The quality of high school softball
Allow me to open this discussion by stating that this is not a slam against any one school. If I wanted to do that I could certainly find sneakier and nastier ways to do that. No, instead this is more a general statement based on data points I’m receiving from several high schools in the suburban Chicago area.
There has always been a perception in the softball world that high school softball
sucks is not as high a caliber as travel ball. This perception is generally born out by reality. Lately, though, it seems like the situation has deteriorated to the point where you’re more likely to see a good game at a local rec league than you are at anything below the varsity level. And even in then, in some cases.
I am hearing more and more about teams at sizeable schools that are only carrying 12 varsity players. Not because they’re being selective, but that’s all the players they can afford to have there if they want to field teams at the JV and freshman levels. Some schools, unable to field both a freshman and a JV team, are combining the two to make one big team. You have to figure in that case that you will have roughly 9-10 kids who play all the time, and an equal number who basically get to go to the games, shiver in the cold, and watch from a bench that homeless people wouldn’t sit on by choice.
While I suppose there has always been some element of this, it seems like the primary criteria for making a high school team these days is the ability to fog a mirror. That’s how desperate many schools are for players.
What’s the cause of this dearth of players? Hard to say. Certainly a part of it is competition from other sports, especially during the summer when girls should be building their interest in and love for the game. But now indoor sports such as volleyball and basketball are going year-round. Those who have a talent for those sports seem to feel they need to specialize earlier, so they drop out of softball when their tournaments conflict. Yes, there is indoor softball too, but it’s expensive and relatively pointless. It can also be tough to field a team during the winter months.
Inadequate coaching at all levels is likely another cause. In the rec leagues it’s hard to find parents who will coach a team, much less one that knows what he/she is doing. Practices are boring, skills don’t improve, games are slow, and ultimately the girls move on to other activities that are more fun. The good coaches who are there suffer for the sins of the others, as well as suffering one or more players who are just there for the social aspects.
Travel ball coaches, driven by their need to prove they are every bit as good a coach as Mike Candrea or Sue Enquist, schedule softball activities for every waking minute of the summer. Every weekend it’s another tournament, every day during the week it’s a practice or a practice game, until all the joy is taken out of it. Softball becomes more a job than a fun activity. Then there are the screamers who expect little 12 year old Suzy to execute against the ground ball the same way Lovie Jung does.
Finally, we have the high school coaching staff. Again, some are good and dedicated, but others are just teachers looking to supplement their paychecks. The biggest problem is the feudal system involved in high school sports. Coaches are accountable to the athletic director, but as long as they stay on his/her good side that’s about it. They’re free to place players at levels according to their whims, and play or not play them that way as well. While that’s true for any coach, the difference in high school is there is no recourse. If you don’t like what’s going on, your choices are to move or enter a private school. Neither is very practical for the majority. As kids feel they have been treated unfairly the word spreads, and soon you have a softball program headed for the death spiral.
What’s the answer? I think at all levels we have to remember that our job is not just to lead the players in our care but also to serve them. Coaches need to build relationships with their players as people rather than chess pieces to throw out onto the field. High schools need to build programs that treat the freshmen as well as they treat the varsity, rather than setting up a caste system; that includes hiring competent, experienced coaches for the lower levels. And when I say experienced I mean coaches with coaching experience, not just playing experience. There really is a difference, as anyone who has played for a former player/no coaching experience type can tell you.
High school softball is suffering and from what I’m seeing and hearing the situation is getting worse, not better. We need to find a way to get more girls involved at an earlier age, and then build an experience that doesn’t drive them off when they get there. If not, soon we’ll be seeing summer teams that practice all spring, because their girls would rather do that than suffer another season of frustration and bad feelings.