What to Look For in a Travel Softball Team
Travel softball can be one of the most stressful aspects of the sport, especially when it comes to choosing the right team. That’s particularly true for parents and players who are just beginning their travel softball journey, because it can be difficult to know how to evaluate a team and coach.
This guide will help you understand what to look for in a traveling softball team, and will answer some of the most common questions parents have about the process, including:
- What are the differences between rec ball and travel ball?
- How do I know which is best for my daughter?
- What is the true cost of travel softball?
- How should we choose which travel team to play for?
- Other frequently asked questions
Joining a traveling softball team can be a great experience, both in terms of enjoyment and player development. But it’s also a major commitment, so it’s important to think carefully about what kind of program is best in your specific situation.
Getting Started With Travel Softball
My name is Alexa Peterson, and I’m currently playing my sixth season of professional softball in the National Pro Fastpitch League as a member of the USSSA Florida Pride. Before that, I played for the University of Oregon. And I can say without a doubt that I wouldn’t have made it this far without travel softball.
I made the switch from Little League/rec ball to travel ball when I was 10 years old, and from then on I consistently played at the highest levels possible. By the age of 13, I knew I wanted to play NCAA softball, and playing against the best competition was crucial in helping me achieve that dream.
Travel softball is expensive and time consuming. But the reality is that if your goal is to play at the college level — and especially if your goal is to play for a Division 1 program — it’s an important part of the process.
During my travel softball career, I played for some amazing coaches that pushed me to be a better person and athlete, as well as some that didn’t believe in me. And while it’s obviously better to find a coaching staff that believes in you and is committed to nurturing your talent, I was able to learn important lessons and grow in both types of environments.
Before diving into the specific specifics of what to look for, it’s important to understand why you should consider playing travel softball (and why it’s not the right choice for every player in every situation).
Related Reading: Alexa Peterson’s College Softball Recruiting Journey
The Difference Between Travel Softball and Little League
Recreational softball and competitive travel softball teach many of the same life skills, like teamwork and sportsmanship. But when it comes to things like time commitment and competitiveness, they can be as different as night and day.
Rec Softball/Little League: A Low-Key, Low-Cost and Less-Competitive Environment
“Rec ball” is shorthand for Little League Softball and/or your local city league. The regular season typically runs from March to May, with single games twice per week, and one or two practices per week. You’ll usually stay within a 30 minute radius for games and practices.
Little League, which is the most common rec ball organization, is open to girls ages 4 through 16, and everybody makes a team regardless of their skill level. Coaches are typically parents or grandparents, and the umpires are often volunteers.
This is a great place to learn the rules of the game, to see if your daughter enjoys softball, and to just have fun while learning sportsmanship and the very basics of fundamentals. The cost is typically around $100, which includes a uniform top.
Travel Softball: More Games and Better Competition
Back in the day, if you played travel softball, you were a serious player striving to become an elite athlete, and you had the full intention of playing in college.
Today, softball has grown so much that while there are still teams dedicated to providing elite players the absolute best competition to facilitate skill development, there are actually more and more girls playing travel softball primarily for the fun of it — often because they want to play more than the standard 20-game schedule offered by rec ball.
In general, there is no “regular season” with travel softball — it runs all year long, with club practices once or twice per week during the spring and fall season, and a full slate of weekend tournaments during the summer season.
Travel softball tourneys are typically Friday through Sunday, with teams playing anywhere from 5-10 games each. Fridays and Saturdays are pool play games, meaning you play a small number of the teams in the tournament, and then get “seeded.” On Sunday, you participate in double-elimination bracket play, with winners always taking home something cool like a trophy, medal, plaque or ring.
The cost for a year of travel softball can range from $500 to $5,000 and up, which includes a full uniform, and sometimes includes equipment. We’ll break the costs down in more detail later.
Which is Better for My Daughter: Rec Ball or Travel Ball?
The answer to that question depends on two main things: her love for the game and your wallet!
If she can’t get enough of softball, wants to travel around for more games, and is excited to play throughout the summer, then travel ball is the way to go.
With that, the cost to play increases. Exactly how much depends on the level of competition your daughter is looking for. The most elite tournament teams (especially at the high school level) travel the farthest and play the most. Less competitive teams tend not to travel quite as far or as often.
When It Comes to Choosing the Right Level, Let Your Daughter Lead the Way
You as a parent cannot choose the level your daughter wants to play at. I’ve seen many parents try, and it never ends well.
If you’re a parent who never played a sport competitively, you might not understand her desire to spend every waking hour at the ballpark. But don’t hold her back if she wants to push herself.
On the other hand, don’t force her to join a competitive travel ball team if she just wants to have fun. Speaking from experience, the game, the desire to compete, and the love of always being challenged… those things are either there or they’re not.
It’s also important that you don’t make your child feel guilty if she tries a competitive team for a year and decides it’s not what she wants. She might have all the natural talent in the world, but if she wants to spend her summers going to birthday parties, having sleepovers and just living life, then let her!
And if she has a hard time deciding what she wants? Well, what a great life skills and bonding opportunity. Talk through the process and help her see the pros and cons of each option. Most importantly, let it be her decision, and make sure she knows you’ll support that decision (even if it’s not what you think is best).
With all of that said, here are some things you need to know about competitive travel softball.
Competitive Travel Softball: Key Considerations When Picking a Team
Here are a few of the factors you should consider when evaluating your options and picking a team.
With the top-tier of competitive travelling softball teams, the coaches are generally not related to the players. (Sometimes you’ll find an assistant coach who is a parent, but rarely a head coach.) These coaches have years of experience, and often played many years themselves. They understand the intangibles of the game, and can teach a higher level of mechanics that go beyond the fundamentals.
Competitive travel softball players come to the field every day with the intent to compete, push past their limits, and get themselves to the next level. The fundamentals will already be in place, and there’s no question as to whether they will dive head first to catch a ball.
Many programs are run as a tight ship, with the goal of teaching and preparing their athletes for what college ball will be like: fast paced practices and a strong emphasis on execution.
These teams expect you to take the game seriously: 15 minutes early is on time; you walk into a tournament in an orderly fashion; and you recognize that while there’s a time and place to be goofy, you’re there to get better at softball.
Because the goal of this type of program is to prepare the athlete for college athletics, the teams want to win. At the same time, they also want to focus on player development.
So, during pool play, playing time tends to be more evenly distributed in order to give everyone game experience (as well as the opportunity to be noticed by college coaches, when the time comes for that). But come bracket play on Championship Sunday, the goal is to win and the best players will be on the field with the expectation of dominating the competition.
What You Get
Many high-level programs are fully-sponsored by product manufacturers, or at least get discounted rates on things like uniforms and equipment. In those cases, your club fees might include two or three uniforms, matching bat bags, visors and bats (some teams exclusively swing one brand).
A majority of programs at this level also have their own indoor facility for winter workouts and bad-weather training.
See also: How to Pick the Right Softball Bat
Time Commitment (spoiler alert… HUGE)
When I was playing travel softball as a teenager in Oregon, I had a teammate from Montana who flew in once a month for our team practices. While that’s not very common, driving three hours one way for a practice is totally commonplace. If you live in a big city, chances are that a good program is nearby. But if you live in a smaller area, you may end up putting a lot of miles on your car.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I accidentally conditioned myself to fall asleep every time I was in a car for more than 45 minutes. My weekend routine typically looked something like this for travel ball:
- Wake up at 5 a.m., get in the car and fall asleep for the whole drive there.
- Play five games
- Get in the car, and sleep for the whole drive home.
In other words, it’s a lot of time on the road. You, as the parent, are going to be doing the driving. Your daughter, as the player, is going to be pooped. It’s “quality time” in a certain way, but probably not in the way you’re envisioning right now.
Also, since most teams only have one practice per week, there’s an expectation that additional work is being done outside of practice. Hitting, pitching and defensive skills should be worked on roughly four days a week.
The majority of players at this level hire an experienced outside hitting or pitching coach. If you don’t put in this extra work, you will quickly fall behind your teammates and ride the pine (plus risk being cut at the end of season).
There are typically four or five tournaments during October and November. Then, another tournament every weekend from late spring through July or August.
Depending on where you live, you could be spending a ton of time in the car, or even on a plane. The biggest softball hubs are Southern California, Texas and Florida. If you’re not in one of those states, expect to be travelling far and often.
Living in Oregon and playing competitively, I traveled multiple times every summer and fall to play in college exposure tournaments in Southern California.
The True Cost of Travel Softball
Some of you may have fainted after mentally calculating the cost of everything in that last section. But let’s recap…
- Driving to and from practice
- Driving or flying to and from games
- 15 to 20 tournaments per year (with tournament fees)
- Facility fees to practice on your own
- Private lessons
- Top-of-the-line equipment
- Rental cars
All of that easily runs anywhere from $2,500 to $6,000 a year, making elite travel softball one of the costlier youth sports. Plus, that’s in addition to fees and travel for camps, which many top-tier players also participate in.
Like I said earlier, if you’re in Southern California you might end up paying on the lower end of that range, because your cost for travel will be much lower than someone flying into California every weekend.
Also, keep in mind that many tournament teams have monthly dues of around $200 to play on the team and have access to their training facility. The cost of travel is not included in the monthly dues.
Travel Softball Sometimes Requires Sacrifices
Growing up, I was more on the lower end of the middle class. We always had food on the table, but the effort put in by my parents to facilitate my amateur softball career was exorbitant.
Looking back, I’m so thankful they gave all they did so that I could be successful — it’s something I can never repay them for. I imagine that we could have lived a little more comfortably had I not been playing softball.
For them, it was a matter of priorities. I wanted to play at the highest level I could, and they were willing to sacrifice to make that happen.
If money is a potential concern, you need to consider both your priorities and your daughter’s. Are you prepared and willing to skip “regular” family vacations because your weekends and your travel budget are going into softball?
And does she understand that playing this sport at this level most likely requires trade-offs when it comes to things like friends, clothes, phones, and many of the other things that teens often spend time and money on in high school?
Top 7 Things to Look For in a Travel Softball Team
1. Coaching: Are the coaches experienced? How knowledgeable are they, and will they be able to facilitate the proper degree of skill development for their athletes?
Ideally, you don’t want to have parents serving as coaches. If you stumble across a high level program that does, most likely the coach has been around for a long time and is trusted to look after the best interests of the whole roster (not just their own child).
Other important considerations are coaching style, character and overall attitude. Ask former or current players and parents to describe the coaching staff, and see if they would be a good fit for your daughter.
2. Cost: Figure out what your family can afford before you even start looking at options. If team dues seem ridiculously high, make sure you’re getting your money’s worth in terms of equipment, facility use, uniforms, etc. Also, some teams have fundraising opportunities that can bring down the cost to participate. If money is a concern, ask about this ahead of time.
3. Communication: It’s important to have all your questions answered. Feel free to ask about financials (what’s included in team fees, fundraising, etc.), playing time and how it’s divided up, and the coaching staff’s goals and priorities. If the coaches seem wishy-washy about these topics, don’t offer straightforward answers, or seem like they just don’t want to be bothered with the questions, that’s a red flag.
4. Competitiveness: Make sure you understand what level of competition you daughter wants. Does she want to be challenged? Does she want to be on a team that beats everyone 10-0? Is playing time important, or would she prefer to surround herself with the best possible teammates (even if that means less time on the field)? And keep in mind, the level of competitiveness usually coincides with how much work is expected outside of practice.
It’s also important for everyone involved to be honest about the player’s skill level. Joining a team where you’re not among the absolute best players can motivate you and build your work ethic, but joining a team where you get virtually no playing time or attention can hinder your development. This is a delicate balance to strike, but it’s something to keep in mind.
5. Chemistry: Consider the overall chemistry of the program, not just the chemistry among the players. Go to a couple of games and see how the team plays together, and ask to watch the team practice before committing. Overall, you want your daughter to have a good experience — on the field and off — with her teammates and coaches.
Watch and listen to how players respond to the coaches. Do they walk away, rolling their eyes? How do players interact with their parents? Your daughter will be around these girls for months at a time, and they say “you become who you surround yourself with.” So, what’s the vibe of the players? Do they look like they’re having fun, while still getting the job done?
6. College Recruiting: This is for those a little older (freshmen and up). If your daughter is interested in playing college softball, you’ll want to be part of an organization that:
- Knows the rules surrounding college recruiting
- Will help educate players and parents about those rules
- Will be advocates for them during the recruiting process
- Has connections with college programs
When I was coaching at a Division II school, there were a handful of travel ball coaches I knew well and could really trust to give me honest feedback on a kid as an athlete and a person. Those were the programs I kept going back to.
7. Character Development: Arguably the most important aspect of a program is the character and personal development that will take place. Yes, we want players to get better at softball. But players should walk away from their travel ball experience not only prepared for college athletics, but also for life in general.
Things like being on time, sportsmanship, work ethic, speaking respectfully, putting the team first, uplifting those around you, and attention to detail; those are all crucial life skills that youth sports can help build. Ask the coaching staff their thoughts on this, and what they do to help foster this type of development.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few questions that many travel softball players and parents ask when joining or switching teams.
Between $500 and $5,000 per year (with an average of about $2,000), depending on where you live, the level of competition, and the time commitment.
On the low end, a $500 budget may be enough to cover your team fees and play in local tournaments with lesser competition. But if you need to travel far to get to competitive or college exposure tournaments (nearly every weekend during the summer plus multiple tournaments in the fall), it’s not unheard of to spend $5,000 per season.
Highly-competitive programs need to have high-level coaches. The majority of those programs cover their coaches’ travel expenses as an incentive. A few coaches who work for franchised organizations will get paid and actually make a small profit for their time.
Levels are separated by age and skill level. Age brackets are 8U (8-years-old and under), 10U, 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U. Within each age level there are three letters that designate the skill level: “A” is the highest level in a particular age group, followed by “B” (average) and “C” (kids who are playing mostly for fun).
It’s also increasingly common for elite travel softball organizations to have two 18U teams, with the highest level designated as “18 Gold.” There are no tournaments for which classification as an “18 Gold” team is mandatory for entry — these teams participate in the same high-level tournaments as A-level teams.
There are multiple organizations that host tournaments around the United States. The main ones are USSSA (United States Specialty Sports Association — pronounced U-Triple-S-A), ASA (American Softball Association), Triple Crown, and NAFA (North American Fastpitch Association). A majority of these tournaments are qualifiers for the organization’s national tournament, where the top teams from different regions compete in one location.
At tryouts, you should expect to be tested on your home-to-first sprint time, your home-to-home sprint time, and your overhand throwing speed. There’s usually a brief hitting session (front toss), as well as defensive reps and throws based on your position. Catchers usually have 2-3 reps to throw to each base, while pitchers are usually given the opportunity to throw all their pitches and have their speeds checked by radar.
Every year, most teams host an open tryout, where anyone interested in joining has an opportunity to be evaluated by the coaching staff. Some teams charge a small fee for this tryout. Often, good organizations will reach out to a player that caught their eye and invite them to come to the open tryout. Travel softball teams will also sometimes have two different dates options for tryouts, so that athletes can attend the one that best fits their schedule.
Picking a Travel Softball Team – Final Thoughts
I enjoyed my time as a travel softball player, but it wasn’t always easy — for me or my family. Still, I wouldn’t trade those times for anything… and I wouldn’t be where I am today without those experiences.
There’s a lot that goes into deciding what travel softball team to play for. I hope that this guide was informative and helped you understand what to look for, so that you can make the best choice for your family and have as rewarding of an experience as I did.