Rec Ball... Travel Ball... Club ... What does it all mean? This is some of the most misunderstood terminology in all of youth softball. A true and accurate understanding of these terms is an essential first step to success. It is extremely important for every parent to honestly evaluate and assess their players skill level and growth potential. If you cannot be honest with yourself and your child then the softball experience will be very short lived. The allure of playing with friends will diminish rapidly if your player is not being challenged or if they are not playing at the same level as teammates. Utilize the appropriate level of play as a life lesson and overall growth experience. Challenge your player to operate outside their comfort zone. It will pay dividends on and more importantly off the field. New team ! New friends ! New life lesson !
Chances are your local community offers some sort of recreational softball program. Programs generally run from 6 years of age up to 14 years of age. These programs are learning based programs as opposed to competitive based programs. In other words your player is expected to have fun while learning basic softball skills and mechanics (throwing, catching, hitting). All great softball success stories started on the recreation softball field. Programs are locally based and teams are made up of local players. These teams are generally coached by parents. Recreation softball is the last bastion of fair and equal playing time. Players get opportunities all over the field regardless of ability. If your player truly loves the game but has weaker skills and less growth potential, then this is most likely the appropriate level of play for them. Even if they have a greater skill set but don't want to commit a tremendous amount of time to the sport, then this is most likely the appropriate level of play.
Town Travel Softball:
Many communities supplement their recreation softball program with "Travel" teams. These teams range in age from 8 to 14 years of age. Generally the the teams are made up of players from the same community. Recently "Town Travel" teams have been utilizing out of town players to help fill out vacant rosters. These teams join a league and play teams from surrounding communities. The level of play is generally more competitive than the recreational programs. The players are expected to elevate their level of commitment and expend more personal time refining their skills. These teams are often coached by parents as well, however very aggressive programs will bring in an experienced non parent or even hire a paid coaching staff. Although still viewed as a learning based program, expectations are definitely higher.
Pitching is an integral part of softball. Simply put, you cannot win without pitching. Once you engage the game at this level, the experimentation phase has concluded. Beginning at around 10 years of age some of the more dedicated players will start taking private pitching lessons. For every 10 kids that start with pitching at this age maybe 1 of them will continue pitching into high school and beyond. We will cover pitching and catching in a future post. The rest of the field of play settles in as well, at this level. It is going to start to become very clear where your player's strengths and weaknesses lie. Playing time and positioning are no longer absolute. If your player is not happy with positioning or playing time, then there are two options. Hunker down and work harder or go back to the recreational program. There is actually a third option, " Make a Contribution" Again this is a topic that will be covered in a future post.
Make no mistake about it "Club Ball" and "Travel Ball" are two completely different things. Club softball is COMPETITIVE period end of statement. Club programs are very business like (Again a subject for another post). This is where serious athletes come to refine and maximize their growth potential in the sport. Granted there are club programs that start at the 8-10 year old level, however the the goal remains the same. Pitchers at this level are working out on a daily basis, while the rest of the players are supplementing regular practice sessions with private hitting, fielding, and conditioning workouts. The end game ? Play at a higher level! (High School, College). These kids basically play year round with little exception. The expected level of commitment is extremely intense.
Club ball is expensive and extremely time consuming for both parents and players. Fees can run from $1000 -$10,000 / season/ player, not including travel expenses. Expect to spend every weekend in your car, on a plane and sitting at the field. Summer Vacation Softball!!, Spring Break Softball!!!, Fall or Winter Get a Way Softball !! If you player is serious about softball this experience can be very rewarding, but the sacrifice is immense. Many programs even have highly paid, professional coaching staffs.
Laughing hysterically at those last two paragraphs? Why? Because in many areas of the country that description of "Club Ball" has faded away with the "Pull Tab" and the "Hoola Hoop". The most notable reason why, "The Watered Down Effect". Specifically the limited talent available to excel at this level has been thinned or "Watered Down" by a massive influx of Club Softball Organizations. If your player is not in the position she desires or not getting the playing time she expects then just go start another team. The pool of teams has become so large, there are not enough players to sustain them. For sure there is not enough talented players to sustain a level of play, as described above.
For those who dream of a massive "Reset", Dream On ! Like anything else in life youth sports is now driven by the Ole Mighty ! Dollar $$$ . The micro economy of indoor training facilities, camps ,clinics, lessons, equipment training aides, tournament fees, coaching fees, uniforms, fan gear, not to mention food, lodging, and fuel will feed the existence of these programs for decades. Those who dream of making it to the next level will have to "Manage the Mayhem" to meet their dream.
Know your player, learn and accept their abilities, and provide them with the best softball experience. Playing at the right level will give them this experience and provide one of the many building blocks for life!