Game day minus two and counting.
A light rain is falling on the field as Coach Joe Kiel kneels in the autumn twilight for the ritual chat with his players.
It is serious business that they are about, and no one needs to be told how serious. In less than 48 hours they will play their toughest game of the year against a formidable and determined opponent. Kiel's voice conveys the all-business, no-nonsense approach, appropriate for the occasion.
"They are not a big team," he begins. "But they are a physical team. They play a very physical game. Now I'm not asking you to try to hurt them or play dirty. But if you lay off them for just one second because they're little, they're gonna stick it to you."
Mike LaVerghetta wants this one badly.
For three years, he has been coaching against Kiel's teams, but he has never won. This is his big chance. As darkness forces a halt to practice, his players gather around.
"For 3 1/2 years we've been getting our butts kicked all the time. Now is our chance to get even. They don't have that much speed, and there is nothing particularly awesome about them. At last, we have them where we want them. With a 110 percent effort from everyone, I know we can take them." THE GAME
A magnificent November Saturday. Tension has been mounting all morning. By game time it is almost palpable. Crowding together in a circle, jumping, screaming, shouting, cheering, the players join hands in a final ritualistic act of unity before taking the field.
Play begins. "Good ball, good ball. . . No, no. Not that way. . . Get it. Hit it. Hit it. How many times have I told you? It's yours. It's yours.It's yours. It's yours. Run. Run. Run." Overtime. Double overtime. Finally, after 110 minutes of play, the tie breaker.
Thus was decided the Virginia state soccer championship in the 14- and 15-year old girls division.
In a shootout, Kiel's Braddock Road Cougars defeated LaVerghetta's Braddock Road Bluebells, 2-1, for the right to defend their title next summer at the Eastern Regional tournament in New York.
The contest that day on the upper field behind the stadium at Fairfax County's vast Robinson Secondary School complex was a finely played soccer game between two evenly matched and well-coached teams. But, in a broader sense, it was a great deal more.
It was one of, perhaps, 1,000 youth and children's sports contests played in the Washington area that day, not including interscholastic sports, and it was but one reflection of the force with which the youth sports explosion, for girls as well as boys, has hit the national capital area.
There are an estimated 120,000 participants in youth soccer in the Washington area, with at least as many joining in the combined total of all other sports: football, basketball, swimming, running, ice hockey, baseball, gymnastics and tennis, to name only a few.
They begin in kindergarten and continue through high school. When parents, coaches, referees and volunteer youth league commissioners and officials are counted, the number of persons in the metropolitan area directly affected by youth sports is probably about a million. And, it is growing.
Moreover, the athletes are being pursued with a zeal that finds few precedents in the history of organized sports. And they are beginning at an earlier age than ever.
In far Southeast Washington, for example, Eugene Green, director of the Anacostia Youth Athletic Club, takes runners as young as 7 to Eastern Regional track meets each year in North Carolina.
At 14, Joe Brill, is in his sixth year of youth ice hockey, playing this year for the Washington Americans. Many a weekend he gets out of bed at 4 a.m. to make the 4:45 practices. "My father drove me to every practice and every game," he said, "and I spent all week in school looking forward to the weekends."
At the Starlit Aquatic Club in Fairfax County, winter practice begins at 5:30 a.m. each day, and beginning at age 12 or 13 the top swimmers spend from three to five hours a day training, taking time out in the middle of the day only for school. Ten-, 11- and 12-year-old girls at the Marvateens Gymnastics Center in Rockville practice as many as four hours a day, four or five days a week, to perfect their routines.
There are many cases, of course, where such training produces a vastly superior athlete. But there are risks involved, too. In the view of many child psychologists and pediatricians, the youth sports movement represents a kind of athletic overkill that manifests itself by an ever-increasing adult involvement, if not takeover, of youth sports.
It has become routine, for example, in the last few years for preteen soccer teams from the area to travel to Europe and Canada for tournaments. In Capital Beltway League football, competition, beginning with 9- and 10-year-olds, is organized along the lines of the National Football League, complete with postseason playoffs and a super bowl. A corps of uniformed volunteer commissioners and assistant commissioners patrols the playing field at each game to enforce regulations.
But physicians involved in the practice of sports medicine are increasingly fearful that many children are committing inordinate amounts of time to a particular sport, depriving themselves of the opportunity to grow and develop in the many different ways essential to becoming a healthy and well adjusted adult.
"They're being robbed of their childhood," says Dr. David Johnson, an orthopedic surgeon in Washington and a member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic swimming team.
Since his Olympic experience, Johnson has remained in swimming, but he's disturbed by what he sees as excessive training -- in some cases children in their early teens trying to swim 20 miles a day. "They are swimming every day in pain," says Johnson. "It's because of overuse. Their young bodies just can't keep up with the stress that's being put on them."
Additionally, according to sports physicians, overexposure to sports at an early age often creates a vexing and increasingly troublesome issue: the child burnout.
"Their coaches keep pushing them. They don't realize there are other things going on psychologically when kids are growing up," says Dr. Richard Jones, a pediatrician at Georgetown University Hospital's sports medicine clinic.
Gene Mirkin is a classic case in point.
The son of Dr. Gabe Mirkin, an allergist and dermatologist and an enthusiastic runner, Gene Mirkin was a sports celebrity at the age of 7, headed, it seemed, for a gold medal in the mile at the 1980 Olympics.
With the best of coaching under Brooks Johnson, former track coach at St. Albans School, and a rigorous schedule of daily workouts under the general supervision of his father, Mirkin set a mile world record, 5:57, for 7-year-olds while in the second grade at Rockville's Barnsley Elementary School.
He was written up in the sports pages and featured on television, and to this day Johnson, now track coach at Stanford University, remembers him as one of the finest runners he has worked with.According to his father's plan, Mirkin's training regimen and his physical growth would peak at the age of 16 or 17, at which time he would be the best miler in the world.
But an unfunny thing happened to Gene Mirkin on the way to the Olympics.
At the age of 11 he lost interest in running.
"It was a question of too much too soon," says his father.
"I just wanted to be a kid. Maybe to go out and play some football," says Mirkin, now 17 and a freshman at Guilford College in North Carolina.
Gabe Mirkin, one of three founders of age-group running -- the training program for the youngest runners in the United States -- remembers the acute disappointment he felt when his son quit running.
"Three of us had sons who were world record holders and all of our sons quit," Mirkin says. "I had a real problem when Gene stopped. I had thought he was going to be an Olympic champion, but we're good friends now. I'm convinced that if running is the kid's idea, that's fine. But if it's the parents' idea, then it's lousy.
"The problem is that when they're pushed beyond their interest, they're going to stop."
It is also true, says Dr. David M. Brody, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the runners' clinic at George Washington University, that pressures on young children to become excessively involved in sports can be so subtle that most people do not even recognize them.
"Daddy runs a marathon, so Johnny runs a marathon. That's absurd. Long distance running is not good for any child. There are certain sports that require a degree of emotional maturity, and long distance running is one of them."
Children run enough in their normal course of play without the pressure of organized competitive running, says Brody. "We have seen no evidence of any joint or growth problems. The problems we see are mainly psychological. Whether it is boredom or reaction to pressure, most of the children who get involved in running quit."
As a family activity, few endeavors can be as rewarding as participatory sports, says Robert Ruskin, chairman of the department of psychology at Georgetown University. But he, too, is concerned that it's often being overdone:
"To say that some of the parents are living their lives through their children is almost putting it mildly. There is an espirit de corps that has developed in families, and this is good. But when it totally revolves around athletics, you have to wonder how realistic it is. Sports can provide feelings of self worth, accomplishment and acceptability. But if there is too much pressure, they can also cause feelings of 'no matter how good I am, I'm never going to be good enough' and 'no matter what I have to do to succeed, running over people or whatever, I'm gonna do it.'"
It has, of course, long been true that youth sports are both a vitally important medium through which one generation passes along its values to the next and a critical ingredient in the process by which parents raise their children.
Hear what Fuzzy Myers, athletic director and football coach at the Maplewood Recreation Center in Montgomery County, has to say:
"The kid who comes out here and plays here learns that you can't win without hard work. He learns discipline, and he learns what it takes to win. What you put into life is what you get out of it, and nowhere is that more true than it is in football. We try not to over-emphasize winning here, but there are always some people who want to cut corners. A few weeks ago, one of our boys weighed in over the limit, but there were some people who wanted to play him anyway. They said the league would never know. I told them, 'But the boy would know, and so would everyone else on the team. That would wreck everything we're trying to do.'"
In what is often perceived as an impersonal and rootless society, youth sports programs give many participants their primary sense of belonging and self worth, and the aforementioned Braddock Road Cougars, champions of Virginia 14- and 15-year-old girls soccer, are as good an illustration as any.
Formed in 1975 as a traveling select team, the Cougars are made up of girls in the Braddock Road area of Northern Virginia who were born in 1965. In five years they have lost only 12 games while winning more than 170, and their victories include the prestigious Robie Tournament in Toronto as well as the Eastern Regional championship last summer in Binghamton, N.Y. They play during the spring, summer and fall, and a typical week includes two weeknight practices, practice on Saturday and a game on Sunday.
"We play good, competitive soccer, and we get to travel," says Janet Caswell, the team's leading scorer, pausing for a moment at a practice. The field is crowded, with about 10 other soccer teams practicing. "We're the cream of the crop because we're the ones who are doing things. Most of us will probably get scholarships to college."
It also is true that in the Braddock Road community, an upper middle-class neighborhood, being a Cougar amounts to some standing and prestige.
"When I go out wearing my Cougar jacket, people notice," says Jelisa Coltrane. "They say, 'Wow! you're on the Cougars.'"