February 27, 2013

Bill Nemitz: New 'playbook' leads team to hidden strengths

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

 As preseason pep talks go, this one left an entire team squirming.

click image to enlarge

South Portland basketball coach Phil Conley

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

"This season we'll not only be focusing on your development as athletes, but also on your development as young men," Coach Phil Conley, reading from a playbook he'd never before used, told his South Portland High School basketball team way back in early December.

"That includes how you carry yourself and how you treat others," Conley continued. "Particularly women and girls."

Say what, Coach?

"I thought it wasn't going to be very productive at first," recalled senior forward Ben Burkey, who will join his 14 teammates this weekend as they take on Hampden Academy for the Class A state championship. "But I was proven wrong."

Most high school basketball playbooks begin and end with a dizzying array of X's and O's.

Flip through the pages of "Coaching Boys Into Men," on the other hand, and you'll find headings like "Bragging About Sexual Reputation," "The Responsibility of Physical Strength" and "There's No Excuse for Relationship Abuse."

"I've said it before and I'll say it 100 times," said Conley, off-the-court playbook in hand. "I firmly believe that this brought my team together to where it is today."

It all started last summer.

Carlin Whitehouse, a youth educator with Family Crisis Services' Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program, put out a feeler to the powers that be at South Portland High School: Might they be interested in Coaching Boys Into Men (not to be confused with the similar but separate program Boys to Men) as a pilot program for the school's male student athletes?

The pitch hadn't come entirely out of the blue. Since 2010, the violence prevention agency has run Guys and Pies -- a weekly gathering of as many as a dozen South Portland High boys who sit down over pizza and talk about what it means to grow up male in a world of ever-changing social and sexual stereotypes.

But Coaching Boys Into Men, a first for Maine, would be different. Founded in 2001 by the national organization Futures Without Violence, it aims its message directly at the pinnacle of teenage social hierarchy: the male athlete.

The goal: Give coaches the tools they need to communicate meaningfully with their players about respecting women and girls, about acting as role models for their peers and the younger kids coming up behind them, about appreciating that the strongest men aren't always the ones with the biggest biceps.

Bring it on, responded South Portland Principal Jim Holland.

Just after school began in September, Whitehouse mapped out the program for Holland, Assistant Principal Joe Moore, Athletic Director Todd Livingston, school resource officer Allen Andrews, social worker Kara Tierney-Trevor and Adult Education coordinator David Brenner.

Green lights all around.

Then he met with the varsity football, soccer, baseball and basketball coaches.

More buy-in.

"This was a team process -- all of us together," said Conley, who readily agreed to go first. "That was vital."

A little background on South Portland's hoop prospects: Going into the season, few in the high school sports world expected the Red Riots to finish much higher than the middle of the pack.

"There were a lot of favorites," recalled Ben Burkey with a wry smile. "And we weren't one of them."

Thus when Coach Conley announced to his players that practice would start a half-hour early each Wednesday so they could talk about becoming better young men, well, who wouldn't look at the floor and squirm?

"I thought it was kind of awkward at first," admitted senior forward Conner MacVane. "There were a lot of long silences."

But then, right around the time they wrapped their heads around "Insulting Language" in Week 3, something remarkable happened.

(Continued on page 2)

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