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Posted at 06:46 AM ET, 03/26/2012

Can young men’s athletic coaches help stem dating violence?

Dating violence among teenagers and young adults — physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse between people who are dating--often goes unreported.

But the second-degree murder conviction of former University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely V in the death of Yeardley Love cast a harsh spotlight on the issue. Among the unanswerable questions: Could Huguely’s athletic coaches and teammates possibly have intervened against Huguely’s aggressive behavior and perhaps helped avert this tragedy?

The Huguely-Love case was the first that came to my mind when I read the “Coaching Boys into Men” study published Monday in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Researchers at University of California - Davis Health System tested a program that asks high-school athletic coaches to help male teen athletes recognize and take action against disrespectful, and potentially dangerous, attitudes and behaviors toward the young women in their lives.

The research team, led by Elizabeth Miller (who has since moved to the University of Pittsburgh), asked about 2,000 male athletes at 16 California high schools about their perceptions of such behaviors as “telling girls which friends they can or cannot see or talk to” and “telling them they’re ugly or stupid.”

Those who had dated girls were asked whether they had demonstrated any of 10 abusive behaviors -- physical, emotional and sexual -- toward a female partner during the previous three months.

Eighteen percent of those who had dated reported they had engaged in abusive behavior toward a female partner; verbal and emotional abuse were far more commonly reported than physical or sexual abuse.

Coaches for about half the young athletes were asked to present weekly, 15-minute discussions about dating abuse; they talked about what constitutes those behaviors, attitudes toward those behaviors and the prospect of taking action against them by refusing to tolerate those behaviors when they’re witnessed, or speaking out against them. The other coaches held their regular team meetings without any discussions about dating violence.

The changes observed were not huge. But the researchers found that the athletes whose coaches participated in the discussions were more likely than those in the control group to say they’d intervene if they witnessed a peer’s abusive behavior. And the youths who received the coach’s messages were much more likely to say they’d actually done or said something to stop a peer’s disrespectful or harmful behavior than those in the control group. Meanwhile, reports from those in the control group indicated they became less likely to intervene as the sports season went on.

The study notes that one in three teenage girls is subject to some form of abuse, be it physical, emotional or verbal, from someone she is dating. It further notes that other athletic-coach interventions that focusing on changing the culture of acceptance and tolerance of dating violence among male athletes also have been shown to work.

Intervening during high school, when most abuse is verbal or emotional, might help keep abusive tendencies among male athletes (a phenomenon this study suggests is well established) from escalating into physical and sexual forms.

By  |  06:46 AM ET, 03/26/2012

 
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