Pillar – a person or thing regarded as reliably providing essential support for something.
Character – the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
It’s been nine years since I played my last competitive fastpitch softball game. In the summer of 2007, I was 26 years old when I was playing with some friends one final time before opening Turn 2 later that fall. Somehow I knew it was my last go around playing the sport that I love.
Fall of 2007 brought on many new experiences and milestones in my life. New business, new hometown, and new role on the field – Head Coach of the 10U Extreme Softball Club.
I was hesitant to jump into the coaching world after graduating and finishing my collegiate career in 2004. Summer teams were contacting me asking me to coach their daughter’s team and telling me what they would pay me to do so. Seemed a little odd to me. I was in a bit of a culture shock – paid to coach a summer ball team? Were they serious? Something just didn’t sound right about that.
Two years after graduating college, I was sitting down at a small deli by Webster University with a mentor and friend, Cindy Zelinsky. She was introducing me to Webster University’s Head Softball Coach, Brett Swip. Cindy knew I planned to open a training facility on the IL side of the river later that year, and she also knew I needed a home for the upcoming winter months. After a little bit of talking with Brett, I quickly found out he had a passion for youth sports, softball in particular. Brett and Pete Hoffman, Collinsville High School softball coach at the time, co-founded the Collinsville Extreme as a way to provide opportunities to the girls who played for Coach Hoffman’s high school team. Brett’s sister was playing for Coach Hoffman and he made the trek home to help Pete run the team. What began as a humble vision in 1999 to simply provide an outlet for Brett’s sister, Pete’s daughter, and their classmates to play the game of softball turned into something greater, two unlikely people co-founding a program together. By the time I sat down and met with Brett in the winter of 2007, the Extreme was home to a handful of softball teams ranging in ages from 10U-18U. They also had an indoor training facility that I could use to work with my students that winter. Meeting Brett opened up the doors for me. The Extreme Softball Training Facility became my home. I was also able to work with some of the girls playing in the organization. We would hit on Monday nights in the bitter cold.
That winter gave me a great opportunity to get to know the Extreme and the Collinsville area. Fast-forward 9 months and I was opening Turn 2 Baseball & Softball Training off of Horseshoe Lake Road, south of 157 in Collinsville. I fell in love with Collinsville, the girls I coached on Monday nights, and the thriving softball community. In fact, the first shirts printed with the Turn 2 logo were made that summer – purple shirts with a white Turn 2 logo. I remember handing them out to all the girls I trained that winter during the Extreme Classic (now the Tom Matysik Classic). At the end of the summer, Brett and I were talking seriously about him leaving college coaching and joining me at Turn 2. Brett also felt I would be a great coach for the 10U team that was losing their head coach. We talked about giving back, mentoring, and influencing young ladies in ways of character, integrity, and life lessons. Be a volunteer coach and make a real difference in the lives of these young ladies through the game of softball? I couldn’t wait to get started!
I was really lucky my first year of coaching. I knew at the time I had some great things happening from awesome parent helpers & alumini, Ashley Vallero, an original member of the Extreme Organization being one of them, to coachable kids and supportive parents. Honestly, it wasn’t until later that I truly came to appreciate everything that first year or two meant for me personally. As I reflect on coaching the 10U girls, I’m left with such admiration for the parents I had. They had my back at all times. I was a young person, a new business owner, and a first time head coach. I was full of passion, but I had zero experience on how to do “this.” To celebrate a fun year, Ashley & I had a slumber party at Turn 2 with the 10U girls. We stayed up all night long. I think Ashley and I had as much, if not more fun, than the girls that night. For the first year or two I was in business, my outlets outside of work revolved around the 10U Extreme girls. I looked forward to team bonding events the most. Each event left lasting memories on my heart. We played laser tag, went bowling, had pizza parties, volunteered at different places, and went Christmas Caroling, to name a few. We did all this stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with softball. When the time came to finally take the field, we had our work cut out for us. I still don’t know what our win/loss record ended up being, but I know we lost a heck of a lot more than we won. Every time we came off the field from a loss, I could see the disappointment in the girls’ eyes. I remember watching them pack up the dugout and thinking to myself, “What comes out of my mouth next will influence these girls for years to come.” That is a grave responsibility. The self-image of kids, especially girls, is so fragile. Thankfully my instincts kicked in, and I sent us on a walk away from the field to a quiet place to talk. I found myself telling the kids about what wins and losses mean in the game of life. Some pretty heavy stuff for 9/10 year olds but the kids took it to heart and remembered it from that point on. The parents got the message, and after each win or loss, we walked out of the park together with our heads held high.
The parents who allow their kids to be influenced by people outside the family circle have my respect and admiration. The trust you show when you hand the keys over to someone, like my 10U parents did with me, is such an amazing gift. When you hand the keys of influence over to the right people, your child is shaped for years to come. I had those individuals in my life growing up. It started with the example my parents set and continued with the amazing people I got to grow up around and be coached by.
There is so much more to life than sports, and there is so much more to sports than wins and losses. If you allow it, life can emulate sport and sport can emulate life. It’s what keeps me coming back year after year, and it’s why I wear purple with pride. This organization allows me to mentor young ladies in more than the game of softball because the Extreme cares more about the people the kids will grow into than the win/loss record. That is why I’m here and continue to be here. The impact of great pillars in your son or daughter’s life may not be understood until years later, but know that as an ex ball player, the people who were my pillars are with me every day of my life. Even though it may be years since I have seen a teammate, coach, or a parent of a teammate, they are still with me. I had some amazing pillars in my life and I encourage people to consider this when you watch a practice, team-bonding event, or a conversation someone has with your kid.
As I get ready to turn 35 years old in May, I am once again full of reflection. I love this game because many
people loved me through the trials and tribulations of the sport growing up. Keeping perspective when you are in a slump and encouraging your kid to keep going when it is hard adds value to their life for years to come. Lessons I learned and use today are from this game and the pillars that my parents surrounded me with.
Jen “JD” Doehring
This is a question that many families struggle with in youth sports. What is the right experience – Recreation or Select Travel Ball? Families used to wrestle with this question when their child was around 12 or 13 years old, but now these talks start to take place around the ages of 7, 8, or 9 years old. It is short sighted to just look at the league each plays in – one must consider the overall experience their athlete will have.
This question leads to many stressful discussions within the family.
This question leads to varying advice from those the family may seek for advice.
This question leads to strong opinions that get displayed on social media or in conversations in which one side of the question degrades the other side.
Here’s an exercise for you to get the true barometer on this question . . . go to Facebook and search Select Ball Has Ruined Our Youth and read one side of the coin. Then, type in Rec Ball Has Softened Our Youth to read the other side of the coin.
First let’s ask – what is the actual difference between rec ball and select ball? Make note of who you ask, because you are going to get a “pro-answer” from them on the side they lobby and vice versa. You will hear things like the cost is different, this one plays tournaments and that one doesn’t, this one has better competition and that one doesn’t, this one supports multi-sport athletes and that one doesn’t. Unfortunately through all the debate everyone is missing the actual important question – what is the right experience my athlete should have.
The key in finding the right experience is establishing goals. Goals #1 should be around the love of the game. Only a healthy experience will provide a true love and passion for anything. Goals around having fun, recreation, and activity for health, competition, life lessons, teamwork, and leadership are all components of a healthy experience. Seek out the right experience, not the right tagline.
As a club, we have looked in to the environments and the experiences that the typical 6, 7, and 8 year olds are having in the game of baseball and softball in our region. Currently, the experiences that 6-8 year olds have in baseball and softball are very inconsistent. Some teams at these ages may:
Head down an aggressive path with burnout right around the corner.
Spend most of the time focused on the games and competition portion but neglect the development and team portion of the sport.
Get together for a small 2-month season and kids are picking 4 leaf clovers in the outfield.
We have designed our Junior program to provide the right experience for 6-8 year olds. It is a club-focused, all-inclusive program that provides the roadmap and monitoring needed to assure the right experience for our athletes and their families. We are not a select organization for 6-8 year olds; we are a club that walks hand in hand with the coaches and families to ensure the right experience in youth sports. The right experience should increase the love of the game for the kids each year they play, it should allow for them to pursue multiple sports building on their athleticism, it should combat burnout with a roadmap and a plan to develop the kids skills year in and year out.
It is time for parents and coaches to ask the right question – what experience do I want for my kid and team? That is a deeper question than – what league should they play (select/rec)? When we ask families what experience do you want for your child at the age of 7 we get a answer that is genuine, with out the malice and frustration you see out in social media. We hear that the experience people want for their kids is very specific. They want their kids to get better at the game, be a part of a team, have a coach that loves the game, be taught some life lessons through the platform of sports, we want our child to enjoy some games and success, we want them to have fun and to fall in love with the game. That is the model that our Junior program has been built on.
We are working to educate families that the league (rec or select) is not the entire experience. The league your child plays in (rec or select) is only one component of the experience but it doesn’t encompass the needs of the kids entirely. It leaves out the building blocks of sports – the teamwork, the life lessons, and the other characteristics we discussed earlier that are what we want to help families understand. What should your 6, 7, 8 year old do? They should play in a Junior program that follows the correct roadmap built around providing the 3D experience. The 3D experience provides the right physical and mental development at the right age.
Our sports culture has placed labels on different levels of ball (rec, select, AAU, etc.) – these titles do not represent a consistent experience.
Forget the name – pay attention to the experience. Make sure the experience is a building block for the future for your athlete in the sport.
Part of the 3D Experience in youth sports is making sure that the expectations are set and the priorities are in place for players, coaches, and parents. One of the priorities within our Extreme Skills program is to implement our program’s philosophies to all teams in the Extreme organization. We know that if program philosophies are implemented then the outcomes take care of themselves. It’s the focus of process over outcomes that have the best impact on athletes. Many of our Program teams over our first 16 years as an organization have been focused on this team approach, but without program philosophies documented and transparent, the implementation has been inconsistent thus far.
We know that if you focus on the program philosophies at the age of 7 that may not mean a victory right then and there, we know that it may lead to an error or a mistake or blundered play, but the coaches, players, and families must have the priority set that implementing the philosophy is most important because the effort was there to execute a successful strategy or skill of the game. That effort has to be rewarded through appreciation and excitement for the kids! If we try and implement a bunt defense at the age of 10 and we see the kids working through that philosophy and implementing it and trying to achieve it, as players, parents and coaches we have to celebrate that because we know it is going to lead to great success, outcomes, and consistency throughout their playing career.
As a multi-team program, where graduation from year to year is expected we have to have a system and curriculum in place for team and athlete success. That system has been developed and prioritized by the veteran knowledge within the Extreme Network. Our system includes philosophies on pitching vertically, aggressive hitting counts, how to handle an inside pitch, short game skills, bunt defenses, etc. Part of our evolution as a program was spent researching and meeting the top programs in the nation that we compete against within our Elite teams to confirm and improve our program’s philosophies and the implementation plan within the program.
Through those meetings we developed our team development model along with our best practices & strategies that make them successful throughout our program. One meeting really stuck out to us was with an organization out of Texas. An example of their success lies in a philosophy around when they have a runner on first or a runner on first and second and there are no outs, they sacrifice bunt and move the runner over every time, regardless of score or who is up to bat. This philosophy is implemented all the way down the club into their 8, 9, & 10 year old players. By the time they reach the high school level and are competing on a national scale, there is no signal, no conversation, no timeout to discuss, the player is engrained to implement that program philosophy. We see players on teams in our region including many of our teams that have a very inconsistent approach about how to handle that same scenario – the best hitter never bunts, we only try to bunt the first pitch, we never bunt, etc. An inconsistent philosophy leads to inconsistent success.
Instead of leaving individual instructor philosophies to drive the successes or failures for our teams, we believe in the team development model that was used long before private instruction was such a big focus. We will be putting the Extreme Network to work to combat against the below examples within our teams.
- Pitching – we have kids who are inside of private instruction and their sequence on the mound in a game may be fastball, then to a curve ball or screw ball, and then to a change up. If our experience and philosophy is to go fastball, off speed, drop ball, secondary off speed, rise ball, and then start working into your horizontal breaks of curve and screw balls we have a hu
ge inconsistency throughout our system. We are working to have complete transparency for our coaches, players, and parents. By putting these program philosophies down on paper, implementing them through the Extreme Network, teaching them to our kids, coaches, and also giving that transparency to our families, there is more consistency in the program and a better experience.
- Throughout baseball nationwide, we have serious concern over arm health. As a program, we have to implement arm health check points and a development plan to decrease our risk of injuries in our youth. What pitches do they learn, how many pitches do they throw, at what point do I start throwing a breaking ball, when do I move from the stretch to the windup, when do I do a FLUSH after a start to help my arm recover, what is my arm health routine before a game? All these questions are out there and we have experience within our Network that has developed these answers.
Members of the Extreme Network have the experience and knowledge of how these concepts have been executed well and poorly. We can use that experience to roll it out to our youth through our playbook to bring consistency in development from our youth teams up through our high school system. We see teams in our region that do not have these philosophies in place and they are coached with the short term in mind. We have to be very careful and stay out of that danger zone and stay true to our long term philosophies that if a player does the process of a, b, and c that we will start to see the outcomes of x, y, z take shape. That is what a 3-dimensional experience is in the skill side of youth sports. It is being built on true experienced, seasoned, philosophies that have been around since the test of time and provide a very consistent experience in sports.
As we plan and execute our program philosophies inside our club, we will make those priorities public so that our families know what we are developing within our coaches and players. With that transparency, the physical side of the 3D experience becomes easier to understand and support your athlete and their team as they grow.
We are changing the model for athletes and coaches going into this year. Instead of putting the pressure on the individual development we are rolling out a team development philosophy. It’s time our network is leveraged for the benefit of every team and athlete in our club. The knowledge and experience of veteran coaches will be put to work around getting better outcomes in a team’s hitting and defense, pitching and catching, athleticism around velocity relative to our sport. Our team fees reflect your athlete’s development – an example is your child academic system.
Schools have support systems that help their students in need. Examples of that support system are an ACT prep classes or an academic tutor. An athletic program needs to have a support system for each team as well. The lifeblood of the athletic program has to be the curriculum & philosophies that will transfer as an athlete grows in their sport. Students have class time to learn the curriculum and then are tested through exams. In the athletic world the classroom is team practices and the exams are team games. By using veteran coaches to run skill development with your athlete’s team we are developing a plan to allow consistent coaching throughout the organization. Similar to school, if a student is struggling they reach out for individual attention or take a special class. Same applies to an athlete struggling with a specific skill. Private instructors or camps should be used with an athlete when they are falling behind on their development inside our programs curriculum.
Team sports require team philosophies around the skills of the game. The success of the team should not solely be dependent on an individuals training plan. It should be supported more by team implementation of the curriculum. We use team practices to bring in our veterans and develop your athlete’s team and individual skills. By joining the Extreme you assure your athletes are being mentored with the end in mind – outcomes of the game! If we want to defend against a great bunt then as an organization we need to be teaching a unified bunt defense that has clear expectations and execution points to ensure success as our athletes grow in the organization. We are going to provide you the complete athletic curriculum to ensure your athlete achieves their athletic goals.
So as you gather information on how to provide the 3D experience for your athletes, remember your team fees include your athlete’s skill development. We will provide you the classroom, the book, and all the exams and if your athlete falls behind we will be there with recommendations for private tutoring around their struggles.