How to Encourage Student Athletes to Become Proactive Bystanders

Posted by Josh Young on 20 April 2017 |

student athlete bystander intervention The theme for this year's Sexual Assault Awareness Month -- a national campaign that takes place every April and is promoted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center -- is "Engaging New Voices." And one of these targeted groups of new voices includes coaches and by extension student athletes.

This cross-section of students often fill a leadership role that can help set the cultural tone of your campus. And by enlisting them in the fight against sexual assault and violence, you can make the call to change much louder.

Bystander Intervention

A recent focus of anti-violence and anti-bullying campaigns, bystander intervention is a strategy that empowers the community to take ownership of problematic or potentially dangerous social situations and to speak up before events can spiral out of hand.

This approach is intended to counteract, the well-documented bystander effect -- a psychological phenomenon that allows individuals in a crowd to minimize any feelings of responsibility to help a victim, instead placing the bulk of responsibility on the surrounding people.

By encouraging your student athletes to be active bystanders, your campus can provide them with a powerful tool to address the social issues they encounter every day.

What Measures Can Your Campus Take?


Coaches often fulfill the role of both teacher and leader for student athletes, and by actively mentoring these players, coaching staff can encourage mature and appropriate behavior and model what it looks like to be a responsible bystander.

Coaches can set clear behavioral expectations for players by creating a code of conduct that outlines what actions are and are not appropriate for student athletes, such as catcalling other players or using gender or sexual orientation as the basis for an insult. Include reasonable consequences to rule violations that create teachable moments and help steer athletes on the appropriate path.


A commonly cited reason for why students don't intervene in a potentially hazardous situation is not knowing what to do. And training can help overcome this hurdle.

According to one study conducted by the University of New Hampshire, the monitored training program had a positive impact on students' attitudes towards their confidence as a bystander, intent to take action, and perception of the benefits of acting. While another bystander program produced data that suggested it might reduce the perpetration of sexual assault and change attitudes about coercion in relationships among some participants.

To further help students successfully engage as bystanders, Cornell's Gannet Health Services launched its "Intervene" bystander campaign. As part of the program, the school identifies seven steps that can help students to achieve an effective bystander intervention:

  1. Recognize the behavior
  2. Interpret the behavior as a problem
  3. Feel a sense of responsibility
  4. Know what to do (or not do)
  5. Feel empowered that you have the ability to do something
  6. Perform a quick cost/benefit analysis of taking action
  7. Act (direct, distract, delegate, discuss)


Your school can also work with its athletics department to set up campus advocacy groups focused on preventing sexual violence, similar to Rutgers University. The school's SCREAM Athletes program, an interactive theater  experience, relies on student athletes to serve as peer educators and explore discussions regarding athletic culture and its intersection with interpersonal and sexual violence.

These advocate athletes, who understand the pressures, relationships, and stresses that their peers experience, can emphasize the strengths of the athletic community as well as the potential leadership role that athletes can assume on these issues.


Of course, these actions can be undertaken by any student or faculty to help create a safe, tolerant, and welcoming campus.

To learn more about student empowerment and how to promote and encourage bystander intervention at your school, fill out the form on the right to request a demo of our services.

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