

We have found there is a lot of power in the shared experience these conversations provide. I remember a team, which we had visited with the year before, telling us that they couldn't always think of profound things to say or do, but they could always say, "MVP!" in a teammate's ear and he would know to stop what he was doing. The shared experience triggered the memory for them as a team, and as individuals.

Teams with a large number of participants, such as football, should be broken into three or more sections. Large groups inhibit conversation and promote passive learning, while small ones provide a more intimate setting to foster open communication. Smaller groups also ensure athletes can learn from each other. We suggest there be no more than 30 athletes in each group.

Any co-ed teams should be split by gender. Sexual violence is a "gendered" conversation--don't shy away from this reality. Providing single-gender learning experiences creates safe spaces for both women and men and maximizes outcomes.

Throughout training, one overall key is to understand that student-athletes respond to a positive challenge. Instead of talking with male student-athletes about what not to do, challenge them to show leadership and provide "do" messages or concrete skills for bystander intervention. Similarly, instead of talking with female student-athletes as potential victims, speak with them about leadership and bystander intervention skills to help friends and teammates in abusive situations on campus.

Another critical point is to engage your student-athletes in authentic conversations about these issues and avoid "preachy, teachy" approaches. They are experiencing these issues in their lives so the topic will be real. Provide them with the opportunity to have "real talk" and you will be amazed by their response.

Finally, remember to be flexible. Every team will bring a different set of challenges to the training experience. Find where the group is coming from and start there--there is no "one size fits all" in dealing with these issues. You may deliver the same training to several teams with similar results then get a group that forces you to slow down considerably and adjust your agenda. If you push through the training and force the same process on every group, you will likely lose some.

Un-initiated observers to an MVP training session are often confused by what they see. Student-athletes who entered the room "kicking and screaming" are engaged in a spirited discussion, challenging one another on a thought or idea. They may be out of their seats and spread around the room, taking a stand on whether they agree, disagree, or are unsure about a particular statement that MVP trainers have posed. This is what generally happens when your educational philosophy matches your target audience and is delivered by the appropriate messengers.

How do we make this happen? The first thing to understand is that MVP training sessions are facilitated discussions, not lectures, and they are highly interactive. Research shows us that retention levels for participants in active learning groups follow a positive retention trajectory, while participants in passive learning groups follow a negative retention trajectory. This proves what we intuitively know--the more interested and engaged someone is, the more they will learn.

Most of our activities relay realistic social scenarios. The student-athletes discuss them and then brainstorm strategies to confront or interrupt abusive behavior involving teammates or friends. Our trainers utilize a Socratic method, which encompasses the belief that the answers are in the room if we just ask the right questions. This is an adjustment for many student-athletes--they generally start the training being relatively quiet but quickly realize that their thoughts matter and begin to engage.

For example, one activity called "Agree, Disagree, Unsure" is based on having athletes respond to the question: "Is it okay for two intoxicated adults to engage in sexual activity?" After giving the athletes time to think about their responses, we ask them to walk to a section of the room based on whether they agree, disagree, or are unsure about the statement. Through this activity, we can engage the group in conversation about alcohol and sexual consent, consent in all situations, and gender expectations around sex. We also get them moving, which breaks down any passive learning dynamics. The physical movement strategy has proven extremely effective.

Multiple learning approaches are used. For example, during the above activity, we will have the athletes tell each other what they know about the law regarding alcohol and sexual consent. And we write their responses for how they know they have consent on a chalkboard. This provides both verbal and written experiences.

The overall idea is to create a healthy tension, which challenges participants to understand and embrace the necessity of their actions as leaders and proactive bystanders when faced with these issues. The energy generated through an activity like this is hard to describe, but we refer to it as the switch that turns the light on in our trainings. Student-athletes experience a paradigm shift in attitude about sexual violence, which empowers them.

The training opens dialogue regarding participant leadership around many different issues. We focus on: the social construction of masculinity as it relates to unhealthy behavior, sexual objectification of women, sexual harassment, battering, and sexual assault.

Peer teaching strategies have also been successful for us. These can be formal or informal. A formal strategy is having student-athletes participate in a "train the trainer" program and empowering them to become a mentor among their peers. Informally, this works by discussing with student-athletes their perspectives on issues during a short training period. It may be as simple as asking a student-athlete if he agrees with something problematic that one of his teammates has said. This gives that student-athlete an opportunity to show leadership by offering a different point of view.

A big part of our training teaches bystanders how to react to sexual violence. The concept here is to provide student-athletes with concrete options that they can use to prevent or interrupt abusive or potentially abusive situations involving teammates and friends. It empowers participants to play an active role in confronting sexual abuse.

Many student-athletes want to help but lack the skills necessary to intervene in a safe manner. The key is to engage them in a process that leads to empowered skill building and decision making.

Think about how many times athletes have heard the "don't" messages--don't put yourself in bad situations, don't stay out after 1 a.m., don't have sex if you've been drinking, and on and on. In reality, they respond better to "do" messages.

These "do" messages can be categorized into four areas: direct, indirect, distraction, and protocol. As participants share their ideas, our trainers challenge them to consider the reaction they could receive from the person they are confronting. Trainers then push the group to think through the myriad ways they can approach a situation.

Through these discussions, the student-athletes develop both strategies and the confidence to intervene when warranted. The more they think and talk this through with their teammates, the more confident they will be in their ability to step up in the most difficult of social situations.

However, know that bystander intervention, by itself, is not the answer. The education process around sexual violence needs to precede it. If you try to circumvent the process and go right to bystander intervention strategies, you will fall short of your goals. The group may give you "the right answers," but they will likely consider it a classroom discussion and not apply the skills in real life.

I have observed well-intentioned athletic administrators lament that their efforts have not been successful in changing their student-athletes' behavior regarding gender violence prevention. When pressed about their approach, they tell me they have had a series of presentations for all student-athletes in an auditorium. Large group presentations can be an ingredient of a larger plan, but ultimately, active learning experiences in small groups, where student-athletes discuss ideas together, is the solution. Allow your athletes to learn from each other, and watch them shine.

As part of sexual violence prevention training, it's important to answer the question, "Why should student-athletes get involved? Why should this matter to them?" Our discussion-based process walks them through the reasons.

Early in sessions, MVP trainers engage students in discussions about sexual consent. If the group feels that a woman gives consent to sex by "coming back to my place after partying," then we still have some work to do with our discussion. Moving on to intervention strategies would be useless at this point.

To help them understand the "why," we talk about the impact of a sexual assault on a survivor. This enables male student-athletes to develop empathy for victims of sexual violence.

We also explain the legal ramifications for themselves or their teammates if they commit a sexual assault. This can be an eye-opener for many of them.

These discussions can serve to realign student-athletes' thinking about the role they should play and "answer the why" for them. A realistic discussion about the impact of a sexual assault on all parties involved is an important part of the prevention process.
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