4 reasons youth fastpitch softball is rapidly changing
Youth fastpich softball is ever-evolving, especially in recent years. The success of the U.S. Olympic softball team, plus a growing number of universities offering scholarships for top players, has attracted both players and parents to take the game very seriously.
Years ago, fastpitch softball was primarily a recreational sport. Sure there were all-star teams that played tournaments in early summer, but in the fall athletes gravitated away to other sports like soccer. No longer.
What changed? Here are some insights by veteran softball parents and managers.
1. More travel ball opportunities
For top players today, travel ball is almost expected. Travel ball is play beyond the private youth league or public league that most parents are familiar with – the one with a set schedule usually focused on individual communities. Travel ball is just what it sounds like: traveling to meet supposedly better competition from other areas in your region.
The biggest change today may be in the fact that there are so many more travel ball teams.
“This has watered down the competition,” said one veteran softball parent from California. “You still have the top teams, who are great. Most of the other teams fit in the middle, and then there are teams at the bottom. The problem I see is in the past when you went to a tryout, there were 50 girls trying for a spot on a team with 16 on their roster. Now when you go to a tryout, pretty much everyone makes a team, because there are barely enough girls to fill the open spots.”
2. Increase in travel teams may have watered down level of coaching
Some coaches have played softball, or at least baseball, while others set up teams and call themselves “coaches” without any true experience. This can be particularly true in travel ball, where a parent unhappy with his daughter’s playing time will set up as a manager and create a new team. A sad result is that girls playing on those teams are not learning the game from experienced coaches.
3. Changes in safety
Rule changes protecting players are perhaps the biggest change in fastpitch softball. Among them:
- A requirement for players to wear a face mask and chin straps on helmets
- Concussion awareness training for umpires
- Face masks for position players (while not yet required in most areas, they are becoming more commonplace)
- For players 14 years and older, the pitching distance may be moved from 40 to 43 feet
4. College aspirations
More than ever, parents of fastpitch players are not continuing their daughters’ careers just for the sake of physical activity or healthy extracurricular activity. They see college scholarships, and some even dream of a daughter playing professionally.
Here are some observations by a youth rec ball manager who won a national championship in all-star play:
“It appears players are moving from the Rec league to travel at a much younger age. That might just be my perception and not based on any statistical information. (But) The players are learning skills at a much younger age than they used to.
“Players are being recruited for college at a much younger age. High school junior pitchers and catchers are now being recruited as eighth- and ninth- graders. Major Division 1 colleges finish recruiting by the time the more proficient players are high school sophomores.
“High school softball has become more for fun, rather than for competition. College recruiters no longer recruit from high school play; 95 percent of recruitment is done through travel tournaments.”