Jim Rike and Amy Wood have coached high-school girls for a total of 49 years—and seen their sports evolve from casual fun to brutal competition.
When Rike began coaching high-school soccer in Fairfax County in 1976, he fielded a club team because there was no varsity squad for girls. Now, as head coach at Robinson High School, he has college coaches knocking down his door to sign his girls, who have won five state titles.
Growing up, Amy Wood had to join a boys’ team in order to play travel soccer. She became a field-hockey star at her Aberdeen, Maryland, high school, but there were no college recruiters. Wood played on the University of Connecticut’s national-championship squad in 1985 and took over the field-hockey program at Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School in 1993. She has led the Barons to ten Maryland state titles.
Much of the change that Rike and Wood have seen is the result of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that outlawed sex discrimination in schools. In the 1980s and ’90s, as colleges ramped up girls’ programs in response to the law, sports became a ticket to a free—or discounted—education. Now the best athletes are tracked by college coaches before they turn 16.
We talked with Rike and Wood about the growth of girls’ sports, the benefits of athletics for girls, and boys versus girls on the playing field.
Should girls be coached differently?
Rike: It took me ten years to learn how to coach girls. When I first came in, I tried to coach the girls just like the guys. I had an assistant coach tell me, “They do well, but they’re just not happy.” You just can’t push the same way. You can yell at boys and they don’t cry.
Wood: We used to laugh that girls don’t care what you know as much as they want to know you care. I’m loud and I’m in their face and I’m hard on them. After that, though, they want to hear, “But I love you.”
How do you motivate girls?
Rike: Bonding is very important for girls because girls don’t play just to win; they play for each other. I’ve had kids come to me and say, “We lost the game, but we played really well. They were just better than we were.”
The pasta party that used to be a once-a-season thing has become a before-every-big-game party. We have traditions passed down from one group to the next. At the last practice before every game, they get together and say, “What are we wearing to school tomorrow?” They have camouflage day, where the whole team wears camo and face paint.
Wood: And some of the things they think of—they have Saran Wrap day and wrap themselves all up.
Do boys do similar things?
Rike: You’re lucky if you can get them into a shirt and tie under their jersey.
How else are girl athletes different?
Wood: Girls are afraid to think that they are really good. They question themselves a little more. They make a mistake, and they over-think it. As coaches, our job is to build self-confidence. When we’re hard on them, it’s to build that mental toughness.
The first Saturday of every season, we jog to this big sign that has a woman running. Above the sign it says: “I believe in me.” Each girl has to say it, and they have to mean it. And then I say, “I believe in me. That’s why I’m here. More important, I believe in you. Most important, I believe in us.”
They have to understand that believing in yourself doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. We are in this affluent school, where perfection is everywhere.
What changes have you seen in girls’ sports since you started?
Rike: The biggest change is the opportunity for so many kids to play at the collegiate level. Kids who may not have had the opportunity to go to college because they couldn’t afford it—or go to a particular college because they couldn’t afford it—now have that opportunity.
In the late 1980s, soccer was the golden road to college. So many schools added teams that there was a spot for anybody. Things have tightened up, and there’s a lot more competition for those spots.
When does recruiting start?
Rike: You think men’s basketball is bad; women’s soccer is just as dog-eat-dog. I had a coach call me about one of my freshmen the other day.
The day of the senior official visit is gone because coaches want kids to verbally commit as juniors. They’ll call them up and say, “You’ve got 48 hours. If you don’t take it, we’re moving to the next kid on the list.”
That happened to two of my kids. One, a two-time All-American, said, “I’m not doing anything. I’m taking my senior trips.” The other wasn’t as experienced in the recruiting game, and she bit: “This school is offering me a full ride; I’m taking it.”
Wood: It’s a little different in field hockey because the pool of talent isn’t as big. But you’ll see it. I’m good friends with the University of Maryland coach, and Maryland has won three of the last four national championships. They’re looking at little Sally who’s in ninth grade, who’s athletic as can be, and they’re watching her for a year or two to see if she develops into what they want.
Who is driving the early recruiting—the colleges or the girls?
Rike: It’s a little of both. A friend who coaches in college said a girl going into her freshman year in high school called him and wanted to verbally commit.
What do you tell kids about recruiting?
Wood: I say to my kids, “You’re going to college for an education. You’re not going to go play professionally. It’s never going to make you a million dollars, but it might get you into the university that does. So use it to get into the best school you can.” I talk about club sports at college versus Division I versus Division III schools. At a Division I school, your sport is a major. You’re majoring in your studies but also your sport.
Rike: The one thing that I always preach is keep your grades up. If your grades are low, that will close a lot of doors.
Do you see the same recruiting pressure at Division III schools?
Wood: Not as much. Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, so kids must be admitted on their academics. But schools will work with you to get financial aid or an academic scholarship.