Last December was a month to remember for Mater Dei basketball player Kevin Augustine, who turned in a series of incredible performances under the most trying circumstances.
He suffered severe leg cramps the night he dribbled the length of the court and scored the tying basket with only two seconds left in regulation in a quarterfinal game of the prestigious Las Vegas Prep Holiday Classic Tournament. Mater Dei went on to win the tournament title, and Augustine, who averaged 21 points, was named the MVP.
The next week, after missing eight days because of the flu, Augustine scored 39 points, including a three-point basket with three seconds left in regulation to tie the score, in Mater Dei’s 75-65 overtime victory over Tustin in the final of the Orange Holiday Classic.
Augustine, who has committed to USC, credits a personal trainer for teaching him the techniques that led to success in the face of injury and illness.
“He helped me with my head,” Augustine said of his trainer. “To keep focused on what needs to be done.”
Augustine is one of a growing number of boys and girls in the county who are looking beyond their high school coaches to physical fitness trainers for help in enhancing their athletic skills and performances.
“Everyone’s got a shooting coach, a strength coach, a coach for this or a coach for that,” Woodbridge Athletic Director Dave Cowen said. “There are shooting gurus, free-throw gurus, guys that just specialize with big people.”
Coaches who concentrate on one sport or an aspect of a single sport, such as pitching coaches and quarterback coaches, have been around for decades. But as college tuition has increased, so has the battle for athletic scholarships. Educators and trainers say parents are now willing to spend as much as $200 an hour for training they believe will help their child outperform others.
Personal trainers usually meet with their clients three times a week or more during the off-season and remain in contact during the season.
“A lot of parents figure, ‘Hey, I can make an investment in [a personal trainer] now because it will help my kid increase his chances of moving on,’ ” Cowen said. “They think they are [investing in a scholarship]. More often than not, that is not the case, but at least they feel like they are giving their kid every chance or opportunity.”
It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when Marv Marinovich received national attention for his training regimen for his son, Todd, that the idea of individualized personal workouts took root at the youth levels.
Marinovich seemingly kick-started the industry with what some at the time believed were rather strange concepts, particularly in the areas of diet and muscle development. Todd Marinovich, who set county career passing records for touchdowns and yardage while playing quarterback at Capistrano Valley in 1986 and ’87, reportedly never sipped a cola or tasted ice cream until college and, after discovering all that he was missing, rebelled in a series of confrontations with coaches at USC and later with the Raiders.
Today, personal trainers are generally split into two categories: Those who work on specific aspects of a given sport and those, like Erich Moreno, who work on physical fitness techniques that can be applied to any sport. Most have moved from emphasizing heavy weightlifting and strict diets to teaching young athletes how to hone their mental approaches to conditioning and performance.
“You have to give them a good understanding of the mental part of the game they play. They have to start out with the right attitude,” said Tom Marumoto, a Newport Beach-based basketball shooting guru who helps Melanie Pearson and Marie Philman with mental skills. Pearson was a 1995 all-county first-team selection and Philman was The Times Orange County girls’ basketball player of the year. They are now freshmen at UCLA.
“Kids have to focus. Most are taught to concentrate, but that is too broad of a term for them to understand,” Marumoto said. “They need to focus on the task at hand.”
Each personal trainer seems to have his own way of accomplishing his objective.
Moreno, 33, majored in physical education at Long Beach State and aspired to be an world-class weightlifter. He competed in international events where he was exposed to several training styles. He was particularly fascinated by techniques being developed in Eastern Europe, and after the fall of Communism was able to get more specific information on just how Eastern Bloc athletes trained.
He was a walk-on track coach at Marina High in the mid-1980s when he began to experiment with different types of physical fitness and training techniques.
“It was just trial and error,” he said. “I took the concepts I was learning at the high school and from coaches abroad and adapted them.”
Moreno put together a workout program for Cherokee Parks when Parks, now a forward with the Dallas Mavericks, was a freshman at Marina. When Parks went on to star at Duke, Moreno’s star rose too. Moreno’s client list now numbers about 100, including eight of the 10 players on the 1995 Times all-county boys’ basketball team and about half the all-county girls’ team.
Moreno uses a Russian form of jump training called plyometrics, a method he claims tones muscles in a way typical weight-training could not duplicate.
“We’ll hop on one foot and then the other. We do vertical leaping. We skip up and down the basketball court, or Erich will toss balls to us and we have to jump up to get them,” said Woodbridge’s Chris Burgess, a 6-foot-10 senior center who is one of the most sought-after basketball players in the country.
Moreno claims that as performance levels increase through plyometric exercises, so do confidence and concentration levels.
“I have a bunch of kids who run on the beach with me at 8 a.m. every Saturday morning,” he said. “We do a lot of quickness drills to build speed and some weightlifting.”
Terry Sedgewick, 32, a former Canadian rugby player and a personal trainer in Newport Beach, did his postgraduate work in physiology. He designs a year-long program for each of his eight clients, works with a nutritionist to build individualized diets and insists that clients attend yoga classes.
John Estrada, an Anaheim policeman, teaches athletes how to rest and recuperate, teaches running and quickness drills adapted from Olympic training regimens. He has worked on and off with Servite quarterback Greg Cicero. One of Estrada’s favorite techniques, he said, is an ice bath, where the body is completely immersed in a tub of ice.
“That brings your legs back to you,” he said. “It cleans out the lactic acid that has built up in your body and forces the blood back into your legs.”
Then there is former bodybuilder Benny Podda, 38, who lists among his students Augustine and his Mater Dei classmate David Castleton, a football and basketball standout.
Podda, a native of Pittsburgh, was sent as a teenager to live with a family acquaintance in China for five years. Podda studied martial arts and the ancient Chinese philosophies of Tui-Na (the art of character building) and Yi (the ability to manifest the intention).
In 1982 he returned to the United States and took up power lifting, but later decided that heavy weightlifting was one of the worst things for the body. Today, his pupils lift and balance giant logs, climb cliffs and run on wooden ties along railroad tracks near his home in San Clemente as part of their training.
“Muscles are designed to work together,” Podda said. “Being able to squat [lift] 1,200 pounds is absolutely the most devastating method for your body.”
Podda recommends Chinese herbs and a balanced diet.
“They’re kids and you have to let them have some fun,” he said.
Is personal training working? Just ask the clients.
“Erich developed muscles in me that I didn’t know I had,” said Burgess, who next month is expected to choose among UCLA, Kentucky, Duke or BYU to continue his basketball career.
“I wanted to become quicker than my opponent,” he said. “You can be real big and strong, but you have to have quickness and have explosiveness to the basket. I feel great. I come home each night after seeing him and I’m dripping with sweat. But I’m a lot faster and quicker now.”
Augustine, the 1995 Times Orange County basketball player of the year, said Podda taught him how to focus on completing tasks under duress.
Cicero said Estrada helped him with conditioning and dexterity.
“He is the best,” Cicero said. “He works with anyone who wants to get better. If you arewilling to work, he will make you better.”
Educators acknowledge that personal trainers provide benefits, but they are concerned there is the potential for interference with what high school coaches are trying to accomplish.
“A lot of times they help the kids, not only with mechanics but also with the confidence factor,” Esperanza Athletic Director Jim Patterson said. “Maybe that is the biggest benefit--confidence. As long as you keep personal training in perspective.”
Cowen said many parents discount what children can learn from their high school coaches.
“We think our coaching staff is adequately prepared to handle the needs of our student-athletes,” he said. “Parents have the best intentions for their kids, but the money they spend on personal trainers could be better spent somewhere else.”
John Barnes, Los Alamitos football coach and athletic director, sent his son, 6-foot-7 football lineman Brian, to see Podda. Barnes liked the results but said the program was too expensive.
“He did a wonderful job, both mentally and physically, but it’s just more than I can afford,” Barnes said. “I think we can do the same thing here for the kids. At $50 an hour just twice a week, that is almost a house payment for me.”
Trainers insist they go out of their way not to interfere with high school coaches and are only providing a service that the marketplace is clamoring for. They certainly don’t seem to be hurting for customers. Moreno said his practice has grown from word of mouth. He gets from 25 to 30 phone calls a week from clients, but chooses only to see five or 10. “I can be as busy as I want to be,” he said.
Sedgewick recently took on a 5-foot-9 sixth-grade student from Dana Point who wants to play basketball at Mater Dei. The youngster’s parents believed he needed an edge to be ready for high school ball and were willing to pay as much as $55 a visit three to six times a week to get it, Sedgewick said. “Parents hire me to get their kids ready to go to the next step,” he said.
Personal training can be a lucrative field.
Moreno charges between $100 and $200 a month per child and trains them in groups three times a week after school in his center on the lower floor of the Anaheim Hilton. Most others are even more expensive. Marumoto charges $30 an hour and sees 100 to 150 athletes a year several times each week. Podda charges from $25 to $200 an hour.
Then there is Estrada, who does not charge for his services, but has, nonetheless, accepted compensation “if someone wants to drop me a dollar or two, if they can afford it.”
Estrada, a former track athlete at Cal State Fullerton, said this is his way of giving something back to the sport.
“I coach to try to put kids in college, to try to find a way to have their education paid for free, not out of their pockets,” he said.
And though Dave Cowen might have concerns about the role of personal trainers, he recently hired Moreno to supervise Woodbridge High’s weight room and conditioning program.
“The district provides a stipend to each school for weight room supervisors in the afternoons,” Cowen said.
If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em.