The increasingly competitive nature of high school athletics in Northern Virginia is straining relations between coaches, encouraging out-of-season training and forcing students to restrict the number of sports in which they participate, according to a number of coaches and athletes in the area.
Coaches at public high schools in Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria, say that the increased competition is caused by an ever-growing emphasis on winning. And while they acknowledge that some of the pressure to win is self-imposed, they also say that much of it comes from their schools and community.
This growing competitiveness in local sports, they say, creates a pressure cycle which influences their goals and activities. The four steps in the cycle, which has developed over a number of years, can be described as follows:
Coaches feel pressure from themselves, their school and the community to win. "There's a lot of self-imposed pressure on coaches," says Jim England, athletic director at Lee High School. "And there's no question that coaches are in competition more now than they were 15 years ago."
Coaches expand informal and unofficial out-of-season training and practices for athletes. Coaches admit these sessions often strain the spirit and letter of Virginia High School League rules, which govern most public school extracurricular activities, including sports, in the state.
Coaches grow wary of one another. Charges are common among coaches that rival schools gain unfair advantage by practicing out of season. Coaches also charge that their colleagues in the same school try to discourage students from playing certain sports. No violations have been discovered, but the frequently expressed fear that they exist "contributes to the problem of one-upmanship - if someone thinks someone else is gaining 10 minutes advantage, he'll try to gain 15 minutes," according to one athletic director, echoing a view shared by others.
The student athlete accepts year-round participation in sports as the only way he can develop enough skills to make his high school team. "In order to be as good as other players, you have to play a sport all the time unless you're a super all-round athlete," says Mark Martino, a recent Marshall High School graduate who received a partial scholarship in basketball to Randolph-Macon College. He also played varsity baseball in high school.
Pressure on coaches to win stems in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] because high school athletic departments are primarily self-supporting financially. Football is the main revenue-producing sport, grossing about $300,000 total for the Northern Region's 26 high schools last year. Athletic directors note that in unsuccessful football seasons their budgets suffer.
"We all know the schools need the money from football and that causes us to put some pressure on ourselves to produce a winner," says one football coach. "The major pressure is what you put on yourself and that can be prety great."
"There are some types of coaches who would play their mother with a broken leg if they thought she could help them win," England says. Over the years, he adds, "a cycle built up" where coaches in major sports began expanding their programs "and it became apparent they were the ones who had success, so other felt it necessary to follow in order to keep up."
"The goal of coaches is to win," says Jefferson High School football coach Mike Weaver. In order to achieve that goal, Weaver and other coaches emphasize to athletes the importance of "maintaining their physical condition year round."
"Athletes need the competitive edge that regular workouts or participation in sports provides. You can tell who the kids are who don't stay in shape year round. They come to football workouts and get sick. If a kid's not participating in another sport, I have a weightlifting program I like for them to follow year round."
The Virginia High School League specifies dates each year for the beginning of practice for fall, winter and spring sports. The league handbook defines practice as "the involvement of indiviuduals or (a) group of individuals from a member school in any organized program . . . conducted in part or in entirely by a person or group of people who are involved in the coaching of any of these athletes for pay."
Coaches comply with this definition by making out-of-season workouts or summer league programs voluntary and by not supervising the activities personally. However, many coaches admit there is, as Weaver says, "implied pressure" for athletes to become involved in these programs.
"I tell my kids that I'd rather have them playing other sports when it's not football season because I think they gain more out of competing than just by working out," says Herndon High School football coach Don Noll. "If they're not out competing, I like for them to be in the weight room though it is a loosely run program."
Out-of-season activities like weighlifting, physical tests in the spring for football candidates, summer basketball and baseball leagues and private sports camps have contributed to a general wariness among coaches and schools.
A football coach called the recent reinstatement of summer basketball league play, which had been suspended for a week by area principals who felt coaches might be involved beyond VHSL rules, "a whitewash. Basketball coaches have been pressuring kids to play summer league ball since the league began three years ago. They tell kids if they don't play in the summer, they're not going to make the team in the winter. Some basketabll coaches tell kids not to play other sports. They make basketball a 12-month-long activity."
Lee baseball coach Rick Bradley says, "I disagree with some basketball coaches have been doing. It amounts to mandatory practices. Kids have the feeling that if they don't play in the summer, they won't play in the winter. My personal opinion is that some coaches say, 'We got this going for you, so play.'"
Doug Crupper, president of the Northern Virginia Basketball Coaches Association, says, "You hear a lot of complaining about that and if someone could show proof of it going on, we could do something about it. I just don't believe that as a general rule that's the case."
"I've been accused of telling kids not to play other sports," admits Don McCool, basketball coach at Hayfield Secondary School last year. "But I've never told a kid not to play a sport. That would be a good way to cut my own throat - he'd probably give up my sport.
"There are coaches who will badger kids and tell them they'll be all-Americans, but I don't know of any basketball coach who says, 'You must play summer league ball in order to make the varsity.' What it amounts to is letting the kid make his own choice. Extra programs are not doing any harm to kids unless someone is forcing them to do something they don't want to do."
"What they (basketball coaches) have done," says Bradley, "is taken the winter season and extended it into the summer. You see basketball coaches make cuts in the winter in two days. That's because they've given everyone a good look in the summer."
McCool says the basketball coaches supply programs no different than "track, gymnastics, band or swimming - kids can participate in those on their own year round. They're available for kids who want to excel. The same with summer basketball."
Area coaches point to Robinson Secondary School's unprecedented regional championships in football, basketball and baseball this year as examples of what sharing the athletic wealth can do for an entire program.
Of 19 varsity baseball team members at Robinson, 10 played football, five basketball and two wrestled. Three - Winston Streeter, Mark Krynitsky and Todd Kirtley - played varsity football, basketball and baseball.
"If any of those kids," Robinson baseball coach Bob Menefee says refering to his three-sport lettermen, "had been discouraged from coming out for baseball, I know it would have affected my program. They're athletes. There's no replacing them."
Robinson football coach Ed Henry says the school's coaches avoided conflicts over what sports the gifted athletes should play because "we all get along. The coaches here have confidence in their ability. They know that if they develop their own program strong enough, the competitors will come out for it. It's not like that at every school.
"It's unfair to deny kids the opportunity to play a sport. Coaches who do that don't have confidence in their own ability."
Many student athletes say they accept the fact that in order to make a high school team, they must take advantage of out of season programs.
"I wouldn't have scored three points a game if I hadn't played basketball last summer and gone to basketball camp," Martino says. "If an individual really wants to play badly, he'll go to camp and play in the summer.
"You play for your coach first, then your school and then your parents and yourself. And you never want to walk down the (school) hall after you lose."
While coaches say they appreciate an athlete who follows an out-of-season training program, most emphasize that alone is not enough to assure a spot on the team.
"Sure, I owe loyalty to the kids who workout regularly," says Weaver. "But the best 22 kids will start in the fall. If a kid hasn't been working out, I don't hold that against him. He can still make the team."
Washington-Lee athletic director John Youngblood recently proposed, for shock value, that area principals ask the VHSL to abolish preseason and out-of-season regulations on practices. "Then people would really see how many negatives there are in the form of pressures on athletes," Youngblood says. "Too many principals have their heads in the sand. They know rules are being violated or close to it."
"I don't really know if the pressure needs to be under control," Weaver says. "It's always going to be there. The rules now are unenforceable anyway. Kids will always have to be physically ready in order to play and lessen the chance of injury."
What will the pressure cycle lead to in the future?
"I'm afraid if it keeps uP, it could wind up turning the kids off," England says. "You can't make demands on kids forever."
"You're in high school sports to have fun," Martino says, "but a lot of guys will really have to concentrate on a specialty."
The number of coaching vacancies and transfers annually increases, according to athletic directors who feel this reflects the pressures on coaches.
"We get a piddling supplement (about $1,400 for the head coach of a major sport), but people expect us to be available 12 months a year," says one coach.
"I stopped comparing the time I put in with the money I get along time ago," says another.