Playing a high school sport sounds great. But how best to prepare a pre- or young teen for trying to make a team as a freshman? Conversations with two veteran Howard County high school coaches offer some insights on what can enhance the chances of ninth-graders.
Building the body
Physical development is an obvious criterion for success. Size is more important in some sports than in others.
Often, attaining the proper height and/or weight means awaiting a teen-age growth spurt. But regardless of the sport or his size, an athlete should be in shape.
"One thing an athlete can have that will help put them at least on an equal playing field is to work on endurance and speed," said Gail Purcell, who is entering her 24th year as Centennial High School's girls field hockey coach. "That's a real advantage most of the time. If you can get a child who has that kind of speed ... you can really develop that."
Weights also can help a gangly freshman.
Weight-training, introduced in county middle-school physical education classes, can help a young athlete. But tailoring a program for a developing body is important, because weight work done wrong can do physical harm.
Skill development requires time.
Soccer, baseball and softball have organized leagues for children as young as 5 years old. But if a player doesn't grow to love the game, success at the high school level is unlikely.
If the goal is for the child to play high school soccer, skill solves almost all the problems, said Bill Stara, in his fifth year as boys soccer coach at River Hill High School after 13 years at Centennial and as a youth-league coach for many years.
"To get those skills, the kid has to want to go out and play on [his or her] own. If you as a parent force your kids to juggle the ball," he said, referring to a skill specific to soccer, "they really aren't in love with the game. "
For a less mainstream sport, such as field hockey, skill requirements differ, because with few youth leagues in the sport, most players have little access to it before high school - although with summer camps, for example, that is changing.
"Rarely do freshmen make the varsity, because they have no experience in hockey," said Purcell, whose Eagles are the only county team to win a state championship in the sport. "It's easiest to say the criteria really melts down to this: If you are an athletic individual, we can teach you to play hockey."
Also, she added, brains matter more than brawn. "If you're smart, you can make up for lack of athleticism," said Purcell, and knowing the game's strategy can be an advantage.
Too much of one thing
Specializing in one sport before high school would seem a sure way to get a jump on the competition, but Purcell and Stara discourage focusing on one sport too early.
"They are still children," said Purcell. "They are still, we hope, having fun. And part of having fun is being exposed to different coaches and experiences. You don't have to be married to your sport to be good at it."
Stara, who has coached from the under-9 level to the pros, gave this perspective: "The dilemma we have ... is that parents spread kids so thin, they experience everything. They become jacks of all trades, masters of none. Once again, the kid has to figure out what he wants to do.
"But kids should play a number of different sports. No kid knows what he or she will develop a love for. If they never experience it, they will never know. "
And finally ...
The simplest advice to parents who want to ensure a child's athletic success? Chill out.
"Don't push your kids, and don't be concerned with winning or losing," advised Purcell. "Parents don't realize the impact when they make an off-handed comment."