Article Overview

In this article I describe school softball from middle school through varsity and what the philosophies should be for each. I discuss the mixture of social and serious players and parents and good vs bad coaches and parents in school softball.  I provide some suggestions on overcoming bad situations with coaches and other parents.  I tell you my opinion on how to be a great school softball parent. And finally I will ask for your feedback. Enjoy.

Future Article of this Series in the Big Blog: Levels of the Game – Travel Softball

This age is most likely when the girls who do not play travel sports get their first taste of a tryout process.

Middle School

Typically the first chance your daughter has to play for the school is in middle school. Whatever grade is begins in doesn’t really matter, since the focus for all stages of school softball except varsity should be make softball fun and to develop players. Unfortunately, the quality of the softball experience here will vary greatly. Some schools are well organized with good coaches, while others are not organized at all and struggle to find any coaches, let alone good ones. You will likely see frequently changing coaches at this level with many being parent coaches. The middle schools in Michigan are limited to 10 games per season with rain outs usually not being made up.

Serious & Social PlayersThis age is most likely when the girls who do not play travel sports get their first taste of a tryout process. Every school handles this differently. Some keep nearly every girl who has even the slightest bit of talent, while others cut their rosters down to 12-15 players. My philosophy is to keep as many girls as possible, teach them the fundamentals and encourage them to continue to practice and play the game. As I’ve said before, you never know which girls will end up being the strongest players by the time they hit high school.  

I privately talked with the coach about her playing time half way through the season in a calm respectful manner.

The tryout process is often stressful for the girls and getting cut at any age is a highly emotional experience. In the case that your daughter is extremely behind in athleticism and skills, it might be the time to encourage her to find another sport or activity to participate in. On the other hand, if you’re sure your parent goggles are not too thick and that your daughter was unfairly cut, what do you do?  You may also see girls who make the team, but get little playing time.  This usually comes from coaches who are looking to win the Championship of the World, while losing sight of the fact that they're supposed to be developing players.  In fact this type of coach usually doesn't develop any players.  Instead, they just put their best nine on the field without rotating them, while the rest of the kids are expected to stand up and cheer them on to victory.  In either case you could talk with the coach or athletic director about it or really make a big stink with their bosses and hope they reconsider. Results will vary.

My daughter made her 7th grade middle school team, which is when school softball begins in our community, but in my opinion was not treated fairly by her coach. She received far less playing time for starters and it seemed to be driven by the fact that she was not in the class that the coach taught that year, while most of the other girls were.  I privately talked with the coach about her playing time half way through the season in a calm respectful manner. Suddenly she got more playing time. Brooke went on to become a starter for 3 years on the varsity team with her name appearing in the school record books several times, while helping them to their first District Championship in 32 years and has been the varsity assistant coach for 3 years now. So, it seems I may have been correct in my assessment of the situation.  And to the credit of the coach, he gave her and a few other girls more playing time for the rest of that 7th grade season.

Lot of players on the bench

Middle School teams can have 20+ players as many girls want the chance to play for their schools and with their new friends for the first time. The real job for the coaches should be to teach the girls as many fundamentals of the game as possible. The next goal should be to make it fun and encourage participation. This can’t be done if the coach plays his or her best 9 players with the other 12+ girls getting little game time or the chance to play key positions.  Winning should be secondary at this level.

Some middle school teams are actually clubs and are not directly run through the school. This is where the parents pay a club fee to have their daughters on the team. This also reduces the number of participants. These teams have smaller rosters with almost always parent coaches who want to win the championship of the world. So, while a team with 20+ players is rotating players in and out of every position, the club team is sticking with their best 9 players until they have a huge lead. It’s sad and pathetic, but it happens.

Freshman

Some schools do not even have freshman softball teams. They have junior varsity and varsity teams only. Some schools have two junior varsity teams. Our school just made this change, since no other school in our league has a freshman team now.   A big reason for this is due to the number of sports available to girls in the spring time in Michigan (softball, soccer, tennis, lacrosse & track). The teams are all competing for the same athletes. These teams are smaller than the middle school teams with usually 15 or fewer players after tryouts.

If your school has a freshman team, the quality is affected first by the number of players who are moved up to junior varsity or varsity. The goal for the coach should again be to teach the girls the fundamentals of the game and to get the girls game experience. The coach may or may not be influenced by the varsity coach. For example, the varsity coach may be looking at one of the players to fill a specific spot on the varsity roster in the next year, such as a catcher. He may have his eye on a player and instructs the coach to get that player a lot of time in that position. This is actually how it should work. The freshman and Junior varsity teams prepare players for varsity. This is assuming the coaches work together to help their program be the best it can be.

In all my years of watching school softball, I’ve yet to see a real high level of competition at the freshman or junior varsity levels.

Junior Varsity

This team can be made up of freshman, sophomores and juniors, although many schools and coaches will cut juniors that do not make varsity.  I have seen juniors who did not make varsity turn out to be valuable members of the varsity team in their senior year.  As with all other levels of school softball the junior varsity coaches should stress the fundamentals of the game and work with the varsity coach to prepare players for varsity. It is common practice to bring up players from junior varsity to varsity for tournaments, to fill in for sick or injured players or for the varsity coach to get a look at them against a higher level of competition. The size of the team varies, since players can be moved up to and down from varsity and brought up from or sent down to the freshman team.

In all my years of watching school softball, I’ve yet to see a real high level of competition at the freshman or junior varsity levels. This is because all the schools move up their best players to varsity from these groups. The speed of the game, quality of pitching, and overall talent is far less than what you see at the varsity level.  Still, there are players who benefit from spending a year or two developing their skills, maturing and gaining coordination, building their confidence and getting game experience. They often go on to become valuable members of their varsity teams.  Some players are kept down because the varsity team does not have a need for the position they play.

Varsity

League, District & Regional Champions - 2012 Swartz Creek Varsity SoftballWhile the middle school, freshman and junior varsity coaches should focus on player development, the varsity team is all about winning.  Players on varsity, especially the younger girls, still require development.  While the freshman and junior varsity girls are working on basic fundamentals, varsity players are working on advanced offensive and defensive skills, mental processes and a host of the little things that are often the difference between winning and losing. This is not to say that winning doesn’t matter at all for the younger teams. It just isn’t the primary objective. The players should learn how to compete and win games before they make varsity. However, all the players on the freshman and junior varsity teams have to get in the games to get experience and that may actually cost those teams a few wins.

These role players on the bench are expected to keep their heads in the game, cheer for their teammates and be ready to go into the game at a moment's notice.

In a good program the varsity coach will work with all of the younger coaches to establish rules, objectives and set expectations for the program. Respect and open communications are keys to the success for the program. It can be frustrating with the other coaches having players moved between the teams throughout the season, but it is often necessary. Varsity dictates this and everybody else has to deal with it. Younger players who have made varsity will require additional development. However, many of those players are travel players and need little more than guidance from the varsity coach.  Good coaches will recognize these travel players and spend more time trying to develop the more inexperienced and lesser talented players. 

Playing time is not equal at the varsity level, nor is it a goal to be.  Varsity coaches, teams, parents and spectators want to compete and win.  There will always be unequal playing time with some girls sitting out a little and others quite often.  There are role players on every varsity team in any sport.  It takes a great attitude on the player's part to accept their role on the team if it is not in the starting lineup.  Common roles are courtesy and pinch base runners, pinch hitters, bull pen catchers and emergency pitchers.  A team of 12 always has 3 players on the bench.  A team of 15 has 6.  These role players on the bench are expected to keep their heads in the game, cheer for their teammates and be ready to go into the game at a moment's notice. 

Good coaches will find opportunities to get every girl in the game, although sometimes it is not possible.  Seniors and juniors who are role players may be more receptive to the role, since they're playing days will soon be over and they're happy to be part of the team.  Freshman and sophomores will most likely have a harder time with it, especially when they would be starters on the junior varsity team.  Good coaches won't bring these younger girls up to varsity to sit them on the bench.  If that's your daughter's situation, you should have a private conversation with the coach about it.  Then, the ball will be in your daughter's court:  Stay as a role player on varsity or go down to the junior varsity team. 

Some parents have beliefs like: No freshman should ever play on a varsity team let alone be a starter, only juniors and seniors play or start on varsity, all players should get equal playing time and other remnants of the Everybody Gets a Trophy disease.  Those irrational beliefs can lead to heated arguments with the coach.  Whatever your case may be, I would also suggest that if you are really steaming about something to wait 24 hours to talk with the coach about it.

I have seen social softball players who never played travel softball become All-League standouts.

Even at the varsity level, you will have a mixture of serious and social players.  I touched on this in the Levels of the Game: Recreational Softball article. Many social players are talented enough to make their varsity teams.  Social players enjoy the game of softball and want to be part of the team, playing for their school and with their friends.  They make up the majority of players on the average high school team.  Although with the enormous growth of travel softball that majority is shrinking.  Many girls play on lower level travel teams where the average competition is equal to varsity softball.  They often play in local tournaments or within a couple hours from home and play fewer weekends.  It keeps the cost down and the girls have a lot of fun making friends and gaining game experience.  Most social players gladly hang up their cleats during the off-season, which means they play softball from 2-4 months out of the year, while most serious players play year round. 

Lauren & Hayley at Clarkston - CaptainsPlease understand I am not demeaning the social players.  I have seen social softball players who never played travel softball become All-League standouts. One girl comes to mind who played with my daughter.  She played a skilled position too (catcher).  She earned 3 varsity letters every year in high school as a 3 sport athlete, which was the norm a couple decades ago when my generation was in school and before the trend of year-round sports and explosion of indoor athletic facilities.  When it was softball season, she worked her tail off to be the best she could be.  During the summers she played travel basketball (AAU).  She was a great young lady and vital part of the varsity team.  She currently attends Mott Community College and is a member of their softball team.

The serious travel players are those hoping to gain exposure at their tournaments and catch the eyes of college coaches.  They dream about playing college softball, want to be the best they can be, spend infinitely more time practicing and training than social players and play in tournaments with and against like-minded players.  They travel out of state to seek out the best competition they can find.  They want to win and expect to play well.  When you mix serious and social players you never know what kind of team chemistry you'll get. 

Some serious players enjoy the break and the more relaxed environment.  They practice humility around their friends and teammates, while treating them as equals, even shying away from the spotlight.  Others are arrogant and condescending, while oblivious that they are acting that way.  But, some serious players know full well how they're treating their teammates and just don't care. They crave the spotlight and lose sight of the fact that they're playing a team sport.  In their minds, it's all about them and the team comes second (aka Prima Donnas).

The best advice I can give you is to learn to practice humility.

You will find parents of each of these types of serious players often behave in the same ways, which makes sense knowing that their daughters act the way they do.  If you are the parent of a serious softball player and you know she is more talented than her teammates, how do you want your daughter to behave?  How do you behave?  Have you listened to your daughter talk to her peers, coaches or other parents?  And have you thought about how you talk to others?   The best advice I can give you is to learn to practice humility. 

One day a parent was talking with me going on and on about how good of a player my daughter was.  I stopped and thanked her and then told her that there were a lot of girls who were as good or better than my daughter on her travel team and the opponents they face across the country.  However, I think she may have taken it the wrong way.  I think she may have thought I was bragging about her and her travel team, which was most definitely not the point I was trying to make.  Since then I have become very careful about what I say around other parents concerning my daughter.  If somebody launches into a tribute to my daughter, I politely thank them and change the subject.

This type of habitual complainer is never satisfied and stirs up all kinds of crap amongst the other parents and even the players.

Problem Parents

Varsity coaches are in the spotlight and their coaching is therefore frequently scrutinized. They can receive a great deal of criticism from some parents, players and other coaches.  Sometimes it is well deserved, while more often it’s just the ire of a few parents who feel strongly that they are smarter than the coach.  It can be about player positioning, game and situation strategy, the batting lineup or just about anything. In my experience the parent raising all the fuss either has thick parent goggles, an oversized ego or doesn’t grasp the fact that the players have to make the plays and the coach can't do it for them. This type of habitual complainer is never satisfied and stirs up all kinds of crap amongst the other parents and even the players.

These problem parents often behave like this as a way of making up for their daughter’s shortcomings, where it’s the fault of the coach that they lost the game and not the fact that their daughter went 0-4 that day. The same parents will complain about other players who are usually lesser skilled than their daughters or are playing in the position that they feel their daughter should be playing. It’s amplified when their daughter is not having a good game/day. This constant bitching is communicated to their daughters, who develop disrespect for their coaches, which leads to a host of problems for the team.   It’s up to the coach to recognize all of this drama early enough to confront and control it. Unfortunately, too many times the problem continues to fester and causes dissension on the team.

(Truly) Problem Coaches

As some parents can be disruptive agitators, some coaches are quite honestly egotistical or abusive nitwits. I have heard the horror stories from other parents whose opinions I trust to be accurate accounts of terrible coaching. For example, one coach insisted a player completely change her batting mechanics that she spent the previous 9 months working on with her travel coach and private trainer if she wanted to play for him. And that particular girl who was a phenomenal hitter went on to play division 1 college softball.  The coach had a bad history with the travel club she played for and allowed it to interfere with his judgment, which eliminated any chance of his ability to employ a little common sense.

Another example is a coach who told his star player that he regretted recommending her to her college coach. I could go on and on because there is no shortage of bad high school coaches. Many of them take the job through the school they’re employed at for the extra money, while putting in the absolute minimum effort. Others just seem to want to spread misery where ever they coach, always thinking they're the smartest person in the room. Combine all of this with a few disruptive parents and you’ve got mass chaos and a sad experience for the players.

Sometimes parents need to hear the horror stories from parents at other schools to put things into perspective. Maybe your coach isn't so bad after all?

What do you do if your daughter is in this situation? I’ll wish you luck now, because many times there's nothing you can do.  The first thing to try is to talk with the coach privately. Next, you can go to the athletic director or school board to voice your concerns. In either case you risk the coach becoming more of a problem, especially for your daughter. So, unless you’re daughter wants to transfer to another school or give up playing for the school, you’ve got to accept that things are not going to change and make the most of it. I know of several players who just quit their teams, rather than continue playing in the abusive environment.  In fact, a few years ago every member of a varsity team in my area quit in the middle of the season because their coach was a genuine loser and very abusive.  I also know a few players whose college coaches insisted their recruits continue to play for their less than perfect high school coaches. Unless it’s a really abusive situation for your daughter, it may prove to be a valuable life lesson for when they have a boss with similar character flaws.

On the other hand, you should feel fortunate to have a good high school program and coaches. I would even suggest frequently showing your appreciation to all of the coaches and people who make your program a positive experience for your daughter. These coaches and people volunteer a lot of their time and energy to the program and I can assure you in the case of the good coaches, they do not do it for the money.  Sometimes parents need to hear the horror stories from parents at other schools to put things into perspective.  Maybe your coach isn't so bad after all?

Athletic Directors

The quality of athletic directors ranges much like the coaches, parents and players they represent. They have a lot of responsibilities for all sports and athletes in the school and are therefore typically very busy. Some of them have other roles too like coaching one of the sports, teaching classes or other administrative positions within the school. They do things like ensure academic eligibility of the student-athletes, make the sports schedules, reschedule games, manage the trainers and field and facility maintenance staff and a whole lot more.

From a parent’s perspective, you just need to know they are responsible for hiring, firing and supervising the coaches. That’s why I suggested talking with them if you had a problem with a coach that could not be resolved. Good athletic directors do their best to hire and maintain quality coaches and have open communications with the coaches, players and parents as needed. If your school has an unsavory coach, you may need to take a critical look at the athletic director. That’s why I said going to them about an issue with the coach may not get the results you were hoping for. There are cases of bad coaches that were hired by prior athletic directors or because nobody else applied for the job. Those situations can’t be blamed on the current athletic director. Good athletic directors represent all of the school sports to the best of their ability.

Athletic Boosters

The athletic boosters in a school are typically made up of parents of student athletes, past or present, and their reason for being is to provide assistance to the athletic department for the enhancement of athletic programs of the school. They are dedicated to the continued support of our student athletes, coaching staff, trainers and athletic department programs. They raise money to help the school pay some of the athletic costs and often provide academic and athletic scholarships. They do things like work concession stands, sell entry tickets and spirit wear and conduct 50/50 drawings at the games.

Most School Parents Are Awesome

School parents are almost always recreational softball parents too, which I wrote about in the Levels of the Game - Recreational Softball article. And a few are travel softball parents, which will be the next level of the game I write about here in the Big Blog. Although I detailed some of the issues with problem parents earlier, most parents are generally pretty relaxed and supportive of their daughters, the coaches and the team. Parents get to know each other over the many years that their daughters play together and through the other sports and school activities. Most parents are very supportive for their daughter’s teammates.  Many lasting friendships have come from parents whose daughters played together over the years.  A typical game day for a parent is to leave work early, hurry to the games with blankets, umbrellas, layers of clothing, chairs and coolers with food and drinks for their daughters. 

So, please take every opportunity to compliment the other girls on the team for their efforts and achievements.

What You can do to be a Great School Softball Parent

To be the best school softball parent possible, be supportive of your daughter, the team and the coaches. Cheer them and their team on during the games. Be positive and encourage your daughter and her teammates, compliment them and give them at pat on the back after a tough game. You can praise your daughter, but the older they get it means far more to them to receive praise from other parents, coaches and players than from you. So, please take every opportunity to compliment the other girls on the team for their efforts and achievements. For me the greatest compliments I’ve ever received about my daughters went like this, “As good as your daughter is in softball, she’s a far better young lady. You should be very proud of her. Good job Dad.”  It honestly brings tears to my eyes thinking about that.

Tremendous Parent & Fan Support in 2012!

Most parents are generally pretty relaxed and supportive of their daughters, the coaches and the team.

Please don’t coach or shout out instructions to them during the game. That’s what the coach is for.  If you feel your daughter is not receiving adequate instruction at times, wait until you get home to discuss it. If you are at odds with the coach, build a bridge and get over it if your daughter has decided that she’s going to continue as a member on the team. Let it go and refrain from talking about the coach behind his or her back every 5 minutes with other parents. Your daughter is not going to benefit from your stirring up the hornet’s nest at every game.

Don't join in the disruptive parent’s Reindeer games.  It is easy to sit and listen to those parents constant complaining, especially if you believe they are making some valid points.  However, it’s draining and can put you in a negative mood causing you to do and say things out of your character.  For example, turn on and watch any of the 24 hour cable news networks and in no time you’ll be pissed off or depressed about something.  That’s because the majority of what you are seeing and hearing is negative.  If you allow those parents to bitch and whine to you every time, you are an enabling them.  Instead, find ways to end it by changing the subject, conveniently receiving a phone call from anybody or excusing yourself to the restroom or concession stand.  

One time I was so weary of a particular parent that I reached my boiling point.  The parent went into the usual mantra about the position her daughter was playing.  “Why is that girl playing there instead of my daughter?” she asked after the other girl made an error.  I had enough and politely informed her that her daughter started the game in that (her) position, but made 2 errors in the first inning that cost the team 3 runs.  I kind of snapped it out too, which caused her to never complain to me again.

Another example was a parent who constantly questioned the strategy of the coach.  After the tough loss of a close game, I had heard enough of him too especially since his daughter played terribly and replied, “I’m not about to blame the coach for several girls not getting their bunts down, for the key fielding errors or for the fact that my daughter was 0-4 with some really ugly at-bats.  It’s not the fault of the coach that they stunk it up.”  Shockingly, he never sought me out to complain again.

After that magic moment, the only things I ever shouted onto the field were along the lines of, “Atta Girl! Great Swing! Nice Try! You Can Do It! C’mon Baby!”

The Car Ride or Wait Until We Get Home Talk and Other Mistakes

I made some of the mistakes I’ve just told you about. There was a time that I shouted out onto the field at my daughter, coached her while she was batting, had those emotional talks about her poor performance in the car or at home or had private parent talks at the games questioning the coaching strategy. Over the years I figured out the big picture: It’s a game that my daughter loves and wants to play. She gives her best effort every time she’s on the field and wants to be the best she can be. I did not come to this realization while my older daughter was playing. It was during my youngest daughter’s freshman year that I finally began to see the light.

After that magic moment, the only things I ever shouted onto the field were along the lines of, “Atta Girl! Great Swing! Nice Try! You Can Do It!  C’mon Baby!” The best example I can share with you about this is partly due to the hitting training my daughter (and I) received, from my daughter sharing her thoughts and feelings with me and from the coaching I do with other players. That example is about hitting. When a batter is coming up to bat and then is in the batter’s box, the last thing she should be doing is receiving mechanical instructions from the peanut gallery, hearing negative comments like, “C’mon you’re due!” or being told to watch for a certain pitch. She should be focusing on one thing: See it, like it and swing. The more garbage that clouds her mind, the better chance she’ll fail. Great batters take a deep breath and relax before every pitch, block out everything else and focus on the ball.

My daughter told me she doesn’t hear anything when she’s up to bat. That’s focus and a big reason for her success over the years. From her sophomore year on the only thing I would ever shout out (cheer) while she was hitting was, “C’mon Baby You Can Do It!” She may have heard me, but most of the times I kept quiet and enjoyed watching her preparing to smash the ball with complete focus. The many premier players I’ve seen over the years during the travel seasons shared this same quality and approach.

You really need to say nothing because she is most likely more upset and frustrated with her play than you could ever be.

This video says it all.  The best hitter on the planet, Miguel Cabrera was 0-3 with 3 strikeouts against the Indian's Salazar.  He approached the plate as he always does, relaxed and entirely focused, while blocking out all the white noise.  He often smiles and jokes with the catchers and umpires, but quickly locks into total focus before each pitch. He is also one of the best team players you'll ever see.  He'll take the walk or the single to the opposite field rather than swinging for the fence every time.  He inspires, cheers on and supports his teammates all the time no matter what kind of game he's having.  He studies the game and his opponents and is one of the smartest hitters of all time.

You’ve got to learn to let her be and allow her to have bad performances, make mistakes and lose games.

It was also around the same time that we stopped having those talks in the car or at home about her performance that day. You know because you’ve likely had them, especially if your daughter has played for several years. You tell her everything she did wrong and let her have it when you knew it was not her best effort. It is such a waste of time and ineffective means of motivating her to do better next time. You really need to say nothing because she is most likely more upset and frustrated with her play than you could ever be.

If she’s a level of player well below what your parent goggles view her as, one of these talks you have with her just might cause her to quit. In this case, she knows she’ll never live up to your expectations and the game is not fun anymore. I’ve seen this many times. Even if she is a tremendous player you have to remember that she can’t be her best every single time she’s on the field. Nobody is perfect. And besides, it’s a game filled with failure. She cannot possibly be her best if she’s preoccupied with the fear of failure and what you’re going to say to her afterwards. You’ve got to learn to let her be and allow her to have bad performances, make mistakes and lose games. Appreciate the good games, plays, hits and wins with humility.

Yea, I felt like a total Ass.

And with girls, especially teens, there are a host of other things that affects their performance on the field.  Boys, gossip, social media, hormones, periods and cramps, pimples, school, lack of sleep, female drama on and off the field, etc. are some of the distractions they have to deal with before suiting up to play the game.  Some girls can forget about everything and focus on softball during the games, while other cannot.  As coaches we try to encourage the girls that when they walk through the gate onto the field to clear their minds about everything else in life and have some fun playing the game.  As you've likely seen, results will vary.  If your daughter looked out of whack during a game, she may have had some of these things distracting her.  You quickly know when your daughter looks a little slow or unfocused.  If this happens all the time, then you've somehow got to figure out what is going on.  If it's very infrequently, maybe you ought to let it go and forget about it.

I recall a big mistake I made.  My 11 year old daughter was playing travel soccer on the best team in the state.  They had won every tournament they played in including the state championship.  One game I could tell she was not her best.  In fact she looked slow, unfocused and lazy.  The coach pulled her from the game and she played very little the rest of the day.  On the car ride home I bombarded her with questions asking what was wrong and why the lack of effort.  She didn't have much to say, but I had to go on reminding her that it was over an hour drive to watch such a crappy effort on her part.  My lecture ended and she fell asleep in the car.  In the middle of the night she woke up puking sick with a 105 degree fever.  Yea, I felt like a total Ass.

I wrote about parent goggles, umpires and sportsmanship in the Levels of the Game: Recreational Softball article, which sums up those topics concerning school softball as well.

Questions or Comments?

So what are your thoughts about school softball or some of the things in the article?  Let me know by email, Facebook or Twitter.

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