Josh Johnson, a six-year member of the US Men’s National Fastpitch Softball Team and an experienced NCAA Division I coach with Super Regional experience, enters his second year at Mississippi State University.
Johnson was an assistant coach for the Cardinals from 2016-2018, before being promoted to associate head coach entering the 2019 campaign.
Collegiate Softball and Recruiting in the U.S.
The pen was passed to me by Jaroslav Korčák and one topic he thought might be of value to discuss was, how softball players get recruited in the US to compete at the collegiate level. I found this subject intriguing in our current place and time because for perhaps the first time, everyone is on equal footing around the world. Currently, the NCAA has prohibited travel to recruit. Fortunately, for many, this means that anyone with a good camera can put their skills on display for college coaches across the world, at any time, on demand. For European athletes, US collegiate coaches have never been more accessible. For US coaches, the talent pool has never been more global, or consequently, as large.
I would be remiss if I did not explain the set up in the states and how it differs from the European standards that I’m aware of. First, unlike clubs in Europe, the US collegiate players must have or express some type of academic interest to play softball in a university or collegiate setting. This means, to be eligible to play, athletes must pass an English equivalency test.
Second, players are restricted by age bracket as well. Any time spent at University in Europe, regardless of whether or not an individual is playing ball, will deduct from the allotted years of athletic eligibility in the US, so athletes interested in US collegiate play should start early. Typically, we begin recruiting softball players once they are approximately 14 (usually 9/10 th grade in a US academic setting) and are typically finished recruiting a class of athletes by the time they are approximately 16 (usually 11th grade in the US). Jaroslav and I have talked about how this process is in conflict with the time that most Europeans start to play the game. Kids in the states will typically get introduced to playing ball in a structured setting at around 6/7 years old and thus have, for better or worse, 6-7 years of experience before they enter that recruiting window.
Third, there are many deviations from the pattern described above based on the governing body/athletic association and/or what division of play/what school an athlete attends. I’ll attempt to break it down a little. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has 3 divisions, all of which fall under the general rules I mentioned above. However, only Divisions I and II are permitted to give athletic scholarships. There is also the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), who are allowed to award scholarships as well. Typically, an NAIA school follows the same format I described earlier, but often times finalize their recruiting later in an athlete’s playing career – usually around age 17 or 18 – or when the student is just about to graduate high school in the US. Finally, there are also 2-year schools, typically referred to as junior colleges or community colleges sanctioned by the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association), that have the most freedom to recruit, can have players that are older (no age limit actually), and have the widest window of recruiting with the most available scholarship money. For many athletes whose origins are non-stateside, junior college is a great route because of the flexibility and slightly less rigorous academic setting. They also can award full tuition, books, fees, room and board, plus a stipend. Though NCAA and NAIA schools can also do this, there are limits on how many they are allowed to give across any one team during any given year. Therefore, only the most elite players receive those scholarships.
Additionally, NCAA Divisions I and II are not permitted to speak to athletes regarding recruiting interest until September 1 of their junior year (11th grade) in high school, in Europe this would be the equivalent of an individual’s second to last year in high school. So hypothetically, if you were planning to graduate high school in the spring of 2022, college coaches would not be able to talk to you via phone, videoconference or even electronic transmission via social media or text message until September 1, 2020. However, athletes are permitted to send electronic transmissions (emails, texts, messages on social media) to coaches, but the coaches are not permitted to respond. During this time, it is still considered good practice to send video and communication to show off your skills proactively.
I understand that what I have just told you is contradictory, but it is true. Players in the states are being evaluated well before schools are permitted to communicate with the athletes. This allows time for the athletes and Universities to do their research on one another to seek out the best fit for both parties. I would recommend starting early – athletes should research schools that will align with their academic and long-term professional aspirations early on. Once an athlete identifies programs of interest, research the coaching staff at those school and follow them on social media to get a good feel for the personal fit.
The power of video has changed the game substantially…especially recently. We (coaches) used to receive many videos that showcased only skill work. Now, while skill work still has its place, live-game action has grown critically important. It’s important to also realize that college coaches receive thousands of video submissions from interested players. This means keep your video short, but impactful as possible. Athletes should target a finished video that is 1-2 minutes long and focuses on fundamental skills and versatility. For me personally, while I love to see 2-minutes worth of an athlete’s best at-bats and plays compiled into a video, I find links to full games still a very important addition. Full game footage (as a supplement, not on its own) allows me as a coach, to also see what happens when a player fails and how they react. The highlight footage will get a foot in the door, but real game footage allows the coach to see the other side of the game.
Coaches/parents/players always ask, “What’s most important to get a player recruited to play?” Truly, the most consistent answer is simply, “Talent.” College coaches are hired to win ball games and talent wins games, so the most important thing is to develop skills and be talented. I do, however, think it’s worth noting that talent is much easier to cultivate when an athlete possesses certain innate characteristics like work ethic, resiliency, and passion. A couple other pre-requisites are good academics and the ability to be a good member of a team. College softball is intense. The “season” is long. Training is nearly every day starting in August and hopefully ends with a championship at the Women’s College World Series in June. Balancing all of that training with school and a social life is difficult for anyone, but especially while getting used to a new culture. I know, having played overseas personally, that club softball is a lot less intense on the training side. Being ready for that a huge factor in a successful US softball career.
Josh Johnson, Pitching Coach, Mississippi State University