The natural progression for most of our softball journeys begins with the youth rec league and eventually leads to travel softball. Regardless of your daughter's path to travel ball, in their younger years (10u and 12u) they're introduced to real competition. Not everybody gets equal playing time or plays their favorite position. There are winners and losers and only the champions get a trophy. And just when you think you're getting the hang of things, everything changes.
They're structured with one thing in mind: Allowing college coaches to watch players they're interested in (period).
Diamond 9 Sun Classic Showcase in Orlando, FL - Wide World of Sports
This is a huge recruiting event with virturally all D1 colleges attending. There are no brackets. It's all pool play.
Learning to Compete
It is during these years that players (and parents) really get into the games building a strong desire to win. Tournaments begin with pool play, where the teams typically play 3-5 games to seed them for bracket play. Some tourneys are single game elimination, while most are double and include a losers bracket. If your team isn't so hot, you likely go home early on the first day of bracket play. If your team is pretty good, you play the full weekend making it deep in the bracket.
If your daughter plays on a team that struggles all summer long (late April through early August) it can really wear down her competitive spirit (and yours). If you believe she's good enough to play on a better team, then you probably start looking at trying out for a different club/team in the fall. Sure she's made new friends, likes the coach and has fun at practice, but losing gets old fast, especially if it's frequently one-sided.
There are a number of reasons players swap teams/clubs each year, which I've detailed in several articles. But, the desire to win and improve their game are two of the most important reasons. When my daughter switched teams at the age of 11 it was the first time she was not the best player on her team. It was the right fit for her as the older and more skilled players pushed her to work harder. The coaches taught her new skills that she practiced as much as possible on her own. Her team had success and she had to fight for playing time.
While no club/team is perfect, as a parent you just want to find one that provides this type of competitive and learning environment for your daughter. My daughter also had a new coach for the first six years of the seven she was in the club. Every year with players coming and going she had to prove herself to her new coach. Coaches want to win and players want to play. And every weekend they left it all out on the field.
It's Just Not the Same
So, you and your daughter spend several years with this warrior mindset and then one day her team is playing in an exposure tournament. What's that? They're structured with one thing in mind: Allowing college coaches to watch players they're interested in (period). Many of these tournaments don't even have brackets. No trophies. You just play games. Those with brackets are almost always single-game elimination. These used to begin at the 16u level, but now often include 14u teams. These tournaments are often called Showcases.
One of the big differences is how the coaches must manage the games. If he knows a college coach is there to see a certain player in a certain position, then he makes sure it happens. While this is great for that player, it isn't always so for the team. You can end up with several players playing out of position and backups starting. These are situations that are in conflict with other player's competitive mindset. As a parent (specator) you often do not realize that any of this is going on during the game. Sometimes your daughter won't know either.
It's not all bad since your daughter will benefit from this exposure too. You likely sought out the club/team with this in mind. Players and parents always want to know what tournaments a team will be playing in before accepting a coaches offer to join the team. In the high school years, this becomes much more important. However, if your daughter has already committed to a college and is playing to win and improve her skills, it can dampen her (and your) enthusiasm for the games.
It can be pretty exciting knowing there are coaches at the game specifically to watch your daughter play. It can also be the cause of anxiety for you and your daughter. What if her dream school is there watching and she's not having a good game? If they watch her enough, that is inevitable. As a parent you have to remain composed and not show negative emotion that your daughter will surely see. That will not help her during the game when she's struggling, but will make it worse. Those experiences are one of the biggest reasons it is such a relief when she has finally committed to a college. As my daughter told me, "Now I can just have fun playing softball again."
Essentially, they're playing for themselves and not to win. That's right and there's no sugar-coating it. I had a nice long conversation with a college coach from a very successful PAC 12 program tell me, "By the time we get these girls they've forgotten why they're here! They're here to help us win! If we don't win, we lose our jobs!" The coach described some players lack of motivation or concern for their team's success. They only cared about their performance and stats. The coach added, "We've created this mess with this process. It's our own faults."
Thankfully not all tournaments are exposure tournaments during their high school years. There are qualifiers for national and regional tournaments where coaches and players can focus on winning. Still, pool games are often treated like exposure games as favors to college coaches on hand. College coaches will typically clear out before bracket play begins. The challenge for coaches is to keep their teams motivated and in the competitive mindset. Players must learn to flip the switch as the exposure tourneys can cause complacency.
This is something I don't believe parents can fully comprehend until they've gone through it. It's just a different feeling going to the tournaments and watching the games. Sure, when my daughter was up to bat or the ball was hit her way it was still exciting. But sometimes they felt like scrimmages, where you know before the game it doesn't really count. I'm speaking from my own experience as well as other parents I spoke with during those years. Now think about what it must feel like for your daughter.