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Travel vs. Rec

by Dave
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Question posted on a forum: "My darling daughter thinks she might be ready for travel ball.   Can someone please give me advice?"   Reply: "Just do it."

I think that about sums things up.   Your kids have been playing rec ball when all of a sudden you become aware that the members of Team USA and the top NCAA teams did not just wile away the years in recreational softball programs until they reached high school after which they got serious about the game.   There's this other, parallel softball universe called "travel," "elite," "club" or "tournament" where girls play the game as seriously as boys do, if not more so.

You just realized that the neighbor kid who is always in the newspaper doesn't only play for the high school team.   You just ran into her mother who told you she quit rec when she was 9 and has since played for some team named for a mental illness or a predatory animal.   You call the mother to find out where you can go watch the 10U team play since it is too late for your sophomore daughter who got cut from the HS squad last spring and you want to get your 9-year-old into something.   You go to the game and are amazed that the 9-year-old girl warming up throws far better than anyone in your 15-year-old's entire rec league.   You are even more amazed when the girls on the other team have no trouble teeing off on this pitcher during the game.   You are yet even more amazed when the shortstop goes into the hole, digs out a backhand and throws the girl out at first.   You wonder how and where these girls ever got so good.

You go home, begin the process of home schooling your kid so she'll have 8 hours each day to practice softball and then she can tryout for some travel team after she is "ready."   After nine months of running drills for hitting, fielding and throwing, you think it might finally be the right time to at least tryout for a travel team.   You go to the youth sports forums looking for advice, any advice about how to proceed.

Is this a gross over-exaggeration?   It may be but it isn't all that far afield.   The advice posted in reply, however, is spot on.   Just do it!

I have a few points I'd like to make with respect to the scenario I've created.   First off, if you've never seen anything aside from recreational softball, you should try to see some high school and youth tournament games at your next opportunity.   You will probably be surprised.

Secondly, you should not wait until your kid has been drilled for nine months in seclusion before venturing outside your town and trying out for something.   If she is willing to risk failure - the only way to win anything in this life - and you are willing to put out the effort to get her to practices and tournaments, the rewards are amazing.

To answer your next question, no, the rewards are not limited to improving one's softball skills.   How about improving one's life skills?   I just had a conversation with this kid who was always painfully shy, afraid of reaching out and just saying "hi" to someone she didn't know extremely well.   Heck, she wouldn't talk to even kids she had known somewhat well for a few years.   I was afraid that someday she'd be lost somewhere and just shrink into oblivion out of fear of talking to any stranger, even just to ask for help.   The other day I caught her talking to a kid she had never met before.   Then it happened again and again.   Later, I asked her what the heck she thought she was doing talking to a girl she had never met before.   She said, "Dad, softball changed me."   I said, "You've been playing softball for years and years.   How do you know it was softball?"   She replied, "I mean travel softball.   Remember how I didn't know anyone on this team when I joined last fall?   Well, now they're all my friends.   Travel is just different."

OK, shyness is one thing.   Everybody grows out of that, don't they?   Well this same kid decided she didn't want to play soccer because it makes you sweat.   She preferred to sit and play computer games than do anything involving any sort of physical exertion.   My wife and I banged our heads against the wall in an effort to find some way to get her to do something physical.   At some point this summer she asked if she could go to a personal trainer to start working out.   WHAT?   You want to do what and why?   What have you done to my child?

Maybe every kid grows out of shyness and eventually gets sick of sitting around playing computer games.   Maybe and maybe not.   But there is something else going on with this strange kid who has replaced my daughter.   the kid who never learned to tie her shoes, the kid who couldn't do anything without complete parental supervision now acts as if she is competent at everything she tries.   She's actually confident, sometimes excessively so, even cocky.   She has become self-assured and she doesn't need us to teach her the value of that.   She just is.

Maybe a lot of kids learn these things by doing all sorts of activities but we tried so many I can't possibly go into that.   My kid finally liked something enough to overcome many of her biggest personal flaws.   She used to cry anytime she hurt herself even slightly.   the other day a kid on her team, one of her "friends," was pitching batting practice to her.   I don't know if the kid did it on purpose but she threw a hard fastball and hit my kid in the thigh.   It hurt pretty bad and the mark of the laces is still there.   I had to make her get out of the box and compose herself.   She was laughing too hard to continue batting practice!

After that event I felt I had to do something.   Somebody had taken my daughter and replaced her with someone I felt I didn't know.   I thought about going to the police.   I thought about posting signs seeking information.   I wanted my shy, insecure, lazy, crybaby daughter's picture posted on milk cartons.   I didn't know where to go to get started so I approached the people who had last seen her, the heads of the travel softball organization and asked them for help.   They laughed at me.   They said, "join the club."   Then for about an hour they told similar stories of these girls who had grown up not so much in the sport but because of it.

So my second point is whether you are looking for something in terms of softball or something in terms of life-changing personality growth, look into travel softball.   If you go there only for softball, please don't be surprised if some unrelated strange things happen too.

Thirdly, the girls you watch when you go see travel do have a place where they got so good.   You're standing in it.   They got good by playing against other players who are also getting good.   There just is something about being immersed in situation with competent people.   You may or may not lift yourself to the competent people with whom you associate but it will change you for the better.   If everyone you know learns how to drive an automobile, chances are pretty good that you'll feel compelled to as well.   If everyone in your neighborhood can shoot 5 out of 10 foul shots, I do not think you'll settle for 1 out of 10.   If everyone you know is proficient with e-mail, you will most likely learn to use it as well.

Finally, if you need to have travel ball explained to you with a full-color chart explaining every step of the way, good luck finding one.   I'm not in any way belittling the poster who needed advice.   But I am saying the only advice you really need is to just do it.   If you just do it, you will learn more for yourself than anyone can possibly teach you.   Sure, you'll make mistakes but that's how human beings learn best.   Approach this thing with your eyes and ears wide open.   Use your God-given brains and learn everything you possibly can.   Find your own way in the forest.   It will be a better path than any guide can show you.

Try to keep the first year expenses down.   You don't need to plunk down $1,500 so your daughter can have home and away uniforms for the trip to Disney where she'll sit on the bench because she is the 15th kid on a 15 kid roster.   But, yes you probably do need to spend $40 for the team jacket every other kid on the team possesses.   And you may have to invest some money in some other equipment and clothing items to keep your kid happy.   But stay away from organizations which cost more than a few hundred bucks since those usually are either some sort of rip-off (not very likely) or a really good team which plays against the absolute best competition (more likely).   Try to find a team which is in the middle of the pack or at the low end of travel, particularly if we're talking about 10U.

Ask for a list of the expected costs.   Find out how many tournaments the team expects to play, when and where those are.   Your first year, you don't need to go out of state for a tournament but if the team is going, try to figure out if that is going to be a non-playing vacation for your kid.   Ask about the frequency of practices including any indoor winter sessions.   Also find out if this team brings in coaches or trainers to teach the girls skills.   Think up any sort of question you can come up with and don't be afraid to ask.   It is better for you to become an initial pain in the &$$ to the coaches and organization than it is for them to become people you wished you had never met.

While you are "enjoying" your first year of travel softball, learn the lay of the land.   If you become unhappy with your organization, you need to find the next one you'll be joining.   Check out your opponents.   If you drive a Mercedes and you play against a team which parks its Harleys in back of the backstop, remember that.   Vice versa is, of course, true.   Try to find a team which fits your "culture."

Make note of teams you play for future use.   If you sign your kid up for a team which just can't seem to play with the competition it faces and your kid quickly becomes the star, check out the other teams for someplace a little better.   Try to find a place she can play for a long time to come.

One way to learn more about the fastpitch tournament teams in your area is to talk to parents from the "other side" of the field during games.   Get up out of your chair along the first base line and go sit in the stands by third.   If someone asks you who you are, tell them.   At least the conversation will be started.   Don't be afraid to ask the parents from the other team any question you come up with.   They've all probably sat in your seat before and should be willing to answer questions.   if they're not or are otherwise obnoxious, maybe you've already learned all you need to know about them and can go back to your side of the field.

There's tons more I could cover on this topic but to sum up my best advice to those considering trying travel softball for the first time, just do it.   Don't forget to say proper goodbyes to the folks you leave behind at the recreational league.   Once you taste travel, I do not believe you'll ever want to go back.   You'll still see those people around town and at social gatherings.   But you will probably not see many of them at softball fields unless they come out to watch your confident, competent daughter play, perhaps in high school, years from now.

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