My articles, Top 10 Tips for Players at Softball Tryouts & When Parents Wave Red Flags have been widely read and shared. It was suggested recently that I write something to help parents & players on what they should look for in a travel softball team/club. Last year I posted, Travel Softball Tryouts - Common Questions & Answers, which addresses some of what you should look for in a team/club. This article will expand upon that.
Here are My Top 10 Things to Look for in a Travel Softball Team
Coaching. Quality coaching makes all the difference. Ideally were you to have been able to watch the coach in action prior to tryouts, you would have a far better idea of his/her coaching style, character, experience and knowledge. Is the coach calm, excitable, argumentative, loud, stern, passive, etc.? Which coaching style does your daughter respond to best? If you couldn’t watch the coach in action, ask some current/former parents and players if possible.
Another thing that can be huge is whether the coach has a daughter on the team. With good coaches it won’t matter. With others, it can cause problems. In many cases the coach’s daughter may even have her friends from school on the team. If this group of players proves to be untouchable, where they never sit, get special treatment and aren’t even the best at their positions on the team….well good luck with that. Kevin and I do not have a daughter on our 16u team, which makes it incredibly easier to coach.
Learning. This goes along with coaching. While I am NOT an advocate of 10u travel softball, from 12u through 14u players should master the fundamentals of the game to the best of their physical abilities, while playing as many positions as possible. 16u is more about mastering game smarts and fine-tuning physical skills, while developing the mental side of the game. 18u is about practicing to play at the next level. You should look for the environment that will foster learning and help her develop the appropriate skills for her age group.
Practices / Winter Workouts. This is where your daughter will do the bulk of her learning. Fundamental skills like fielding ground balls, throwing mechanics, hitting, pitching, etc. are critical to her development, especially in the younger years. Will they work on situational defense? How frequently and long do they practice? Is their individual training or only group sessions? I cannot over emphasize the importance and value of this time!
Fun. Whether your daughter is looking for a community-based low-level of travel softball or a highly competitive “A” team, it should be fun. Softball is a game and if she’s not having fun, then something is wrong. This is hard to look for at tryouts. It’s easy to see if you get to watch the coach and team play at a tournament. Again, you can ask current and former players and parents about this too.
Competitive. Getting stomped every weekend is not going to be much fun for your daughter. Going 3-2 or 4-3 isn’t bad if the losses were close and in well-played games. Winning tourneys is icing on the cake, but should it be your top priority? If your daughter is learning, competing and having fun in the younger age groups, trophies should be a secondary concern. In the college recruiting years (year 2 of 14’s through your daughter’s fall of her senior year), winning is great, but being recruited is the ultimate goal. FYI - Most college coaches do not watch bracket games unless they want to see players who have already committed to their schools.
Costs. Several years ago the costs of playing travel softball were significantly less than they are these days. Aside from inflation, there are two big causes of increasing player fees: 1-Tournament fees have skyrocketed. 10 years ago the average tourney might have cost $300. Today, that average is probably closer to $500 with some of the more established elite tourneys costing well into the thousands. 2-Clubs are acquiring their “own” facilities that they have to pay for. When a club has to pay rent, they typically decide to have more teams per age group.
Other factors might include clubs with elite teams, which travel out of state more playing in those expensive tourneys. Many clubs use portions of their other teams to help pay for these expenses. Some player fees are under $1,000 for teams that stay within their region/state. Others can be as much as $5,000 or more for the “elite” teams. That’s just the player fees and does not include hotels, gas, food, time off work, etc. Those costs can dwarf the player fees, especially when you consider the number of years you’ll be doing it.
Tournaments / Travel. What tournaments will the team be participating in? (Local, hours away, low or high level, elite?) In the younger age groups you do not need to travel very far to achieve your goals: Play, learn, have fun, and compete. In my opinion here in Michigan, NSA and USSSA tournaments should suit your needs. At this age you cannot be sure whether your daughter will even be playing when she’s in high school and certainly won’t know if college coaches will ever be interested in her. So, save your money while you can.
It is in the college recruiting years where things change. If your daughter is being looked at by big D1 schools, it can be beneficial to travel to the best competition (Southern California, Oklahoma City, Boulder, Orlando, Chicago) where she’ll have a chance to be seen by many big schools. These are the locations of some of the biggest tourneys in ASA and PGF where all the top D1 colleges recruit. Yes, there are others such as the national qualifiers in your region, which get you into some of those tournaments.
This is the highest level of travel softball your daughter can play, the most expensive and it can be a humbling experience. A Michigan player doesn’t typically get recruited by UCLA, Texas or Alabama. But, if they’re committed to Michigan, Northwestern or other mid-west or northern schools, their coaches want to see them gain experience playing the best competition possible.
Another oddity about these tournaments is that many have extra pool games that actually amount to nothing more than scrimmages. They do blind draws and see you into a single-game elimination bracket. Why? Because they’re college exposure tourneys with the purpose of providing coaches lots of games to watch players.
If she’s only being looked at by smaller local/regional colleges, traveling across the country doesn’t make a lot of sense. She can get recruited regionally by playing the local/regional circuit and saving you a lot of money in the process.
Position & Playing Time. This goes along with coaching. In the younger age groups players should be learning as many positions as they can. In the high school ages they're usually set with one or two postions that they are best at. At any age, pool play is the place for coaches to move players around, get role players more playing time and put players in positions that college coaches are there to see them in (like those college exposure tourneys where winning pool games is meaningless).
I don't know too many good/experienced coaches who will guarantee playing time. While a coach may indicate your daughter is one of the top players on the team and should play most of the time, they shouldn't give you specifics. When it comes to bracket play and the coach is trying his/her best to win in order to qualify for a national tourney, playing time should be earned based on performance.....especially in the older age groups.
The same goes for giving a guarantee to a player that she'll be the one and only shortstop.....especially in the younger age groups. That's crazy talk. On a college exposure team there may be 3 starting center fielders, shortstops and pitchers for their varsity teams. But, on their travel teams they play elsewhere. This is an unnecessary and major hang-up for a lot of parents and players. Why?
My daughter was a Division 1 All-State shortstop during her junior and senior years. Through her travel career she literally played every position on the field many times. In her final 2 years, while being recruited, she played mostly right field and some first base. Why? She was on an elite team.....and oh yea...is left-handed. While I personally believed, as do many who saw her play short, that she could do so in college.....my brain told me she would be better off playing positions that most colleges would consider her for. College coaches look for athletes that can hit. They'll find a spot on the field for them. I have seen numerous players go on to college only to find themselves playing positions that they have never played before. Pitchers obviously have to pitch and are recruited to do so, but many times they don't get to hit. Yet year after year travel coaches catch all kinds of grief for limiting their pitchers at-bats. Sigh.
Parents & Teammates. See this article When Parents Wave Red Flags. You can also search this website for Parent Goggles (greatly expanded upon in the Softball Journey Book), which can be a debilitating disease for the team and nightmare for the coach. Sigh.
Team chemistry is important. There’s usually no in-between: It’s either really good or really bad. This is another reason to observe a team prior to tryouts, even if some of the girls have to move up to the older age group. Your daughter needs to get a quick feel for this during tryouts. You can see things to, watching how they behave towards coaches, other players and their parents. This ties in with the next thing, the parents.
Alumni / Reputation. The more established clubs in your area should have a large number of alumni who have went on to play various levels of college softball. Younger clubs may not, but could show promise to do so in time. Others, such as community based clubs may have some JUCO players listed or not. It’s really all over the place.
And then there’s the club’s reputation. This subject is much like when I wrote about the softball forums, where coaches, parents and players go to look for teams, players and unfortunately to vent their frustrations (putting it nicely). Every club will have loyal patrons who have nothing but good things to say about them. They will also have haters with nothing good to say about them. There could be valid points in either case. It’s the nature of the beast.
Your daughter’s age makes a significant difference in your priorities when choosing a team. If she’s just getting started playing 12u, the last thing on your mind should be whether the coach knows anything about the college recruiting process. If your daughter is going to be a freshman in high school, then that becomes much more important.
Club sizes range from a single team to many. The bigger they are, the more difficult it is for them to be consistent throughout their organization. One coach and team may provide a great experience, while the C team in an age group may be filled with unhappiness. You must ask questions and most importantly listen. Caveat Emptor.