High School Athletes: What Separates the Great from the Good?
Coaches weigh in on the qualities of Montgomery County’s most elite
Walt Whitman's Abby Meyers
Last winter, with the eventual state champion Walt Whitman High School girls basketball team’s title run in jeopardy against crosstown rival Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the Class 4A West Region Section I final, then-junior and Princeton University recruit Abby Meyers scored 17 of her total 28 points in the third quarter alone to erase a first-half deficit and lead the Vikings to victory.
There are talented high school athletes—skilled players whose athleticism and ability within their respective sports stand out above the rest. And then there are great student-athletes, who seemingly live on a level—and in a world—of their own. Meyers, a basketball standout who just wrapped up her illustrious four-year girls soccer tenure during which she played an integral role in Whitman’s two state championships, is one of them.
Aside from physical talent, what makes these truly elite high school athletes different from other athletes? Their work ethic, ability to perform under extreme pressure and on the grandest of stages and to virtually single-handedly change the complexion of a game are some of the qualities that differentiate them, local coaches say. Other qualities include their perspective on their respective sport, leadership abilities and the humility with which they carry themselves.
“Elite athletes don’t come around too often,” said Richard Montgomery football coach Josh Klotz, who saw several current NFL players pass through the school as a former member of Quince Orchard’s staff. “It’s a whole different set of welcomed challenges, trying to get everything you can out of an athlete like that.”
Here is a breakdown of five qualities that coaches say some of the county’s most exceptional student-athletes embody:
1. Internal drive and commitment
Most high school athletes work training into their lives—a select few put their sport first. Training, competition, diet, sleep and every other factor that goes into achieving their greatest aspirations come before being a “normal” teenager.
Take, for example, Richard Montgomery senior and University of Virginia distance running recruit Rohann Asfaw, who recently completed a sweep of the cross country championship season.
“He does his running stuff and then he builds the rest of his life around it,” Rockets coach Davy Rogers said. “Nutrition, sleep, hydration, lifting, running, he’s religious about those things. You can be talented and work hard most of the time. He is 100 percent all of the time; he is just 100 percent fully and totally committed to the sport.”
2. Work ethic
Though many athletes work extremely hard, some high-level athletes may be content to cruise on their natural ability. Regardless of their success, players such as Meyers, Asfaw, Walter Johnson senior and University of Wisconsin women’s soccer recruit Cammie Murtha, Walter Johnson distance runner Abigail Green and Richard Montgomery running back Ty Hebron, whose breakout season led to the Rockets’ first region final appearance since 2001, still tend to be the hardest workers during practice, coaches say. They spend even more time training, putting in hours on their own outside of team practices, and recognize that there’s always an aspect of their game to tweak or improve.
3. Competitiveness and determination
No one likes to lose. But the greatest high school athletes merely do not accept it. Whether it’s Meyers scoring 17 points in eight minutes of basketball or Murtha sacrificing her body to take on opposing defenders in leading the Wildcats to their first-ever state title, these athletes will themselves to succeed.
Coaches say such athletes are internally driven by their need to be the best at virtually everything they do and to gain whatever edge they can. It’s also no coincidence many of the county’s best athletes happen to be among the smartest in school. They apply laser-like focus to every aspect of their lives, Winston Churchill girls soccer coach Haroot Hakopian said. And because of the opportunities their talent has afforded them—travel, speaking to media—they tend to carry themselves in a different, more mature manner.
Last winter, Meyers received 20 to 30 offers from NCAA Division I teams, Whitman girls basketball coach Pete Kenah said. But she did not advertise her good fortune because “she knew there were some seniors who were still trying to get one or two,” Kenah continued.
Humility is a big part of what makes elite athletes so successful, Klotz said. They take pride in what they do on the field or the court or in the pool, but they don’t need to talk about it.
It’s also no surprise the county’s greatest athletes also tend to be the most coachable, thriving on the feedback, Klotz said. Bethesda-Chevy Chase girls soccer coach Rob Kurtz said these athletes recognize they are big fish in the proverbial small pond, but also know where they rank on a national level.
5. Knowing when to take a break
For all the work these athletes put in to make their dreams become reality, it’s important that they’re able to take breaks from their respective sports because it’s easy to burn out, especially when training at such high intensity, Hakopian said. It can be difficult—especially in sports like running and swimming—to embrace the benefit of taking time off. But it’s important for athletes to have other outlets, Hakopian said, in which to focus their energy. For example, Meyers, who is also excellent at tennis and golf, also happens to be adept at building sandcastles.
“Even something as silly as sandcastles, that takes a lot of focus and a lot of attention to detail,” Hakopian said. “Even if it’s ‘not serious,’ it shows what kind of person she is. What happens when she’s doing that is she’s not focused on soccer or basketball, she’s focused on making sure her sandcastle is gorgeous. Putting that laser focus into [another outlet] makes [a player] a better athlete because when they return, they’re able to put the same level of energy and intensity into it.”