Athletic scholarships are more competitive than ever, and many high school athletes who aspire to play at the next level get lost in the recruiting process. In fact, many student-athletes are unaware of what truly matters to coaches, so the things players think they are doing right may not actually be what college recruiters are looking for.
To help clear things up and learn how softball recruiting really works, we reached out to Matt Meinrod, who coaches the Florida Select softball team and operates trainfastpitch.com; former USA National Team player Jennie Ritter; and Katie Reid, a touted freshman player from Desert Ridge High School in Arizona, who blogs about her softball experiences at DirtFromTheInfield.blogspot.com. Together, they identified seven key factors that every softball player should focus on during the recruiting process.
The top softball programs in the country are recruiting younger and younger players. It’s not unheard of for high school freshmen to receive scholarship offers. Meinrod advises players to start thinking about where they want to be as early as possible.
“Make a list of your five 'dream schools',” Meinrod says. “Then write down five schools that you like in your region, and then five more small schools—D-III programs or junior colleges.”
From there, Meinrod recommends that players e-mail the coaches of those programs personally. “If you have video to send out, by all means attach that to your message. And while it sounds old school, a typed snail mail letter goes a long way to help you be memorable.” (Learn how to write a college recruiting letter.)
Remember that athletics are only part of the equation. “You need to have an idea of what you are interested in studying, and then decide what colleges offer you the best options,” Reid says. “Softball is your ticket to getting a great education. The bonus: You get to play the sport you love for another four years.”
Although everyone would love to play at a top-tier program like Arizona State or UCLA, it’s simply not in the cards for most players. Those schools only have a few roster spots, and there are literally thousands of talented girls who want them.
“Players need to be realistic,” Meinrod says. “If you're a junior in highschool and are still holding out for a Top 10 program, you might be kidding yourself. Sure, there are late bloomers, but in softball, too often it's too little, too late.”
If you really want to earn a scholarship and play college ball, broaden your options geographically—and then work hard to impress coaches, including those at D-II and D-III schools.
Find more tips in STACK's College Recruiting Guide.
There was a time when phenomenal athletes could earn a scholarship on the basis of their sports skills alone. For the most part, that’s a thing of the past. “Today, colleges expect you to have a bare minimum of a 3.25,” Reid says. “As a student-athlete, the higher your GPA, the more doors you can open. So you need to hit the books harder than you hit the dirt.”
There are several reasons why academics count more than ever. Good grades give a coach a glimpse into an athlete’s intelligence, sure. But they also show that a player is conscientious and willing to work. It’s a survival mechanism; coaches don’t want to worry about losing a player who’s struggling in class. Another factor: some college coaches earn bonuses based on their team's average GPA.
“All other things being equal between two players,” Meinrod says, “the girl with the better grades wins out.”
Whether it’s mental toughness or the willingness to offer support to your teammates, coaches value a player who brings more than just physical skills to the team.
“More times than not, a team is looking for a leader—someone who will step up and take responsibility,” Meinrod says. “A coach wants to know how the player acts—not just on the field, but when nobody is watching.”
Coaches will look at how a player carries herself into the ballpark for a tournament and how she prepares before a game. Is she somebody who’s focused, or aloof? Is she enthusiastic about her teammates and excited to play? A good attitude can help propel a team to great things. But a player with a bad outlook can bring down an entire locker room.
“You need to be able to shrug off errors and move on to making the next out or getting a hit in your next at-bat,” Reid says. “Instead of getting down on yourself, dig down deeper and turn up your intensity.”
Learn how to become a better locker room leader.
Just about every player has a few shortcomings. “Very few players are going to be 5-tool players,” Meinrod says. “Those who are typically are All-Americans, and rank on every college coach’s short list.”
Meinrod says the answer is for you to know your role. Are you a corner who hits the snot out of a ball? Are you a shortstop with unbelievable range and a cannon arm? Are you a center fielder who can track down any ball in her path? Know your strongest selling point as a player.
But it’s equally important to work on game skills that you’re not so strong at. So if you can crank the ball out of the batter’s box but aren’t the quickest runner on the base paths, work on speed drills. “It’s up to you minimize your shortcomings and emphasize your strengths,” Reid says. “No athlete is perfect, but it’s your job to be the best athlete you can be.”
Once you've put in the time to reduce your deficiencies, then begin to further hone your standout skills. (Get help developing your softball skills with STACK's Softball Drills Guide.)
You don’t need to play for an ASA National Champion to increase your chances of getting a scholarship. In fact, playing for a program with a head coach who has relationships with coaches at the collegiate level can be even more beneficial. Although a player always earns the scholarship herself, a coach can act as trusted liaisons between players and college programs.
Meinrod says, “While there isn’t a team coach in America who can magically get a kid a scholarship to Alabama, Michigan or UCLA, you want as many doors opened for you as possible. That means playing on a team that is well-connected.”
Look at your pursuit of a college scholarship as a business: you’re the company, and college coaches are your customers. “The more articulate and mature you are as a young adult, the more likeable you will be to coaches,” Meinrod says. If you win them over, your “business” succeeds—and you get a scholarship worth tens of thousands of dollars.
As any business owner will tell you, however, breaking through “the noise” can be a real challenge. “I’ve heard that good D-I coaches receive up to 5,000 emails every week,” Reid says. “I write 30 to 40 emails to my targeted colleges before every single showcase, and afterwards I follow up and thank the coach for watching me.”
But Reid’s efforts don’t stop there. Since so many emails are bouncing into coaches’ in-boxes, she uses snail mail or a FedEx package to distinguish her messages from the rest of the e-mail clutter.
When you do finally get some face time with a coach, be prepared. “Consider your unofficial visits as job interviews,” Meinrod says. “Come in knowing your stuff and have the right questions ready. This is your chance to win.”
It’s a long four years through high school, and the recruiting process will occupy your mind for a lot of it—up until the day you sign on with a program. Don’t be discouraged if you hit some bumps along the way.
“You're going to hear some no's,” Meinrod says. “When you do, don't sulk over getting rejected. Just because one school doesn't think you're a good fit doesn't mean you couldn't end up being a team captain at another.”