Silvia Maraboli didn't see the ball coming until the instant before it hit her face.
"It came at me so fast," Maraboli, then a junior, recalled. "He has a strong arm. ... I had no chance to protect myself. It was a perfect shot."
It left a bump on the side of her face that lasted several days.
But she said what hurt more than the physical pain was Olcott's immediate sarcastic response — "You wouldn't make a very good goalie, would you?" — and his failure to apologize. Maraboli said she was in tears the rest of practice, which continued as if nothing had happened.
"I felt humiliated," she said. "I remember thinking: 'This is going too far. This represents the state of our team.'"
That night she decided to quit at the end of the season.
"It was the final straw for me. I felt disrespected, uncared for — it was a horrible season. That night I cried like never before and realized how much water polo was spilling into the rest of my life, affecting my ability to focus on homework or anything else," she said. "I thought, 'I can't go on like this.'"
Not everyone agrees with Maraboli's recollection of the incident. Olcott's defenders are vehement that the shot, even though it hit Maraboli, was not intended for her. Some think Maraboli overreacted to a hazard of the game.
"Cory didn't apologize to that girl because he was yelling at the team," said Tara Murao, the 2008 team co-captain and a Paly '09 graduate. "You can't apologize when you're in the middle of disciplining people. She didn't see the ball coming because she wasn't listening to him, and she was all bent out of shape because it hurt her."
Olcott remembers the Maraboli incident. He said the ball landed next to Maraboli in the pool and recalled that she was shocked by it. He said he felt surprised, terrible and contrite.
He said he doesn't remember what he said or did in response but offered: "I would hope that I had said, 'I hope you're OK,' and 'That was not aimed at you.'
"I do not throw balls at kids," he said.
The incident fueled underlying team dissension over Olcott's treatment of players that season. School officials investigated the incident, along with other complaints about alleged angry outbursts, swearing, favoritism, sarcasm and hurtful comments. The school's written report concluded that while "Cory's coaching methodology and techniques would benefit from review and refinement," there was no "conclusive evidence" to warrant his replacement.
Paly Athletic Director Earl Hansen also recalled the incident.
"I had both sides of everything on that, and again we're going back to one group that thought he was OK and one group that didn't like him at all. So they're going to embellish in both directions."
The team played out its season with divided loyalties. Seven juniors, including Maraboli, didn't return for their final year, the majority citing the coach or the controversy as the reason for quitting. (Other players quit earlier that season and the previous one due to problems with Olcott, according to parents.)
Then something changed in fall 2009. Several players reported a dramatic difference in Olcott's coaching.
"He's done with all that past conduct this year. There's no swearing; he's never thrown anything. He has realized that it only hurts the team and the play," one player said.
"It's still really hard work, but he's now making it positive," another said. "He's just really different. He doesn't get frustrated with us anymore. ... The positive style of coaching is creating a more positive experience and better play."
Yet Olcott insists he hasn't changed his coaching philosophies, methods or behavior. He told the Weekly his coaching has been consistent throughout his three years at Paly.
"It's always about making each kid feel cared for," he said.
He said he has never favored harsh treatment. "If you want to make anyone perform well in a classroom or otherwise, they need to be comfortable, they need to be motivated, they need to be made to feel like they're supported. ... My motivation has always been more that they should be having a good time, and it's pretty rare that someone is having a good time if they're receiving harsh treatment," he said.
Olcott said he was pleased with the outcome of the school investigation: "I felt totally gratified that at the end of the process, at each step, the administration had come back and said: 'We have looked at this. We've heard what the people are saying. We've investigated, and we feel like you're doing a great job, and we want you to keep going.'" Olcott's description of his coaching philosophy and practices, and what the school did in response to complaints, stands in sharp contrast to the views of others who are still highly critical of both his past behavior and the school's actions.
What the outcry is all about
The experience of the Paly girls' water-polo team is only one of several visible coaching controversies at Paly and Gunn in the past two years. With each new eruption, a debate re-ignites within the school sports community over the questions: "When does coaching behavior violate school standards of conduct?" and "What are schools bound to do about it?"
To find answers, the Weekly interviewed more than 100 student athletes, sports parents, coaches, school officials, teachers and outside experts.
Allegations surfaced about coaches' harsh or abusive communication styles and methods. There were no sexual-misconduct allegations.
Many players and parents who spoke at length with the Weekly requested anonymity due to concerns about ongoing team relationships, fear of retaliation, and wanting to avoid public exposure on a sensitive topic. Others were willing to be identified by name.
School officials declined to discuss specific cases, citing employee-personnel privacy. But, in response to a Public Records Act request by the Weekly, the district provided more than 600 pages of communications between parents (with names concealed) and school officials — revealing the substance of the concerns about coaches and the schools' responses.
Almost half of the students at Paly and Gunn high schools are involved in 95 sports teams led by more than 150 coaches and assistants — providing many opportunities for coaches' actions to be called into question.
Some coaches generate explosions of parent and player complaints. Others inspire impassioned praise and loyalty. Sometimes it's the same coach. The rest fall somewhere in between.
A changing youth-sports landscape, in which harsher "old school" win-at-all-costs methods are no longer in favor, has contributed to some of the confusion over what can be expected of coaches and what behavior is considered unacceptable.
Officially, today's written coaching standards emphasize character education, "positive coaching" and "emotional safety," according to school administrators and guidelines developed over the past 15 years.
Under these standards, winning is not the primary goal of school sports programs, nor is it the basis for evaluating coaches. Winning is a valuable motivator and desired by-product of good coaching and hard work, but the greater rewards come from life lessons and strong team bonds, school officials say. Losing also can teach important lessons.
The Central Coast Section (CCS) of the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school interscholastic sports in the five counties from Daly City to King City, expects coaches to "ensure that pressure to win is not placed above education, character development, academic, social, emotional, physical and ethical well-being of the student-athlete."
The national Positive Coaching Alliance, started within the Stanford Athletic Department in 1998 and now based in Mountain View, is both a catalyst and familiar symbol of this shift from scoreboard primacy toward positive-coaching methods and character education.
Yet official standards often "are not matched by reality," longtime CCS Commissioner Nancy Lazenby Blaser acknowledged.
Coaches who were themselves trained by "old school" coaches often need mentoring and guidance. Lazenby Blaser asked rhetorically: "Who's going to do that? There are no resources for that."
Working long hours for low pay also leaves coaches with little time to adopt new skills, officials say.
Despite these hurdles, most coaches at Paly and Gunn create positive environments of trust, respect, fun and challenge that embody the school's educational mission, according to parents and school administrators. Many students view sports as a highlight and cherish the life lessons learned, as well as strong bonds forged through hard work and sacrifice.
"I will remember this forever. I feel so fortunate to have had the great experience we had and to have had a leadership role in it," reminisced Paly '09 graduate John Christopherson, co-captain of the varsity boys' soccer team his senior year.
It is the sense of opportunities lost, as much as anything, that distresses many players and their parents when a sports experience goes sour.
And it's not only the visible controversies that create negative feelings. Parents say there are other cases in which discontented and discouraged players either quit mid-season or quietly decide to just do what is necessary to get through the season, confining their complaints to close friends and family members.
Paly girls' water polo is one of several examples of controversial coaching that have occurred since fall 2008. Others include:
* In spring 2009, Gunn's varsity baseball coach Brian Kelly was removed mid-season after he lost his temper with a player who objected to Kelly's use of a sexual analogy and utterance of a callous remark to a team member during a practice pep talk (Kelly analogized baseball to being with girls, trying to get to all the bases, and needing to score). Kelly used the f-word directly at the complaining player more than once ("for motivation" initially, he said), in what became a heated exchange between the two.
Kelly told the Weekly he made a mistake in losing control of his temper and language. But he believes Gunn officials should have given him another chance, as did many players and parents who sent e-mails to him and school officials.
* In December 2009, Paly varsity boys' basketball coach Andrew Slayton was fired just weeks into the season after a player revolt over his decision to rank last season's starters near the bottom of the play roster. The athletes also told the Weekly that Slayton had unpredictable angry outbursts (which included kicking the ball hard on the court), swore frequently and berated players. Slayton declined an interview but e-mailed: "While my interpretation of some of the events is different, I respect the fact that that is how some of the players perceived these events."
* In early 2009, Paly varsity girls' basketball coach Scott Peters generated complaints alleging swearing and other displays of anger and frustration, including yelling and making personally demeaning comments. School officials investigated and concluded that the concerns did not "rise to the level of immediate administrative action against Peters." This was not the first season Peters' conduct had been questioned or complained about.
Paly Principal Jacquie McEvoy admonished one set of complaining parents: "I am gravely concerned that you have continued to allow (your daughter) to participate in an environment that you believe is so detrimental to her emotional well-being."
Peters, who also has supporters, declined requests for an interview, writing in an e-mail: "I have learned a great deal from the feedback I have received each year from my players and supervisor, which hopefully has helped me to improve as a coach and leader for my players."
* In spring 2009, Paly players and parents were bitterly divided over new varsity baseball coach Donny Kadokawa. Many complained of a constant stream of criticisms delivered in a yelling, negative, angry style, including profanity and the f-word. Others defended him as strong, organized and deeply knowledgeable about baseball and wrote letters to Paly officials in his support. A number of his defenders were also members on his private club baseball team; the prior club relationships contributed to the team's division.
In response to one mid-season complaint, McEvoy concluded that Kadokawa's actions did not warrant immediate removal, though she found some of his language and comments "totally inappropriate and unacceptable." At season's end, Paly Athletic Director Hansen told Kadokawa he would not be returning in 2010.
Kadokawa declined to comment about parental complaints against him when contacted by the Weekly.
The coach: 'A dream come true, or a nightmare'?
The coach stands at the center of the school sports experience as a powerful figure with the potential to become either a trusted guide or the bane of a player's existence.
"A dream come true, or a nightmare," one Gunn sports parent said.
This larger-than-life role flows from the strength of a coach's personality and ability to teach and motivate, combined with the intensity of the sport and numerous hours the coach spends with the students.
Paly girls' lacrosse coach Jen Gray has had a loyal following. The "Viking Magazine," the school's sports magazine, named her 2009 coach of the year.
Gray believes students should enjoy athletics and naturally want to work hard to get better. She sees a vast opportunity to learn life lessons and build character — none of which she sees as easy. Her job is to "provide the tools needed to succeed."
Paly '09 grad Helene Zahoudanis was an enthusiastic member of the lacrosse team.
"Lacrosse was great. Jen made every practice really fun, even conditioning. It was always positive. She never yelled at you. She never made an example of anyone. ... She really cared about all the girls.
"She said our success was due to everyone's participation and having a strong unit rather than a few star players. She believed we all contributed."
Mark Hernandez, a Gunn teacher and coach of both boys and girls in water polo and swimming, is another well-respected coach. He emphasizes the need for supportive feedback, especially with girls.
"Boys think they can do what they can't do, and girls don't think they can do what they can," he said, acknowledging the generalization. With girls, a coach needs to work harder on building confidence, he said.
"High school is a tough job. Young people need fans more than critics. They get enough criticism in school and from friends. They come out for a sport to have fun. They all need to be reminded that they are good and competent. ... They respond much better when they're not yelled at," Hernandez said.
Because of coaches' influence, their behavior often affects athletes significantly. Many players describe coach interactions as either helping them develop as young adults — learning a sense of commitment, work ethic and teamwork — or shredding their confidence and causing them to dread practices, lose focus on academics and even cry or feel like crying.
"My senior year was one of the longest seasons of my life," said Kirsten Atkinson, a Paly '09 grad and basketball player. "I dreaded going to practice just because that meant that I would be put down again by Scott (Peters). ... I knew I was not the best player in any way, but I never thought I was as bad as he led me to believe.
"I have never had a coach like that before, and I really hope that I will never have to again in the future."
After Atkinson completed the basketball season, she found renewal in lacrosse, under Gray's leadership.
"The lacrosse coach really turned Kirsten around. It was a positive experience," her father, Dave Atkinson, said.
Paly senior Kailey Flather got her lowest grades in high school while a member of Olcott's water-polo team.
"I had a hard time focusing on school work due to emotions and frustrations," Flather recalled. After a full-blown panic attack in the pool during a game, she quit the team mid-season in 2008.
"Everything negative that Cory had ever said to me rushed into my head, and I was stunned," she wrote in a letter to Hansen.
Gunn Athletic Director Chris Horpel said the athletes' youth amplifies the coach's effect on them.
"Teens are in an impressionable, vulnerable state. ... You need to watch what you say and realize how important a coach's words and tone are to that teen."
Gunn Principal Noreen Likins agrees.
"When on the sports field, the student is getting yelled or screamed at for not doing something correctly or well, it really can do a great deal of damage to their self-esteem. I think it can be very destructive to the way in which they see themselves and their ability to participate," Likins said.
Coaches' influence is further magnified by the fact that they have nearly unfettered authority to dole out a most coveted prize in sports: playing time.
In a community where success is often measured by performance, a student athlete's "success" is often defined by playing time. But because the amount of playing time is finite, the coach's decision on who plays and who doesn't can create tensions and disappointments.
Madison Hoffacker, a starter in water polo and basketball and Paly '09 graduate, noted that playing time is so important that athletes are more willing to put up with questionable coaching conduct because of it.
"If you're getting playing time, you will tolerate a lot more from a coach," she said. Conversely, not getting playing time makes it "harder to tolerate bad treatment, and then you're more of a target. The coach annoys you more, you don't have a positive attitude and then there's a downward spiral, which is hard to break out of."
Basketball player Atkinson said Peters told her there was nothing she could do to earn more time on the court — a blow to her motivation and self-esteem.
That comment disturbed Hoffacker.
"This is not something a coach should tell any player. It was utterly discouraging to Kirsten. The team became split in two over this; people took sides," she said.
Codes of conduct
Both Gunn and Paly have developed athletic handbooks as guides for coaches, players and parents. Although different in particulars, they both emphasize basic core values. Gunn's handbook speaks of the duty "to recognize that the purpose of athletics is to promote the physical, mental, moral, social, and emotional well-being of the individual players."
The Paly handbook forbids profanity and explicitly states: "The same behavior expected of a teacher in the classroom is expected of all coaches during practices and games."
In addition to the handbooks, school sport programs are guided by the CCS "Code of Conduct for Interscholastic Coaches."
The code emphasizes the paramount goal of sports as educational. It includes 38 numbered provisions, with this lead-in: "I understand that in my position as coach, I must act in accord with the following code."
Examples of code provisions are:
* Use positive coaching methods to make the experience enjoyable, increase self-esteem and foster a love and appreciation for the sport.
* Refrain from physical or psychological intimidation, verbal abuse and conduct that is demeaning to student-athletes or others.
* Put less emphasis on the final outcome of the contest than upon effort, improvement, teamwork and winning with character.
* Be a worthy role-model, always mindful of the high visibility and great influence you have as a teacher-coach.
* Refrain from profanity, disrespectful conduct.
* Control my ego and emotions; avoid displays of anger and frustration; don't retaliate.
* Be open-minded and willing to listen and learn.
* Consistently demonstrate concern for student-athletes as individuals.
Richard Lapchick, a national sports expert affiliated with the Positive Coaching Alliance, said most high schools nationwide have adopted conduct codes as a result of norms that began changing in the 1980s.
"Shouting and screaming at young athletes began widely to be viewed as unacceptable," Lapchick said in a Positive Coaching Alliance newsletter interview. "We have changed expectations of coaches at all levels. We now see them as responsible for kids' development and well-being."
Melissa Baten-Caswell, a member of the Palo Alto Board of Education, said she believes one question needs to be the crux of any dialog about coaching conduct: Is the coach following the standards or not?
But while people may give lip service to that ideal, there is disagreement over how realistic it is. The sports environment is not the same as the classroom, and not all players, parents and even officials expect coaches to adhere to the same standards of behavior as teachers.
Well-intentioned coaches deviate from standards when they believe their actions will be effective or due to frustrations in the heat of the game or at practices, according to athletes.
"Coaches need to use emotion unlike the average classroom teacher," one player said.
"Anger can scare people into doing better," a former water-polo player asserted.
"Coaches yell and swear; that's the way it is," Murao, the water-polo co-captain, said.
About 80 percent of high school coaches use profanity to "get attention" and for "motivation," according to former Gunn baseball coach Kelly. He admitted his own regular use of profanity at Gunn but said it was "not ever loud enough for anyone else to hear it, just the team."
There are parents who don't believe profanity is a significant problem, even though it breaks the rules.
"If (basketball coach Peters) used profanity, so be it. ... (The) majority of all coaches curse. ... We as parents need to learn how to let things go if it's not causing serious harm to our children," one parent wrote last year to Paly officials.
Some believe harsh treatment helps athletes learn to "toughen up" and "deal with difficult people."
Former school board member Mandy Lowell disagrees.
"Instead of asking the kids to 'toughen up,' why don't we say the coach should have to toughen up?" she said. "The person who is going to have to toughen up is the adult."
Paly junior and basketball player Katerina Peterson defended her coach's tendency to yell, however, saying Peters cares about the girls and is trying to improve their skills.
"It's part of the intensity of the game. He's frustrated when girls are not doing what he wants and blows up at them," she said. If players don't like it, they should leave, she added.
Barb Peters (no relation to Scott) said her daughter did just that several years ago.
"Scott's attitude was win-at-all-costs. He was too critical, negative and hard on the girls and used an inappropriate level of 'old school' methods," she said. "Other players were not so affected by Scott's treatment. Some have a combination of tough exteriors and athletic talent that help insulate them from the effects of this kind of coaching."
Dick Held — a retired FBI regional director, former Paly parent and assistant coach for girls' basketball and baseball for the past decade — also parted ways with Peters after two seasons.
"Scott is ... one with whom I had profound disagreements about how you dealt with young people. I think Scott has continued to work at it. ... I'm sure he didn't appreciate the way I did things, as I didn't appreciate the way he did things.
"And he was the coach, and there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that he cares very much about kids and is a knowledgeable coach."
"It was sad to see him go," Hoffacker said of Held. "He was a help to our team and motivated our more emotional players."
In addition to swearing, coaches have been known to throw and kick things in anger, including clipboards, hats, bats, balls or other items, according to many student athletes.
That's where Gunn's Likins draws the line.
"Throwing things, I think, is totally inappropriate. I can think of an instance where we have had that happen, and we have had to say goodbye to that coach," she said.
Whether or not a "violation" of the conduct code rises to a level that would require intervention, then, can be a matter of degree — or interpretation.
"It can be a fine line. What one person calls abusive another person said, 'Oh, that coach is just motivating the kids,'" Gunn Assistant Principal and former Athletic Director Tom Jacoubowsky said.
"Different players and different parents can oftentimes view a coach very differently," said Scott Bowers, the Palo Alto district's assistant superintendent for human resources, whose son Travis played for Gunn baseball under Kelly and club baseball under Kadokawa.
"What some people call always harping on things wrong, I call coaching," said Paly Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson, himself a long-time club baseball coach. "Certain students feel like when they're told they did something wrong that they are being disrespected, so again the interpretation of the (respectful treatment) standard is pretty wide open."
Gunn Athletic Director Horpel said he uses a simple rule of thumb for coach conduct, which he repeats every pre-season to his coaches.
"Imagine there's a 5-year-old child sitting next to you as you coach or that your grandma is watching," Horpel admonishes them. "Think about whatever you do as not being offensive or assaulting to that 5-year-old. This means you need to control your language, your emotions, how you deliver a message so that it would be acceptable in the presence of that 5-year-old."
Paly Athletic Director Hansen said the point he drives home to his coaches is: "Never ever put a kid in a position he can't get out of. If you listen to that, you can pretty much eliminate most of your problems."
Bowers said coaches don't need to breach or ignore conduct codes because they hold the ultimate leverage: playing time.
"I believe if you've got the right perspective, that winning is not everything, then you're probably not going to lose your temper," Bowers said. "You might be frustrated with the lack of thought or effort, but as coach you get to make the decision about who's going to play and who isn't. ... The leverage is with playing time. Anger is not needed."
Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he expects anyone observing a practice or game to find the coach's behavior "exemplary." He said profanity, "being personal," "beating up on kids" or yelling and screaming are "things we don't want our coaches to do."
Yet Skelly, who has himself coached youth teams, expects coaches to feel strong emotions as part of sports.
"Is the coach going to be invested and disappointed and at times frustrated with kids? Yeah, they are; they're human beings. The challenge they have is to keep those things in check, and if they don't keep those things in check, then they need to be spoken to," he said.
"I think both schools have been very willing to pull the trigger on coaches they think are not appropriate. ... (They) have a track record on doing that. Some people approve of the decisions that we've made to keep coaches and other people don't, but ... my sense is that even the coaches that people have had concerns about are doing quality jobs now."
Next week, in part 2 of 'Out of bounds?' the Weekly explores how fear of retaliation has kept some parents and players from making complaints about Palo Alto and Gunn high school coaches, how the complaints made have been investigated, and how and when administrators have enforced the standards of conduct.