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Changing Teams? Use GameChanger (et. al.) As A Research Tool

So, the new travel team you joined after July/August tryouts isn’t working out quite the way you hoped and now you’re considering other options. But, of course, after being burned once you are worried that you may jump from the frying pan into the fire.

How do you make sure that whatever issues caused your dissatisfaction with the current team aren’t the same (or worse) with the new team you’re thinking of joining?

One way, of course, is to talk to people who are already on the team. If you or your daughter have friends connected to the new team they can give you a “behind the curtain” glimpse into how things run.

Does the coach favor certain players over others, especially in your daughter’s preferred position? Does the team play against quality opponents, which will help your daughter stretch and grow her skills? Is the coach a screamer? Are the other players/families nice to be around or will you be embarrassed to be associated with the team in public?

But what if you don’t have a connection that can give you a reliable word-of-mouth appraisal? That’s where apps like GameChanger/TeamManager and their ilk can come in handy.

They won’t answer all your questions, like whether the coach is a screamer or what the families are like. But they can certainly give you some pretty good insight into a lot of other aspects.

Circle time

The first is what you can expect for playing time. Let’s say your daughter is a pitcher. Look up the prospective team and see how many pitchers they have and what kind of innings they’re getting.

If you see they have six pitchers, each of whom are getting an inning or two per game/tournament, adding your daughter to the mix will probably not go well. Now the pie will be sliced even thinner and she’s not going to learn how to be a #1.

On the other hand, if the same one or two girls pitch almost every inning of every game, that can be a red flag as well. It means the coach isn’t willing to lose a pool play game or a during-the-week friendly to enable his/her other pitchers to develop.

He/she wants the win, so if your daughter isn’t already ready to deliver that level of performance on a daily basis you should probably pass as well. And even if she is, she may still not get the opportunity if the only two pitchers the coach trusts are the ones currently getting all the innings.

Another scenario to look for is the team has two, three, maybe even four pitchers but only one of them gets any quality innings in bracket play. Especially if that pitcher is a coach’s daughter.

You probably won’t be too happy with that situation, particularly if your daughter is ready to lead the team to victory on Sundays but never gets the opportunity. You can pretty much count on having to find another team next season.

Then there is the team that only has one player who even wants to pitch. Your daughter will likely get a lot of opportunity, even if she still needs some development. (Not a guarantee but a likelihood.)

She can prove herself and earn more time as she goes along, which benefits both pitchers.

Finally, if the pitchers on a team never play the field that may also be a red flag for you. This one, however, depends on what your daughter wants from the game.

If she only wants to pitch (and not hit or play the field) this team will be a good fit. If she wants to do more, be aware the coach’s philosophy probably isn’t going to change for your daughter.

What you want to look for is an opportunity that aligns with what you want out of the experience.

Playing time for fielders

For field players you can also look at how many the team has at that position and how many innings they’re getting. If all other positions show two or three players getting quality time but the first baseman is always the same, and your daughter loves playing first base, that team is probably not going to be a fit.

Another thing to look for is how many positions players are playing on a regular basis. At the younger ages (up to 10U or maybe 12U) it’s great to expose kids to a lot of different positions to help them find what they like.

Beyond that, however, they need to start narrowing it down to one or two in my opinion. There are a lot of nuances to fastpitch softball and each position requires time to learn them.

That’s tough to do if you’re being shuffled all over the field.

It’s great to be versatile so you’re ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, but there’s a limit. It’s better to learn two, maybe three at the most and learn them well than be all over the field all the time.

Another thing to look for is the difference between the Saturday and Sunday lineups. If some current players consistently are listed on Saturday but not Sunday you’ll know the team has “pool play only” players on their roster.

If that’s acceptable to you, no problem. If not, you may need to do more in-depth research or find a team that is more liberal in its playing time.

One final thing to check is the overall roster size. For travel ball, 12 or 13 is usually the maximum. Anything above that, especially if the team has pool-play-only players, and it’s unlikely you’ll be very happy as the new person coming in.

Playing quality opponents

This one should be fairly easy to do. Take a look at the schedule to see who the team played and the scores of the game.

If you’re familiar with teams in your area you should be able to immediately recognize whether they play strong or weak teams on a regular basis. If your daughter hopes to play in college and the team is only playing weak opponents it’s not a good fit. You have to play quality to achieve quality.

If you’re not familiar with the teams they’re playing, look at their won-loss record and the scores of the games they played. If they’re beating up on teams 12-0, 15-1, 23-1 or some other lopsided score on a regular basis they are probably not playing very good teams.

The better bet is a team that is winning its games by one or two runs on a regular basis, whether that’s 2-0 or 8-6. Those scores indicate the teams were fairly evenly matched.

Likewise, if their Won-Loss record is 43-3 it’s pretty clear they’re not challenging themselves very much. That’s fine if you just want to be on a team that wins all the time but be aware it’s probably not going to make your daughter a better player.

A team that wins 60% to 70% of their games, particularly if they are playing in PGF or USA-sanctioned tournaments, is probably a strong team that plays strong opponents.

At the same time, a team that wins 35-40% of their games against good opponents may just be one or two players away from becoming strong. Perhaps your daughter can be one of those difference-makers.

Number of errors game to game

This one can be a little dicey because it’s entirely dependent on whoever is scoring the game in the app. Some people score everything a hit because they don’t know what constitutes an error, or they want to make the fielders/team look good.

Others score a lot of errors to help keep the pitchers’ ERAs low. The difference between a passed ball and wild pitch may also depend on whether it’s the pitcher’s or catcher’s parent who is scoring the game.

But that aside, looking at error totals game to game can give you a sense for how the team plays in the field. And how well-coached they are.

An occasional high error count happens to everyone. But if it happens consistently, and doesn’t change over time, that team may not be particularly well-coached.

If errors are rarely or never charged, and the team’s record is only so-so, you can pretty much count on it being a deficiency in scorekeeping. In other words, the team probably makes a lot of errors that get counted as hits.

Not saying that’s a reason not to join the team. Just be aware that you’re going to be watching those games and they’re probably not going to get better as they go along.

Opponents’ stolen bases

This one again can be subjective, up to the judgment/knowledge of the scorekeeper. But it can be an indicator of how the team performs.

High opponent stolen base counts can be an indicator of weak catchers. Or weak fielders.

Keep in mind you can have the greatest catcher in the world with a pop time under 1.8 seconds. But if there’s no one on the other end to receive that ball and place the tag, or the catch gets muffed all the time, opponent stolen bases will be high.

But that stat could also indicate that the pitching is, shall we say, somewhat wild. While the advancement of the runner should be scored as a wild pitch or passed ball, those who don’t know better (and some who do) will mark it as a stolen base.

So if you see a lot of stolen bases, especially at the younger levels, take it with a grain of salt and look for other factors, such as the number of strikes versus total pitches. If that count is low, you’re probably looking at advances on wild pitches/passed balls rather than a problem with catcher throws or fielder receives. Which usually indicates a weaker team.

Grain of salt

Of course, everything in an app like GameChanger has to be taken with a grain of salt. Unless you know the scorekeeper personally and can vouch for his/her knowledge of fastpitch softball, the statistical information you glean will always have some doubt associated with it.

But by taking several of these data points together you can get a pretty good idea of who the teams plays, how they play them, and whether your daughter would be a good fit and vice versa. If nothing else you can keep from making some of the same mistakes again – so you don’t find yourself in the same position six months from now!

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

10 Things to Consider When Looking for a New Team

Ways to succeed at fastpitch softball tryouts

Hard to believe since we have barely been playing summer ball again, but the 2020 season is nearly over. Some of the alphabet organizations are already holding Nationals (or “Nationals”), and in a couple of weeks this year will be in the books.

For some, maybe many, this is also the time of year when players and their families start thinking about where they want to play in 2021. There can be many reasons for changing teams.

Some are looking for a more challenging environment. Some are hoping to increase their playing time, either overall or at a specific position. Some want more games while others want fewer. (I’m sure no one was happy with that this season.) Some want to play with their friends, and some don’t like their current coaches and want to move on.

Whatever the driver, the tryout season (which follows immediately on the heels of the current season, unfortunately) will no doubt find a lot of folks seeking greener pastures.

If you’re in that category, be sure you remember these wise Latin words: caveat emptor, which essentially translates to “let the buyer beware.” Because what may look like a good opportunity at first glance may not look so good once you’re in the middle of it.

There are no guarantees in this process. But I do have some tips, based on my many years of coaching, that could help guide you to a better decision.

This isn’t a post on how to have a great tryout by the way. You can find those tips here. This is about considerations when selecting a new team.

  1. Talk to parents or players already on teams you’re considering. Preferably you will do this before you even get to tryouts. You probably know some of the teams you might be considering. It’s likely you play against them regularly. If you’re at a tournament this weekend, introduce yourself and talk to parents whose kids are on that team. They’ll help you get a feel for how it’s run, what the coaches are like, and whether all the positions are set already or you/your daughter will have an opportunity to see the field (or a particular position) regularly.
  2. Silently listen to those same parents. This is a bit sneakier, but there’s nothing like sideline chatter to give you a feel for what people really think of a team. Go stand by one or more groups of parents and casually listen to their comments and discussions. You’ll get an unvarnished idea of how happy or unhappy they are overall and whether the team atmosphere will be a pleasant or trying one. You could end up saving yourself a lot of time and heartache in the long run.
  3. Look downmarket for opportunities. Yes it sure is nice to be on a team that’s winning the big trophies all the time. But for many the luster fades when you realize you/your daughter was more of a glorified spectator than active participant in all those wins. Sometimes your best opportunity to develop into an A-level player is to play with a B-level team with a year so you can gain the experience you need. For example, pitchers need to be in the circle if they’re going to develop. If you’re on a team with two or three Ace pitchers, and you’re not at that level yet, you’re not going to get the ball much. That’s just life. Yes, you could keep working on your game to try to beat them out, but if the die is already cast you may not get a chance to show what you can do even if you do pass them by. You would be better-served by being a #1 or #2 on a lower-level team, and gaining lots of game experience than pitching two token innings of pool play and then sitting the bench or playing a field position the rest of the time. If you’re going to be successful you have to want and get the ball on a regular basis. The same is true for other positions, but it particularly applies to pitchers.
  4. If your are moving up, try not to walk in #1. If you’re used to being the best player on your team and you are looking for new challenges, you want to go somewhere where you start out behind some of the other players. In our pitching example, you want to go in as #2 or #3. As a hitter you want to start out in the lower half of the lineup rather than being anointed to the 3-slot or cleanup. Being viewed as being behind someone else should fire up your competitive juices and cause you to work that much harder. There is nothing more satisfying than be brought in as a backup and then taking over the top spot.
  5. Prioritize what’s important to you. For some people money and distance are no object. They are most interested in a level of play, or an opportunity to play, or whatever else is important to them. For others it may be convenience, time/distance to practice, availability of other parents to transport you/your daughter to practice or games or a host of other parameters. Before you waste your time or the coaching staff’s time at a tryout, be sure you know what’s acceptable to you and what is not. Then select potential teams accordingly. If you want time to work in a family vacation in late June, playing on a team that goes to PGF qualifiers all summer is probably not for you. If you have transportation challenges, joining a team that is an hour away and practices three nights a week probably won’t work out for anyone. Decide what’s important and choose accordingly.
  6. Seek like-minded players. Your/your daughter’s best experience will be on a team where players have comparable skill levels and goals. That doesn’t mean they all have to be BFFs, but they should at least all be pulling in the same direction. If you see bullying or prima donna behavior, especially from a coach’s kid, keep in mind that this is likely the best they’re going to act. It’s not going to get better over time. On the other hand if you/your daughter looks like a good fit skill- and personality-wise, it will probably be the experience you’re looking for.
  7. Watch how the coaches coach. Again, theoretically everyone is showing their best selves at a tryout. Players are trying to sell themselves, but so are coaches. If they’re yelling and screaming during tryouts, that’s probably going to carry over to practice and games. If you like that sort of thing – the old “command and control” style of coaching – have at it. If that’s not what you’re looking for keeping looking. One thing I will say is during tryouts I would often make a suggestion on how to approach a skill with a player, not just to help her do better but to see how coachable she seemed. If I got back attitude she was cut no matter how skilled. You should audition coaches the same way. Ask them some meaningful questions and see how they answer. Not just what they say but how they say it. You’ll learn a lot in a few minutes.
  8. Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. Ok I stole that from Edgar Allen Poe by way of Bruce Springsteen, but it’s still good advice. When you’re a prospect you’re likely to hear all kinds of promises. Coaches have rosters to fill, and they want to fill them as quickly as possible – especially if there is a lot of competition for players in an area. But just because you or your daughter have been told she’ll play shortstop during tryouts doesn’t mean it will actually happen once games roll around. This is where the research you did earlier (see tips #1 and #2) will pay off. Is the coach a man of his/her word? If not, don’t get sucked in by tissue paper promises. It may still happen but it’s not a given.
  9. Don’t rush the decision. Unless you/your daughter is trying out for her dream team, and you know there is an opening at her position, resist the pressure to decide on the spot whether to accept a particular team’s offer. I’m not sure when this became a thing, but it seems like a lot of programs have gone this way. Especially programs that like to pretend they’re high-level when they’re really more mid-level. This is a decision you will either have to live with for a year or that will create a very uncomfortable situation down the road if you decide you have to leave before the season ends. If that team really wants you, it will wait. If the coach is just trying to fill roster spots so he/she doesn’t have to think about tryouts anymore, you probably don’t want to be there anyway.
  10. Trust your gut. This one is simple. If something doesn’t feel right about the tryouts you’re probably right. Don’t try to convince yourself things will get better later because they probably won’t. Either finish it out and don’t look back, or just excuse yourself and leave. Nothing good will come from prolonging a bad experience.

The whole tryout process can be gut-wrenching for everyone, but the more effort you put into looking at all the factors the better of a decision you’ll be able to make. The good news, however, is that even if you choose poorly, you’re not getting married.

It’s a year’s commitment at most. Then you get to do it all over again.

Good luck, and go get ’em!

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