The summer Saturday mornings that the Douglass High School football team has spent working with a speed coach appeal to the players and coaches for different reasons.
The players hope that their work with a speed coach will shave tenths of a second off their 40-yard dash time, making them more attractive to college recruiters. Their coach, J.C. Pinkney, believes the two-hour sessions will result in a better-conditioned team this fall -- so much so that he dips into his own pocket for $80 per session to pay the speed coach, Rob Slade.
There are others, though, who see the workouts as an unwanted addition to the pressure high school athletes face to train year-round for their sport.
"If I'm doing it and you're my competitor, you've got to do it to keep up with me," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "The trend certainly is sports are beyond the three-month [high school] season that they're in, they're pretty much year-round. Although we don't philosophically agree with that, that's the way it's going and the way kids and parents want it to be."
Over the next week, most area high school football teams will make the transition from the offseason to preseason workouts. Teams in Virginia and the District that open the regular season the weekends of Aug. 26 or Sept. 2 already are permitted to start practice, and the bulk of area teams, which open the season on Sept. 9, will begin practice next week.
Most teams encourage offseason preparation of some sort, but in Montgomery County, teams are not allowed to bring in outside coaches for workouts on school property. Officials there echo Sparks's concern, adding others: that the supposedly voluntary workouts turn out to be mandatory; that the workouts become offseason practices that are banned by leagues and school systems; and that teams whose parents or coaches cannot afford such training are at a disadvantage when facing teams from more affluent neighborhoods.
"The programs that some of the schools were getting involved with, they were turning to programs that were very borderline whether it was" against the rules, said William "Duke" Beattie, the supervisor of athletics for Montgomery County public schools, which banned the workouts three years ago. "That's why the schools -- athletic directors and principals -- decided we have to take a stand, we have to rein this in so that it doesn't become a big financial cost burden."
Maryland, Virginia and the District have rules prohibiting coaches from requiring out-of-season commitments by players, but there certainly is pressure on players to attend sessions such as those at Douglass, which is in Prince George's County.
"I don't force them to be here, but they know it is in their best interest to be here," Pinkney said on a recent Saturday as nearly 30 players, including some who likely will play on the junior varsity, sweated through their T-shirts on a hot morning. "They know it is for their benefit."
There is little question that outside coaches do not come cheap, though Pinkney is convinced "it's worth every penny."
The Urbana football team is working out twice a week with speed coach Colin Quay, who said the cost of $180 per session is divided among the players. Gwynn Park Coach Danny Hayes said he limited the use of a speed coach this summer because of the cost, though he declined to say how much he spent per session last summer, only saying that he personally paid more than $20 per session. Centreville Coach Mike Skinner said he had used a speed coach in recent years but found the cost prohibitive, so he sent an assistant coach to learn how to become a speed coach.
While administrators debate whether outside coaches are appropriate at the high school level, players and coaches agree that the sessions are effective. Coaches say the workouts can help players get in shape before preseason practice starts so that they can focus solely on football once team workouts begin.
The goal of a state championship is enough to motivate some Douglass players to get out of bed early each Saturday morning, but others say that the possibility of becoming just a bit faster could be worth thousands of dollars in college scholarships.
"If you can run a 4.4 or 4.5 [in the 40], that's what they're looking for," said Douglass quarterback Davon Gray, a rising senior who said he was clocked at 4.6 seconds at a camp at the University of Delaware this past weekend, faster than he had been in the spring, but short of his 4.4-second personal goal. "Speed doesn't come easy."
Hayes said he learned "little secrets" from his team's speed coach last summer, such as running in a straight line and keeping your arms close to the body when pumping them. Quay said he has counseled Urbana's players, some of whom he previously trained in individual and group sessions, to try to accelerate quickly while keeping their head down at the start in order to keep their body in a more aerodynamic position.
"A lot of times, little things like that make a big difference," said Quay, who works for Rockville's Elite Athlete Training Systems. Elite Athlete co-owner Alan Stein works as a strength and conditioning coach for the Montrose Christian boys' basketball team and travels to games with the Mustangs.
"One of the things we've noticed with the collective [workouts] is the team is in shape, but also the team building and team camaraderie and the confidence the team has is unbelievable," Stein said. "Get the kids together and around each other for eight weeks before practice and they're at a huge advantage."
The apparent benefits don't make others any more comfortable, however.
"The average high school athlete can't really compete unless he or she spends the whole year doing" their sport, Sparks said. "And that's a problem."