The selection process during tryouts is not an exact science. I've been on both sides of this process many times. I want to give those of you who have never coached some insight on the process. This will be based on my experience as a coach in high level travel softball clubs (aka A, Gold or PGF), not B teams or local community based programs whose goal is to prepare players for their varsity teams. I'm talking about teams full of girls with a love for the game, exceptional talent, strong work ethic and desire to one day play college softball.
An outsider looking in might compare two players and question our selection, "I don't understand how that girl made it when this girl is a much better hitter."
The rosters for each of our teams in the club are complete. Our tryouts were a success from an organizational standpoint. We had a big turnout with enough talent (and coaches) to add second teams in the 14u and 16u age groups. The selection process was very difficult and time consuming. But, we made our decisions, extended offers, received commitments and after a short break will be ready to start practicing for the fall tournament season.
The main goal we have is to put the most competitive team we can on the field. We prepare and challenge them to be the best they can be. We play the best competition possible, so they can gain game experience at the highest level. We play in college exposure tournaments, guide them in the recruiting process and hopefully help them earn their way onto a college softball team. We do not guarantee players a certain position or playing time. Those are open to competition and based on performance during games and the needs of the team.
Our philosophy for a second team is to keep players in the club that we believe have a shot at making the first team the following season, whether in the same or older age group. We never guarantee second team players that they'll ever make the first team, since that could contradict our main goal. Some clubs refer to their second teams as developmental, but we believe all of our teams are in development. It's just each year you expose the players to more advanced skills and concepts. Our second team will also play the best competition. Playing down (aka B schedule) will not prepare them adequately.
The expression we use concerning the fall season is, "Let's see what we've got."
Previous Fall Tryouts
We select our team(s) every fall. There are usually a few players we are absolutely sure about. We build our team around those players. The first couple of additions might be relatively easy, but the final couple is far from it. We have to look at what holes we have and attempt to fill them. We may need a catcher more so than a power hitter or a third pitcher more than a speedy outfielder. For each player we look at athleticism, softball skills like fielding ground balls or fly balls, arm strength and hitting, positions they play including secondary positions, general softball knowledge, attitude and hustle.
An outsider looking in might compare two players and question our selection, "I don't understand how that girl made it when this girl is a much better hitter." While their assessment may be correct concerning hitting, our need for a stronger middle infielder could have been why we chose the other player. We may have also made our decision based on the attitude of certain players and/or their parents. We might ask ourselves, "Is she coachable? Do we want to constantly battle with her parents?" If the answer is "No" to these questions, we will likely pass on her and select another player.
Nobody's perfect. We make mistakes sometimes with our selections. We have a couple ways to correct our mistakes: 1)Inform a player as soon as possible that she may see limited playing time, 2)Inform the player we need to move her to the second team or 3)Release a player from the team. 4)Contact a player we let go and offer her a spot. Sometimes players decide to leave teams on their own as well. This is why the last few spots on a team are often the most difficult for us to fill, because we want to avoid such situations. If we have never seen a player play, then we are left with the 1 or 2 days they are at tryouts to make a judgment.
The bottom line is if a player wants to be the best she can be, she'll find ways to workout when there's a foot of snow on the ground.
Fall Tournaments & Scrimmages
Some players practice well, but struggle in games. Some look weak in practice, but excel in games. If you were a coach, which would you prefer? The expression we use concerning the fall season is, "Let's see what we got." We move players all over the place to see what might be our best defensive alignment as well as what our options will be. The same is true for the batting lineup. Who can bat lead-off, clean-up or get a bunt down? What do our pitchers need to work on? What defensive situations or fundamental skills do we need to work on? What does each player need to work on?
I would guesstimate that she took over 15,000 swings in that garage over the years.
Because of the expense of indoor facilities we must prioritize what we work on during the winter months. Our time is limited, so we expect our players to find ways and time to work on the things we teach them on their own. Pitchers attend private lessons and rent cage time to workout. Hitters rent cage time as well. I setup a net in our un-heated garage for my daughter to use for hitting. I usually loaded the tee for her to reduce the time she spent in the cold. She would turn on some music and go through her routine.
When she was under the age of 14 I would provide instruction and guidance. After that she took care of herself. Tee work at younger ages requires guidance, because hitting the ball with bad mechanics 100x a night makes a player really good at hitting a ball incorrectly in games. Elite players recognize what they're doing wrong when they are older and know how to correct themselves. When she was older there were times I'd snap a 7 second video for her so she could see herself.
On average I took her once per week to the batting cages to work on live hitting. We NEVER used machines. We would take our own bucket of real balls, move the machine out of the way and play catch for 5 minutes. Then, I would move the net about 15 feet from home plate and pitch front toss to her. This way I could control pitch locations and speeds. In her younger years I would tell her what I was pitching, "Ok, now we're working on low and outside." When she got older I would ask what she wanted to work on. Sometimes she wanted to work on a specific location or just get reps in, while other times she just wanted me to mix it up and do "At-Bats."
At-Bats is a simulation game where she worked on plate discipline. I said nothing, while mixing up speeds, locations and purposefully throwing balls out of the strike zone. She would go through her mental routine before every pitch in the exact way she would if it were an actual game. She would work the count or notice that I was throwing a first pitch strike in a good location and jump on it. It was her game that she used to prepare herself for real games. That was something we did outside more than inside, because outside was free and not limited to 30 minutes. The bottom line is if a player wants to be the best she can be, she'll find ways to workout when there's a foot of snow on the ground. I would guesstimate that she took over 15,000 swings in that garage over the years. See Confidence - How You Can Help and Hitting: Lessons, Results & Realities for more on Mental Routines.
Try to avoid, "My travel coach says this and that." School coaches hate that.
Strength and Conditioning
Winter is the off-season, which with indoor practices and tournaments can be forgotten. This is the best time for players to work on strength and conditioning. Like we did with hitting, players need to find ways to get stronger and faster (ages 13+). Many players have treadmills, bikes or other exercise equipment in their homes. You may also look into a gym membership. I put together a 1 hour workout routine for our high school girls that they could almost entirely do at home that required no equipment, with the exception of running sprints. In high school there's no 4-player limit to strength and conditioning workouts, so a coach can run them. I was very happy with the routine I put together and will be conducting these workouts again this winter. These workouts also influenced our decision on potential captains.
If you talk with enough travel softball coaches you'll see they often dread their players playing ball for their schools. Travel coaches often spend significantly more time with their players instructing them and improving their games. Often players return to their school programs only to be made to perform certain skills in a different way. The only thing a player can do is ask she be allowed to perform the skill (ex. Bunting) the way she has just spent 6 months working on it all winter long. Try to avoid, "My travel coach says this and that." School coaches hate that. Some school coaches are more knowledegable than some travel coaches, so the opposite approach is necessary. One thing is certain; trying to perform a skill both ways for both coaches will yield poor results. I've heard this phrase countless times, "It takes us a couple weeks to fix players after their school seasons are over." See Mixed Messages from Coaches for more on this.
Everything up to this point of the year has been the equivalent of a series of quizzes and homework assignments. The summer season is the final exam. For players who want to make one of next year's teams, there's no better opportunity for them to prove themselves than having a solid summer season. A player who has an awesome summer may not do so well at tryouts, but because of her summer be offered a spot on the team. A player who struggled badly during the summer may have the best two days of her life at tryouts, yet not receive an offer. Which player would you make an offer to?
We also spend time watching and discussing other players in the club with their coaches. We look at the younger players who must move up in age group next year and attempt to project their potential. In the case of a first and second team, which team we might want them to play on. We have a year of data to use when making such judgments. We also watch players from the teams we face throughout the season or know from school ball. When one of those players that we really like comes to tryouts, they are given the same opportunity to make a team as a current member of the team.
If he likes her attitude, effort and focus and she's getting it done in the games he'll likely want to keep her before he sees any new players.
This Year's Fall Tryouts
As you can see, there are many factors that can influence a coach's decision concerning players before the fall tryouts even take place. During tryouts a coach might not even score a player that just played for him. He already knows how she hit under pressure, whether she continued to stab at ground balls, walked too many batters late in the game or really improved hitting the ball to the opposite field, etc. If the coach perceives she was a weak spot on the team, then he may be looking to replace her. If he likes her attitude, effort and focus and she's getting it done in the games he'll likely want to keep her before he sees any new players.
There's a period from near the end of the summer season to just after the tryouts takes place where coaches are bombarded with emails, text messages and phone calls. "My daughter can't make tryouts. Can we setup a private tryout?" "Do you need a short stop? My daughter is the best short stop around." "Can my daughter tryout earlier in the day with a different age group?" "My daughter is injured. Can she still tryout?" "Can you guarantee my daughter will play center field?"
Typically, a coach will begin building his new team with pitchers and catchers. Not having those key positions strong ensures a long frustrating season. After that, we fill in the blanks. Some teams make it known that there are a certain amount of open spots before tryouts, while others do not. I like to let it be known how many spots are available. I have seen tryouts where there were only a couple spots open, but the coach hid that fact from everybody for the entire weekend. Many of those girls could have attended other tryouts on Sunday had they known.
The bottom line is that the selection process is not an exact science and no coach is perfect. We use our experience and knowledge to make judgments. We may have biases such as preferring power hitters over slappers or control pitchers over fire-ballers. We get it wrong sometimes. Most players and parents hate tryouts. But I can promise you that coaches dislike them even more. It's never easy to tell a young girl that she didn't make the cut. We're human and often become emotionally attached to some of our players. That said, it is extremely satisfying hearing and/or seeing a player's excitement after offering her a spot on the team.
It's the nature of competitive sports. There are ups and downs, wins and losses and, hits and strikeouts, etc. It's just like in life when hundreds of people apply for the job (register), a couple dozen are seriously considered (interview) and only one gets the job (offer).
I hope this helps shed some light on the tryouts process and a full travel softball season from a coach's perspective.