Someone asked me the other day what is the biggest change I have seen in the game of fastpitch. Now I have been in and around this game for a very long time so I have seen a lot of changes.
Many of those are very good. More kids are playing, a much more diverse population of kids are playing, schools are spending a lot more money on college programs, the kids are much more athletic and the game is, in my opinion, more exciting. We used to play with the white ball with white seems, so offense was limited. The pitchers were much more dominant so there were a lot of 1-0 games with a ton of strikeouts. So to say that I think the game is in better shape now than back when I started coaching, the answer is a resounding yes.
Having said all that nice stuff now let’s get to the answer to the original question. Softball is very expensive and that has created a very profound change in the way families view their place on their teams. Parents want to be sure they are “getting their money’s worth” with the team they are on. Why is this such a big deal, you ask?
The answer is a many layered one that all starts with how expensive softball has become and the changes that accompany the gigantic increase in the amount of money families are now spending. Team fees have skyrocketed. Bats are more expensive and somehow more fragile at the same time. Travel expenses with gas, motels and meals are out of this world. Which means that playing softball has become a question of getting a sufficient return on the investment rather than just playing the game for fun or striving to play on the best team possible.
Now I understand that when you are investing, in many cases many thousands of dollars a year to play ball, you want to see a return on that investment. That return for every parent I know is the amount of playing time their kid gets. If everyone is paying the same fees, every kid should expect to play the same amount of time. That’s become the accepted way of viewing team dynamics. Players are selecting teams based on the amount of time they will get in the games over many other factors that might really be more important.
Once upon a time, long ago, kids and parents wanted to say they were on the best team. Now that might mean the best team in their area or state or region or the entire country but being on the best team was more important than almost anything. Teams had more players and players accepted their role on the team, which usually meant competing for playing time. When I started recruiting in Georgia, I only had to follow five teams in 18U because all the best players were on those five teams.
Then as playing got more and more expensive the equation changed. The idea of being on the best team fell by the wayside and being guaranteed playing time became more the norm. People started to equate the value of their team based more on playing time more than anything else. This, of course, leads to more teams where more people feel they are getting their money’s worth and then more teams and again more teams in a cycle that appears to be never ending. Seeing players quit a team mid-game still seemed a little extreme, but you saw it happening often enough to know that it was a phenomenon.
So why is this seed change in the way people are evaluating their team choice such a big deal, you ask? Well, you probably already know where this is going, when players stopped having to compete for playing time and a starting position this game changed forever. Softball has become just another area in our players lives where they are guaranteed “success” because they are promised it before they even sign up. They and their parents are “guaranteed” playing time, no matter how they play or what circumstances their team is facing. Championship game and it’s her turn to play means more than playing the nine best players.
We all talk about all the things our kids learn from sports. Unfortunately, I think that list needs to be adjusted. Working hard, learning to compete, overcoming adversity, accepting your role, being a good teammate even when you are not playing and so on seems quaint and outdated anymore. When we talk about getting our money’s worth we used to think those were the things we were investing in. Well…