Three times a week, on an average, Mike LaVerghetta arrives home from work early, leaving behind at the office his duties as a financial analyst for the Farm Credit Administration. Changing quickly into a clean and freshly pressed warmup suit, LaVerghetta grabs a clipboard, a whistle and a sack of soccer balls. He dashes out the door, headed for the playing field in the small park behind his house to meet his athletes.
At 41, LaVerghetta has been a sportsman virtually all of his life -- he played lacrosse for 18 years -- but in the last few seasons, his athletic career has entered a new and, for him, rich and rewarding phase.
LaVerghetta is a coach.
He is one of thousands of adults in the metropolitan area to have found meaning at midlife in the stimulation, excitement and risks of directing a youth sports team, to say nothing of an outlet for his creativity. At an age where opportunities for participation in team sports are severely limited. LaVerghetta has redirected his athletic energies into orchestrating the exploits of others.
"There is a challenge in trying to see things develop on the field, to see some innovative soccer going on," he says. "Soccer is a very intelligent, highly sophisticated game. The kids like it, and they are intelligent, hard working and fun to work with. I like what I'm doing and when I see the kids respond it's just terrific."
It long has been true, says Georgetown University psychologist Robert Ruskin, that coaching youth sports is one of the few ways for the former athlete at midlife to participate and maintain contact with competitive team athletics. But, perhaps, even more important, he says, it is a socially acceptable, safe and basically healthy exercise in power, leadership and creativity.
"It can be an enormously rewarding experience," Ruskin says. "You can be a leader, and you can create your own little empire. The feeling of power in that kind of situation has just got to be a kick for most of us who do not have jobs that are exciting all the time. There are people who have love affairs going with their coaching activities, because coaching is such a creative endeavor."
It is an avocation that LaVerghetta, like most coaches, takes very seriously, and one that consumes enormous amounts of energy and time. By his own estimate, he spends approximately 15 hours a week at it and the season is 10 months long. Practices are structured and planned carefully in advance, and meticulous preparations are made for each game.
Last summer LaVerghetta spent a week of his vacation honing his skills at a coaches' school at Northern Virginia Community College and another week traveling to soccer tournaments with his team. Whenever he gets a chance, he'll spend a weekend at one of several coaching clincs being offered in the area.
Like most of the youth sports coaches in the area, LaVerghetta initially became involved in coaching because his children's neighborhood teams needed a coach. But that phase passed quickly. It was only a matter of time before he would tire of coaching in the so-called house leagues where every child who comes out is automatically on the team, and rules require that all play at least a portion of every game. After three years, LaVerghetta was ready for keener competition. He requested and received a select team, one that he could mold in his own image, where he could pick his own players.
"It got to be kind of frustrating because I had half a dozen very good players, and the others were very poor," says LaVerghetta, who in June of 1977 formed the Braddock Road Bluebelles, a select soccer team of girls in the Braddock Road area of Northern Virginia who were born in 1966. His daughter since has lost interest in soccer, but LaVerghetta has been the team's coach ever since, scouting and drafting new players each season and developing his veterans to ensure a tip-top performance each year.
"I suppose it does take time away from my own kids," he said. "But we try to make it a family thing. I try to take the family along when we go to tournaments in Canada, North Carolina or New Jersey."
Mike LaVerghetta is but one illustration of the high and increasing degree of adult involvement and control of youth sports, an activity that in recent years has taken on a level of sophistication in its organizational structure that almost parallels the professional sports leagues.
"It has reached the point of organization," says psychologist Ruskin, "where not to have your child on one of those teams almost puts a stigma on the child." Moreover, he notes, so pervasive has the youth sports ambience become that, in some communities, the youth sports teams become primary focus of the parents' social belonging and excellence in sports is the primary, if not the only, avenue to acceptance by parents and peers.
To a degree this always has been true.But there is cause for concern when the sports cult becomes so powerful that children feel compelled to spend their time on the playing field when, for some, at least, the hours would be better spent learning to play a musical instrument or reading a book. Like any other area of human activity, Ruskin says, sports are not everyone's cup of tea.
Inevitably, he adds, this puts more stress and pressure on the young participants: "You're talking about a whole new set of societal pressures that most of us never grew up with. The degree of organization and the degree of competition is so much greater than ever before. The kids will learn the win at all costs' philosophy soon enough in life. They don't need to pick it up any younger.
"You can see these kids out there and they will tell you they don't want to be there. They are visibly relieved when the coach says, 'You don't have to go in this quarter.' The pressure is very subtle, but they are really being coerced. That seems like such a waste."
In any event, it is true that across the board, in all youth sports, the trend toward increased sophistication in both coaching and organization shows no sign of abating.
Take Capital Beltway League football, for example.
At the Maplewood Recreation Center in Bethesda, they tell a joke about an 8-year-old who showed up for practice once, demanding to see the offensive coordinator. The story is not all that far fetched.
To coach 24 young football players in the 13- and 14-year-old division of the Beltway League, for example, Oliver Thompson, director of athletics for the Lamond-Riggs Youth Club in Northeast Washington, has recruited six assistant coaches.
A former director of athletics for Federal City College, Thompson is head coach of the 13- and 14-year-olds as well as supervisor of coaching for the five other Beltway League teams that Lamond-Riggs fields.
"I take care of the offensive coordination," Thompson says. "I try to get as many adults involved as I can. We have a coach for the receivers, a coach for the linebackers, a coach for the defensive backs. I've been doing this since I was 18."
For 15 years, Max Cunningham, a Gaithersburg printer, has presided over Beltway League football as self-styled commissioner, directing affairs with all the power and authority of a Pete Rozelle.
"I am a 21-jewel . . . with a full Swiss movement," says Cunningham, who played sandlot football as a young man but graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School before Montgomery County high schools played tackle football.
"We have the finest youth football played anywhere in the metropolitan area.
Period. Teams that are not good enough to play in the Beltway League play in other leagues. Kids go from our teams to high school ball or to the private schools under what could loosely be termed 'grants in aid.'
"I have enjoyed being commissioner, and I am very proud of this league. We have 54 teams and about 1,500 kids in five age and weight divisions from age 8 to 14. Each team has a head coach and usually two assistants. If a coach gets out of line, he's going to have to talk to me. He may or he may not continue coaching."
It was a brisk clear November Saturday at Whittier Woods Recreation Center behind Montgomery County's Whitman High School. A team from Carderock was playing a Paradise Manor team from far Northeast Washington while a parents' committee sold hot dogs and coffee on the sidelines in an effort to defray expenses of the program.
All Beltway Leage contests are taken seriously, not just because they can lead to playoffs and a super bowl. They are contests between the coaches just as much as they are contests between the players.
Here Pete White, coach of the Gaithersburg Eagles, a 135-pound team, after a narrow victory over Carderock at Whittier: "Next week, we play Wheaton Boys Club. Now there's no way they can make the playoffs. But their coach wants me. He wants to beat me bad."
"Gentlemen," solemnly warns an assistant coach, Marc Gendleman, "that is not going to happen. I promise you that is not going to happen."
A Gaithersburg service station operator, Gendleman played high school football, but he's been coaching with White, an employe of the Montgomery County Highway Department and a former player at Whitman, for the past 10 years. David Shipe, a teachers' aide at Gaithersburg High School and another former high school player, is the other assistant.
It is, understandably, the dream of every coach to make a difference in a young athlete's sports career, to intervene at an early age in a manner that will help shape the superstar of tomorrow. Fletcher Tinsley, who directs the sports program at Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Northeast Washington, has given that matter some thought.
"If you get an athlete at an early age, you can spot his talent and potential, and then you can mold and develop it. The coaches at this level are the ones who get to the kids first. We are the ones who try to make something out of nothing. To me, anybody can coach the athlete that already has the talent. But it takes a dedicated coach to see the athlete with the raw talent and make him a winner."
Lining the hallways at Ludlow-Taylor are cases and cases of trophies, the prizes of victory in the budding careers of scores of young athletes. It is on the playgrounds of schools and recreation centers such as Ludlow-Taylor that the stars of the future really are developed. Hawkeye Whitney, for example, who played his first basketball at Moton Elementary in Southeast Washington and went on to star at North Carolina State and Kansas City in the NBA.
Or Sidney Lowe, the current N.C. State standout who learned his first basketball under Tinsley at Ludlow-Taylor and still comes back for visits when he's in town.
"I'm the only man who can say I was his first coach," Tinsley says.
It often has been said that a coach is, in a number of ways, a surrogate parent, an authority figure whose values make a powerful impression on the hearts and minds of youngsters he leads.
Says Stan Stanfield, director of the Washington Americans, an all-star hockey team of 14- and 15-year-olds:
"We require the boys to wear coats and ties when they go to the games. I wouldn't mess with them if they weren't decent people. If they were to drink beer or any of that kind of stuff, they would be off the team. We do everything to give the boys a little pride in themselves and some dignity. Our colors are red, white and blue, and when they play the National Anthem before the games, they stand up straight, because they know I'm watching. They know what'll happen to them if they stand around slouching and scratching like some of the other teams.
"We're a classy goddam outfit and we play a classy goddam schedule. I try to teach them to be good citizens. Profanity and that kind of crap, I curb." t