In this article I describe recreational softball from the younger years through the high school years. I explain how to survive the Everybody Gets Trophy concept that is everywhere in youth sports today, primarily in the younger years (ages 5-12). As your daughters continue with softball into the older age groups (ages 13-18) I talk about how recreational ball becomes a bit more competitive, while retaining its more socially relaxed environment.
I characterize the coaches, umpires and even YOU the parents and the vast differences in experience at each stage of recreational ball. I give you my 2 cents on how to be a great recreational softball parent and discuss the practice of good sportsmanship. Yes, one of my pet peeves is the sportsmanship that YOU the parents practice, which has truths for all of the levels of all sports. And finally I ask for your feedback. Enjoy.
My next article will be: Levels of the Game - School Softball
This beginning level of softball goes by many names such as tee ball or little league, but many people refer to it as rec ball, which is short for recreational softball. Although youth recreational softball begins as early as 5 years old in some communities, it is often available through the age of 18 and under (18u).
The quality of recreational softball is dependent upon what your community offers as well as the number of participants. There are typically more teams in the youger age groups with many girls giving the sport a try for the very first time. By the time the girls reach the age of 18 there may only be one or two teams. The quality is largely a result of the degree in which the league is run. The best leagues typically have good people behind the scenes who manage coaches, umpires, parents and players, acquire sponsors and keep things organized. It's a lot of time consuming work and often goes unheralded.
The Annual Swartz Creek Youth Softball Clinic
Special rules are often implemented to help make the game a positive experience, especially in the younger age groups. Limiting the number runs per inning a team can score, mandatory player position rotations, and equal playing time are examples of the rules that can make the game more enjoyable for younger girls. A youth league dictates how the teams are established. Some may assign girls to teams based on the elementary schools they attend, while others may have a draft where the coaches pick players. Regardless, there are often unavoidable large gaps in talent team by team.
Some sports separate their players by age in 1 year increments such as soccer who has 10u, 11u, 12u, etc. Softball has almost always separted their groups in two-year increments 10, 12u, 14u, etc. While there are few exceptions, when a group of 11 year old girls plays a group of 12 year old girls there is usally a big differnce in skills resulting in one-sided outcomes. This 1-year age advantage is less noticable by the age of 13 to 14, which is when most girls begin high school.
In my community the local youth league, which is made up primarily of girls in the school district, has 7-9 and 10-12 age groups and sometimes a 13u group. More talented girls are allowed to play up to the next age group if their parents choose. I like the model of our youth league, which is focused on keeping things fair and fun for the girls. The idea is to encourage participation in the sport for years to come. After all, the girl's maturation rates vary and those who may not be the best at younger ages could be the superstars of the future. And as I've said before, it's a game and games are meant to be fun.
Everybody Gets a Trophy - The Younger Ages
Although I am NOT a proponent of the Everybody Gets a Trophy concept, most youth leagues are. I believe that if everybody plays by the rules, then let the best team get the trophy. That's how it was when I was growing up and when I was not on the best team and did not get the champions patch, I survived with my self-esteem in tact. However, the concept likely came to be due to the many over zealous coaches, who in their quest for the Championship of the World, lose sight of the fact that many 7 year old girls are more interested in the post-game snack than winning the game.
Nonetheless, with most youth leagues embracing the concept you have to learn to make the most of it, which begins with the proper mindset. You will notice, especially in the younger ages, that softball is nothing more than a social activity for many of the players and the parents. These social players could care less about winning, learning the game or their performance. And their parents don't either, yet still expect their daughters to play key positions in the field like pitcher, catcher or first base regardless of their performance.
If you believe your daughter has more talent, the desire to compete or your competitive juices get flowing, this environment can be maddening. You have to decide if your daughter should continue to participate in recreational softall. I would suggest asking her how she feels about it. If she's ok with it and having fun playing with her friends from school, then you should to accept that. Try not to put suggestive thoughts in her head like, "Does it bother you how terrible Sally is at pitching?" And for that matter, please refrain from discussing the other players, parents and coaches with or in front of your daughters. You can thank me later for this bit of advice.
The truth is that in the younger years the games can be about as exciting as watching paint dry. It's best to take your Captain Serious hat off and relax. This is the begninng of the girls learning the game, the rules, what an umpire is and does and what the person telling them where to go and what to do is all about (the coach of course). They all have to start somewhere and this is it. Chill.
In time the girl who has to run to the backstop to get every passed ball, the girl who walks 10 straight batters and the girl who drops every ball thrown to her at first base will eventually improve or decide it's not a position she wants to play any more. And over the years attrition will occur from girls who lose interest in the game or choose another sport or activity they are either better at or enjoy more. Before that time comes, Bill Murray's speech from the movie Meatballs sums this up.
The Older Ages
As the girls approach their high school years and there are far fewer participants from the school district, when available they may play in leagues consisting of nearby school districts. These are often setup in groups such as high school age (18u) or 18u, 16u, 14u, etc.. Although the talent and competition levels vary greatly, it is still better than in the younger years. Typically only the champions receive awards or trophies after making their way through the playoffs. Over the years I've seen several players still eligible for 12/13u play up in one of these older age groups, because they had the talent and desire to compete with the older girls.
The older player's league in our area even has some travel teams that participate, albeit lower-level teams (I'll detail travel softball in a future article), but they usually are pretty competitive when playing recreational teams. Many high school coaches encourage their players to participate, whether they're actively coaching them or not. It is a great way for the coaches to see the new younger players who will be in high school the following year and other players playing in different positions.
From the high school coaches perspective they get the chance to see players perform in game situations, have a chance to develop and teach players fundamentals and gain some insight on their upcoming school season. The high school coaches will want to win, but it is usually not the main priority especially before any playoffs. This is because it is often viewed more as a developmental opportunity than a chance at winning the Championship of the World.
Overall the competition is better even though there are still occasional one-sided outcomes. If the high school coaches are not involved then your experience is largely dependent upon whoever the coach is and his or her philosophy. Either way for the parent who is more competitive by nature or has a daughter who is ready to move beyond her days of participation trophies, it is a refreshing change. Even still it may not be serious or competitive enough for the experienced travel players, who may decide not to participate any longer.
The costs of recreational softball is minimal, usually well below $100 that includes a t-shirt. For the older girls who do not play travel softball it is a great way to get more experience in over the summer and in some cases additional opportunities are available indoors during the winter. In Michigan there are domes and other indoor facilities that host leagues and tournaments for all ages. Since they are during the school year, high school coaches are not allowed to actively coach the teams, but can watch the games if they wish. Recreational softball for these older ages has social and serious elements to it as typically only a portion of the girls play some level of travel softball. For many of the travel softball players, recreational softball is a welcome chance to play in a more relaxed environment with their friends.
In the younger age groups the vast majority of coaches are also parents who almost always have a daughter on the team they're coaching. They volunteer their time to manage a team and the youth leagues rely heavily upon these parents. Honestly, they're biggest challenge is getting the parents to bring their daughters to the few practices and games on time in addition to rotating the girls in and out of the games and positions. Rosters can sometimes have 15 girls, which means there are 6 girls on the bench every inning. Teaching the majority of the girls any fundamentals of the game can be futile. However, in those younger age groups the main goal of a coach should be to make it a fun experience for the girls.
The actual softball experience of these coaches varies as much as the talent levels of the players. Some coach even though they've never coached before and don't know the game, because nobody else volunteered. Others coach and have some abilities and experience to teach the game. In these younger age groups either type of coach is usually adequate. But then there are those who are on a quest to win the Championship of the World. Wil Ferrell comes to mind from the movie Kicking and Screaming.
In the older age groups coaches may be one of the high school coaches, a parent or travel coach. Because your daughter may be asked to join a team you likely know what you're signing up for in advance with some knowledge of the coaches style and experience. And for that matter the coaches are experienced and have the ability to teach some of the fundatmentals of the game. So, you've accepted the coach for who he or she is, which should eliminate most drama or controversy. These games are usually pretty laid back as the players, coaches and parents understand that, "they're just a rec game." Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part they're enjoyable experiences for all.
Umpires typically get paid to ump games. It isn't much though, usually any where from $10 to $25 per game. In the younger age groups some leagues have high school kids ump the games. Others have adults, some young and some old enough to have grand children. Most of them enjoy the game and view it as their way of helping out in their communities. The older age groups often have the local umps who work the high school games and the pay is about the same. For the most part they do a pretty good job. Without them there would be no leagues.
There are umps who make more frequent bad calls than others or have inconsistent strike zones. This isn't such a big deal in the younger age groups, but tends to be more criticized in the older age groups. Umps often try to help teams in the younger age groups if they're getting roughed up by making the close calls in their favor. Spectators (parents) are usually aware of and accept it.
The older girls, parents and coaches want the games to be called correctly and with consistent strike zones. They've been around long enough to understand (most) of the rules and where the strike zone is. Since they've continued to play the game over the years they usually have more of a desire to play well and win. Taking a called 3rd strike in the dirt does not sit well with them. But, like it or not it happens all the time. It's just part of the game, kind of like the infamous call by Jim Joyce.
How a parent, player and coach reacts to bad calls may say a lot about their character. I've seen some umps get grilled for entire games until they reached their boiling points ejecting spectators (parents) out of the game. Imagine your daughter standing out on second base watching you being told to leave the field. Often the collective sighs or "C'mon's" from the peanut gallery says enough and your team just might get the next close call. Umps make mistakes. Calling them singularily out in front of everybody in derogatory fashion is not the way to behave at any time, but especially not in a recreational game.
When it comes to YOU, the parents, Rec Ball is the beginning of your Softball Journey. If you can manage your emotions and expectations about your daughter and the game you will be far ahead of the other parents. At some point in time you'll likely experience many if not all of the good, bad and ugly you've just read about in this article. Many recreational parents will be travel and/or high school parents too and their perspectives will be more broad than those parents who have only experienced recreational softball.
I believe those parents with this broader perspective have an easier time managing their emotions and expectations for their daughters and the teams they're on at any level, but especially during recreational games. Parents who have not seen beyond this level are often less knowledgable about the game, rules, and strategies. They'll learn if their daughters continue to play the game through the years, which is how everybody learns.
I cannot over emphasize how little I really knew about fast pitch softball before my youngest daughter began her career with one of the elite travel programs in the state. Sure, I had some knowledge I could transfer from my personal baseball experience, but had of lot of learning to do. I watched the travel practices, listened to the coaches, talked with the other more experienced parents, took my daughter to the extra workouts and training sessions and asked a ridiculous number of questions. It absolutely enhanced my perspective of the game at all levels, so it was much easier for me to relax during the recreational games even when I was coaching. Over the years I was able to return the favor by answering questions from parents who were just starting out as I had.
All parents have special goggles they wear when watching their daughters play softball. Some are just thicker than others. What are parent goggles? They are non-prescription imaginary glasses that parents wear while watching their daughters play softball and other activities. They enable parents to see a sensationalized version of what everybody else actually sees. It's like virtual reality. I'm not a psychologist, so I can't give you the professional clinical explanation for this phenomenon.
What I can tell you is that as parents our baby girls are the most important things in our lives. We love them with all of our hearts and always want the very best for them. Their happiness and success means everything to us. And it is because we want so much for them that we tend to see things they do through rose-colored glasses. For example, I was at a ball game and heard a parent enthusiastically talking on her cell phone telling somebody how her daughter had just hit a triple. The reality was it was a ground ball the second baseman should have grabbed that also went through the legs of the right fielder. It was clearly an error, not a hit and definitely not a triple.
The thickness of my parent goggles were quickly thinned when I first saw how many talented girls there were at tryouts for the elite team my daughter was attempting to make at the ripe old age of 10. And the rose color was wiped clear a few years later as we traveled to play the best Premier Girls Fast Pitch (PGF) teams in the country from California, Arizona, Florida, Texas, etc. with players who were committed to play for UCLA, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Alabama and other perennial top 25 division 1 college softball teams. It was a humbling experience coming to the realization that my daughter was just one of many very talented young softball players. It was then that my goggles were taken off for good.
However, many parents never have such eye-opening experiences since their daughters do not play competition beyond the county line. So, you end up with quite a mixture of parental and player experiences in recreational games. This is more prevalent in the older age groups. Below is a picture from the IDT tournament, which is where only the elite teams in the country are invited to play with more division 1 college coaches actively recruiting than you can count. This was the tournament where my goggles were removed.
Louisville Slugger Independence Day Tournament - Boulder, Colorado - Photo by John Sobczack
What You Can do to be a Great Recreational Softball Parent
Relax and remember softball is only a game and games were meant to be fun. Be supportive of your daughters. Don't push her. Instead allow her to push herself if she wants to practice more, take lessons or tryout for a travel team. They have to want it for themselves. You can't want it for them. In the younger years the girls are getting a taste of the sport and it may not be for them. My oldest daughter never played softball, but tried cross country, gymnastics, dance and cheerleading. Today as a young adult she participates in various physical activities even though she never really stood out as an athlete. She plays for fun, what a concept.
Encourage and praise your daughters for their efforts and successful moments. Let them have fun and learn to love the game if it's for them. As they continue through the years continue to support them. My middle daughter played softball all the way through varsity including a couple of years of travel ball, but decided she did not want to continue with travel ball. She told me she just wanted to play school ball with her friends. Both her and my youngest daughter took pitching lessons for years. At different points, both of them told me they no longer wanted to pitch. What kind of parent would I have been if I had demanded they continue to pitch or play travel ball?
Volunteer your time and/or money. They always need parent coaches in the younger age groups. And every year there's a new search for team sponsors, which is approximately $250. If you don't own a business, maybe your employer can pony up? Every team needs a team mom to organize snacks and drinks. Help maintain the fields, rake out the rough spots in the infield, cut the grass, fix the benches, etc. Help with the league fundraisers. Work the concession stand. Help and support the coach with practices, games, keep the scorebook or tending to the girls cuts and scrapes as needed. Get your daughters to the games on time.
In the older age groups there are may be the same opportunities to volunteer. But, these teams seem to be more independent of the parents. After all, they're big girls now. Relax and enjoy the games. And please refrain from bleacher-coaching (all ages). Let the coaches coach even if in your opinion they don't know what they're doing. You'll have your opportunity to talk with your daughters after the games are over and you're on the way home away from anybody else's ears. I promise you that your daughter does not want to hear you yelling instructions or criticisms from the bleachers, next to the bench/dugout, foul lines or outfield.
Some parents cannot help themselves though. I've seen this at every level of the game. They ride their daughters from before pregame warmups, through the game, after the game at the fields and then all the way home. I am not a psychologist, but this type of behavior could be a case of living vicarisouly through their child. This is where a parent trys to live out their childhood dreams through their children. It is one thing to witness this in a travel softball environment with players being actively recruited by college coaches, but to see it in recreational games and especially in the younger age groups is unreal.
Imagine seeing a parent calling his or her daughter's pitches from the bleachers with the daughter totally disregarding the coaches pitch signs. Then think about the conversations that must have taken place between the parent and daugher prior to the game to make it possible. Well, I've seen this a few times at each level of the game. Sometimes the coaches were unaware it was happening, while other times it led to confrontation, discipline and even dismissal from the team.
Your daughter also does not need to hear your opinion of what idiots her coaches are. If you truly think that negatively about the coaches, either pull your daughter off the team or vent about it privatley with other adults. Chances are that your daughter will one day in her days have an idiot boss too, so what lessons do you want her to learn before that day comes? And if you cannot see the folly in this type of behavior, then this web site will not have much useful advice to offer you.
When another parent, player or coach compliments your daughter during or after a game, it will be 100 times more meaningful to her than when you praise her.
Cheer for your daugher and her teammates. Be positive. Keep negative comments to yourselves. Practice the sportsmanship you would want your daughter to practice. Easy on the umps and thank them after a well-umpired game. You're not at the game to shout down the opponent's parents, coaches or players. You can't control if they're obnoxious or poor sports, but you can control your behavior. Be a gracious winner and accept the fact that you're going to lose now and then. When your team is about to mercy the other team, take the cheering and laughing down a notch as the other team may think you're arrogant or rude. Don't cheer for the other team to "Drop the ball" or to "Swing". That's just wrong. Cheer when the other team makes a good play. Compliement and/or congratulate the other team, coaches, parents and players after a game.
Travel Teammates, Friends and High School Opponents
Those sportsmanship practices are true for all levels of all sports. And some day you may find your daughters playing together. It happens all the time. Treating everybody with respect is always the right thing to do. And I cannot emphasize this fact enough: When another parent, player or coach compliments your daughter during or after a game, it will be 100 times more meaningful to her than when you praise her. Your daughters already know you love them and have parent goggles, so they take your praise with a grain of salt, especially the older they get. I highly encourage you to practice this every chance you get. My daughters still remember compliments they received years ago like it was yesterday. That's powerful stuff.
Check out the ultimate example of great sportsmanship below.
Questions or Comments?
Your experiences may differ from mine as there are many variables in the equation. If you have any comments or questions please send me an email or post to the Softball Journey Facebook page or on Twitter.
My next article will be: Levels of the Game - School Softball