"I believe that having a group of team players is more important than having a group of talented players."
I had only one softball team when I coached, although, technically, I was the coach of the ‘JV’ and ‘Varsity’. We had one practice each day, one team photo in the yearbook, and the same uniforms for everyone. I carried 25 girls to every game and tournament. Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it was difficult. Yes, it was worth it. I’m not saying other schools don’t do this, but honestly, I’ve ever only seen this done by two people - my high school coach and myself. People really have a hard time understanding the ‘why’ behind this one. So I’m going to set the record straight. This is why more programs should combine their JV and Varsity and just have one team.
No surprise this is the first reason on this list. I want my girls to eat, breathe, and sleep TEAM. If I put a divide in my softball program, I am telling half of my girls that the other half are ‘better’ or ‘more important’ in some way. I didn’t want to divide my program. Instead of having 13 girls working for one team and 12 for a different team, I had 25 girls all pulling in the same direction, all working for the same goal. Although we played ‘Varsity’ and ‘JV’ games, I had one team. My ‘JV’ girls were in the dugout for all of the ‘Varsity’ games cheering and my ‘Varsity’ girls were in the dugout for all of the ‘JV’ games cheering. Yes, I had to choose players to play in either the ‘Varsity’ or the ‘JV’ game, but I wanted everyone to be equal as much as possible.
It was something I was honest about when I became the coach of the program. I told all of my players that I wanted them to travel to every game. I wanted them there, however, the younger girls that would mainly play our JV games were given an option. I told them they could travel to every tournament (which was every weekend from mid-February to the end of May) or they could travel to no tournaments. However, they do not get to pick and choose. They commit fully one way or the other. Guess what happened? All 25 girls committed, fully knowing that some of them would not touch the field during these ‘Varsity’ tournaments.
Everything I did to run my team had an underlying theme…TEAM. I do not believe you can have a championship team without selflessness being at the top of the list. I believe that having a group of team players is more important than having a group of talented players. A mildly famous guy once said: “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime.” The Great Bambino knew the deal.
Train Them Up
A lot of people have a hard time with the idea of ‘dragging’ these ‘JV’ girls around behind the ‘Varsity’ team. “They don’t get the reps. They don’t get to play. It’s a waste of their time.” Wrong. My young players sit and watch ‘Varsity’ defensive practice and sit through all those tournaments not as punishment, but as an opportunity. They get to watch and learn from the ‘Varsity’ girls. Watching ball is one of the best ways to learn about the game. They get to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of older and more experienced players. They learn what is expected out of them from me, the coach. They learn from other players on other teams. They learn. Proverbs 22:6 says: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I always love how nicely the concept of this verse transfers over into other aspects of life. I’m training my JV up for when it is their turn to step onto the Varsity field. I’m training them to be a team player, to support even when their spot is in the dugout. I’m training them to think and act like an experienced ball player. I’m training them, teaching them, disciplining them, the same way I will train, teach, and discipline the player they will eventually be. I want my players in constant preparation for when the day comes for them to step onto the Varsity playing field.
Allows Me to Use All of My Players
I always scheduled my games so that my ‘Varsity’ game was first and my ‘JV’ game was second. This means I had 25 girls at my disposal to win the ‘Varsity’ game which, ultimately, are the games you have to win. Creating a team atmosphere and teaching my players that they want to contribute in any way possible led to selfless acts by my players. For example, my 7th grade JV catcher was an amazingly smart and fast base runner. Occasionally, when the game was on the line, I used her as a pinch runner. This meant she had to sacrifice her ‘full game’ behind the plate in the JV game to run the bases one time in the Varsity game. I often asked her, “Do you want to do this, even though you can’t play in the JV game?” Her answer was always ‘yes’. She was selfless and sacrificed her playing time to help the team win.
In the reverse situation, after the Varsity game was over I could then use any remaining players in the JV game (with the exception of seniors). I had several older girls who were juniors. They would sometimes play in the Varsity game and other times they would not. I was then able to make them starters in our JV game. So instead of labeling them as ‘Varsity’ and only allowing them to play in Varsity games, this allowed them to go back and forth wherever they were needed for that day (another reason for all the players wearing the same uniform) and allowed them to still get practice and reps in.
Holds My Varsity Accountable
Let’s face it, sometimes, as players, we start to get complacent. We don’t even notice it happening a lot of times. Having a dugout full of other players kept my ‘Varsity’ in check. They knew I’d pull them from the lineup in a heartbeat and put in a young player if that’s what I felt like I needed to do. When you only have a couple of extra players in the dugout, you don’t have many options. But at any given time, I had 15 options in my dugout. If my girls couldn't have a good attitude, be respectful, or give 100%...I had someone else who would.
When it came tournament time and my ‘Varsity’ players were doing their job and kicking some tail, I’d put my younger girls in. This is a great confidence builder for them and gets them excited. Putting a 7th grader in for an at bat or to pitch the final inning is great practice for them and really keeps team morale up. Whenever this would happen, all my starters who were removed from the game were so excited for the girls who went in. They were up on the fence cheering and supporting them 100%. It’s great to see the girls who thought they were just coming to support, get to be the ones who are being supported.
I’ve written a previous post “The Power of the Bench: 3 Ways the Dugout Contributes”. You can basically insert that entire post here. All the girls who aren’t in the lineup are expected to be a support system. They are there to cheer, yell, stomp, clap, and be as generally loud as possible. A loud dugout can shake an opponent’s confidence and morale more than you think. There were times when the girls who weren’t even playing in the game got in trouble. I monitored them the same way I monitored my girls in the lineup. They had a job to do and a quiet dugout was not acceptable. Their contribution was support and it was just as important as any other role on the team.
This is not an individual sport. It requires a group of people collectively working towards the same goal. Instead of waiting until they are freshman or sophomores to work towards that goal, I give players the opportunity to start contributing and working towards it as 7th graders. I believe in training my players for the Varsity playing field as soon as I can get my hands on them. The longer they are coached under my expectations and philosophy, the better it is for my program. I don’t want to wait until they are freshman, sophomores, or juniors to try and get them to ‘buy in’ to my program. I want them already sold by the time it is their turn to be in the Varsity lineup. Between myself and the impact of the juniors and seniors who are already sold, it doesn’t take long to convince a 7th or 8th grader that they want to be a part of the way we do things. Whatever way that is…you want your players sold on your program. By combining your JV and Varsity you’re giving yourself two extra years of marketing. For me and my program, I’m selling TEAM and the sooner my players buy in, the better.