She’s Got Game

Two high-school coaches explain how sports give girls confidence—and get them into college.

By: Mary Clare Glover

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.

Rike: The competition among Division III colleges for quality players is just as great. Division III programs have a lot to offer—they are a chance to continue competition at a collegiate level, but because the season is not as long and travel not as great, the girls have more time to devote to schoolwork and other activities.

Many times, Division III coaches have to sell their institution academically before they begin to talk about their athletic programs. There is money available at the Division III level; it’s just not in the form of athletic scholarships. Financial aid at a Division III school comes in the form of grants based on need and scholarships based on academic achievement.

In many cases, the high-school player comes to the coach expressing her desire to go there. Then the staff goes through its list of needs for the next couple of years and makes up a list of top recruits.

At selective schools, does each coach have a limited number of kids they can help get in?

Wood: Coaches are savvy about that now. They know every avenue and angle to help players, and they use them all. Coaches call us and say, “She’s going to need my help to get in. She doesn’t have the grades or the SATs.” They are honest, and they talk to you.

I had a player who was dying to play at Stanford, but she thought that the coach was ignoring her. The coaching staff can only help about five girls get in, and they knew they didn’t have to waste one of their slots on my player because she was capable of getting in anyway on her academics.

The minute she got in, she had an academic scholarship and a 50-percent athletic scholarship. She ended up being a four-time academic All-American.

How do the schools find their top recruits?

Rike: Showcase tournaments have become popular because it’s an easy way for a coach to watch a dozen or more kids at one site. And the local soccer clubs run them because they’re a tremendous moneymaker.

That’s another big change we’ve seen in the last five to ten years: the explosion of showcase tournaments and the paid coach in soccer. A lot of these coaches will say, “You come play for me. We’ll develop this great team; we can pretty much guarantee we’ll find you a college.” But because they’re paid, they want these kids year-round. And we have this struggle between the coach who wants the paycheck and the kids who want to play for their high-school teams.

For the first time, we’re seeing club tournaments extend into our high-school season—which means kids have to decide, “Do I play with my high school, or do I play with my club team?”

Wood: Field hockey doesn’t have major showcases in season, so there is far less stress between our high-school and club teams and coaches. Our largest outdoor showcases are during the off-season: over Thanksgiving in California, in February in Florida, and in June in Virginia.

Do most girls on your teams also play club?

Rike: Oh, yeah. Seventeen of the 20 kids on my roster play on teams in the Premier division, which is the top level of play in club soccer. They’re playing 130 games a year, counting high school and club.

We have a generation of young kids that for the first time are playing year-round. I say to parents, “My biggest concern is: What are your daughter’s knees and ankles going to be like in 15 years?”

How common is it for girls to specialize in one sport?

Rike: I think a lot of these kids pick a sport to focus on by seventh or eighth grade. You don’t see it as much for boys. The boys want to play soccer, football, basketball. But the day of the three-sport letterman for girls is gone. It all comes back to the club teams and the demands the girls have on their time.

How has the involvement of parents changed over the years?

Rike: It’s gone from sitting in the stands and clapping and cheering—no matter what happened, the kids did great. Now they want to dissect everything they do.

Wood: That is the evolution of Title IX. My mom came to my games, cheered me on, then went home.

Rike: In a way, the parents are as much a problem as some of the club coaches. They’re the ones driving coaches to go to the showcase tournaments, because their kids have to be seen. I’m tired of parents complaining about travel coaches. I say, “If your daughter is doing too many tournaments, you have to say, ‘She’s not going this weekend.’ You are the adult here.”

Wood: It’s the job of a parent to make sure their kids are okay. I see so many parents analyzing. Let the coaches analyze. Let us be the one to tell the kid she had a horrible game.

What do sports teach young women?

Wood: I want my kids to leave my program knowing how to think. They’re sometimes coddled too much at home.

Rike: You can learn book lessons in class, but athletics teaches life lessons. It teaches you how to cope, how to deal with disappointment. You learn that sometimes things don’t always work out the way you want.

Team sports teach players how to work together towards a common goal. They learn that if they work hard, they can achieve success. They develop leadership and communication skills.

Wood: These girls learn to deal with adversity, win with grace, and take setbacks with dignity. Every year, I tell the parents, “I hope your child leaves my program a confident, hard-working, selfless kid. If she’s a great hockey player, that’s an added bonus.”

What advice would you give parents of young girl athletes?

Wood: Don’t think that your girl is a girl when she’s on that field. She’s a damn good athlete, and don’t expect less because she’s a girl.

When your kids are young, let them play and have fun. If you have a great athlete, let her figure out which sport she wants to play. If she plays a bunch of sports when she is seven, eight, or nine, she will find out on her own which one she likes best.

Rike: Make sure they get with a coach who teaches good basic skills. And then let them progress at a logical pace. You want to instill a love of the game. If they love the game, they’ll stick with it. If it becomes a job, you’re going to lose them.

Wood: That’s what you really want—for your kids to love it.

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.