Florida State head coach Lonni Alameda is wise enough to know the value of time off during the Division I college softball season, when, more often than not, there is little rest for the weary. With upward of 60 games on the four-month slate and countless hours spent traveling to fields near and far, free time for players away from the field or classroom is hard to come by.
“They’re student-athletes, so they have a lot going on,” the ninth-year head coach of the top-ranked Seminoles told Excelle Sports. “We try not to add more softball to it if we can help it.”
Last year, Florida State played 65 games, including a run in the NCAA tournament that concluded with its second appearance at the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in three years. That number is commonplace in college softball when teams advance deep into the postseason. Only Division I baseball players average more games per year in NCAA sports, with upward of 70 games if they advance to the College World Series.
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With their travel and playing demands rivaling, if not exceeding, those of professional athletes, college softball players often find themselves performing the ultimate juggling act between February and June. Workouts give way to practices, which then can roll into class and homework time, only then to spill over onto bus rides and airplanes.
“Some days it’s not the easiest thing,” Oregon freshman pitcher Maggie Balint admitted to Excelle Sports. “We wake up early and go to lift and handle school and go to practice. It’s completely worth it, but it’s definitely not easy.”
‘I couldn’t afford to miss so much class’
Per NCAA requirements, just showing up to class doesn’t cut it. At most Division I schools, student-athletes are required to possess a 2.0 GPA in order to remain eligible to play and, ultimately, graduate. That mandate makes the oft-ridiculed “student-athlete” moniker a reality in every sense for softball players, especially for those who do not intend to play beyond college.
And that number is staggering: Less than one percent of the more than 6,000 Division I players go on to play professionally in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) or overseas after college. Compared to college baseball, where around nine percent of players will be drafted by Major League Baseball, academic performance carries more weight for softball players, since there’s a high likelihood they’ll have to rely on their skills off the field to get a job. Combine this academic pressure with the travel and competition schedule of a Division I softball season, and it’s certainly not an easy road to navigate.
Take it from a rookie like Balint, who had to adjust her academic schedule at Oregon this spring to make sure she kept up with her schoolwork.
“I actually just started taking online classes because I couldn’t afford to miss so much class,” said Balint, who led the Ducks to an NCAA–record tying 35–0 start earlier this season.
After a grueling four-week stretch of travel during the preseason that included trips to Arizona, California, Hawaii and Missouri, the freshman felt the weight of her multidimensional duties before the regular season started and Oregon’s games were played closer to Eugene.
“Preseason was hands down the hardest part with all the traveling and being away from school,” said Balint. “But now with conference play it’s awesome because I finally get to sleep in my own bed before games and do school work on campus. That makes things so much easier.”
‘You fail 60 percent of the time’
In a sport that sees even its best players fail six out of 10 times on offense, mental resilience is more than just a cliché—it’s an essential part of success at the Division I level. And that failure rate, when multiplied over the comparatively excessive number of games softball players play in one season, takes a mental toll.
“The most challenging mental aspect is not getting down on yourself,” James Madison ace Megan Good told Excelle Sports. “It’s hard to do in softball because you fail 60 percent of the time if you’re batting .400. Just keeping a positive mentality is the biggest thing, I think.”
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That’s a lot easier said than done, however, especially since the brain doesn’t always recover from setbacks as quickly as is often required in college softball. Due to the fast-paced nature of the game, doubleheaders are played more often than in any other collegiate sport, leaving just 30 minutes between the first and second games of the day for struggling players to recover before doing it all over again.
“That’s one of the big things our coach has talked about this year,” Good added. “You can’t let one at-bat or what happens in one game carry over and influence things for you. You have to focus on the next pitch.”
But Good’s advice is more difficult to execute because of the brain. Research shows that the brain is programmed to have a negativity bias, and according to one study conducted at Ohio State University, it is conditioned to react more to unfavorable outcomes than positive ones.
So what does that mean for a softball player who has a tough Game 1 of a doubleheader? It means that she has to defy neuroscience in order to have success in the next game.
“The most challenging mental aspect is fighting against myself,” Texas A&M pitcher and first baseman Samantha Show told Excelle Sports. “That’s when I’m in my own head, saying what I need to do in a negative way instead of having confidence in myself so I can dominate.”
To put it in perspective, think about the pace of the college football season: one game per week. That leaves plenty of time for football student-athletes to right their minds after bad games and regroup for their next opponents. For softball players who sometimes play six games in a single weekend, the time for that mental recovery simply does not exist.
“There are a lot of games and you, mentally and emotionally, have to stay strong through the failure,” Alameda said. “The mentally strong teams are the ones that make it to the end.”
‘Only if my arm was no longer attached to my body’
In addition to the toll a 60-game schedule takes on the mind, it’s also far from easy on the body. And that’s not just from the actual playing part, but also the practice and weight training that takes place during the season at many programs around the country.
“At one point I didn’t know if I could do it,” said Balint about the start of her first Division I season. “My body was so sore from playing all the time and I was hurting a lot, especially from all the travel on planes.”
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Since the windmill motion of a softball pitcher is more of a natural movement for the arm than the overhand motion of a baseball pitcher, a team can ride one pitcher all the way to the WCWS if a coach chooses. Though that practice is widely regarded as a thing of the past, as teams nowadays typically rely on pitching staffs to carry them through a season, it is still not uncommon for an ace to throw more than 300 innings in one season.
“The most challenging thing is keeping your body in shape and keeping it healthy during the season,” said Good, a two-time NFCA All-American. “Playing all these games takes a good toll on you, so it’s important to take care of your body because you do get a little sluggish.”
The physical challenge of the season is doubly difficult for softball pitchers like Good and Show, who are also everyday hitters. For them, their dual skill sets mean twice as many responsibilities and twice as much practice.
“The most challenging physical aspect is practice,” said Show, who has pitched 81 innings while also batting .291 this season. “We do hitting groups before practice, then I throw my bullpen, then it’s practice time.”
But Show doesn’t use her added responsibility as a crutch to lean on, but rather, another opportunity to help her team win.
“I have never been the player who allowed soreness or tiredness to impact my game,” Show said. “I always want the ball and I think the only thing that would allow me to tell Coach [Jo Evans] I can’t pitch or play is only if my arm was no longer attached to my body.”
‘We try not to overwhelm them’
In 2017, hardly anything in Division I college softball is unknown. Advanced scouting by coaches now dominates a program’s preparation, which largely eliminates the element of surprise when teams do meet. Pitchers and hitters are sometimes studied by other teams with video analysis, and even sabermetrics, months in advance of games. And with hundreds of games airing on the ESPN family of networks this year, there is hardly a dearth of opportunity to watch certain players play, over and over again.
“We as coaches stay on top of it,” Alameda said about her scouting methods. “We’re always a week ahead with the information that the kids are going to need to be successful.”
But due to the sheer number of games and speed at which the season moves, it’s nearly impossible to be completely prepared for every pitcher and hitter on the dozens of rosters a team will encounter each season. Even with all that information readily available, Alameda believes it can sometimes work to the detriment of players by making each game more complicated than it needs to be.
“We try not to overwhelm them with [information],” said Alameda. “We keep it simple and don’t try to do too much with the scouting part of it.”
So what does that mean for the best college softball team in the country? The Seminoles have short film sessions the day before they play and then the coaching staff leaves the rest to the players.
“We leave it up to what each player can handle,” Alameda said. “We try to trust the student-athlete with what they need and what they can do.”
*Main photo by JMU Athletics