Elite Eighth Graders? How Ranking Middle Schoolers Is the Same as Recruiting Them
In 2018, NCAA DI Softball instituted a new recruiting rule that prohibits coaches from sending recruiting messages, having recruiting conversations, or hosting unofficial visits for athletes until September 1st of an athlete’s Junior year of high school.
The rule was enacted in response to players as young as 11 years old having to make college decisions. The NCAA emphasized that this change was motivated by the increasing prioritization of the well-being of the athlete. Raising the recruiting age reduces the pressure for young athletes to play all year, allows for longer recovery periods and time off for multi-sport athletes, reduces the financial commitment for parents to play year-round, and decreases burnout. Pushing back the timeline was a change that 80% of college coaches enthusiastically agreed with.
However, despite the NCAA policy change, when coaches scroll through Twitter, they are seeing just as many pre-teen highlight reels. Twitter remains one of the most popular platforms for athletes to showcase themselves before they can officially speak with college coaches. But coaches are not the only people players are looking to impress. At the end of January, Extra Innings Softball published an article to Twitter, announcing that they were accepting nominations for the class of “2028 Extra Elite 100,” who are current seventh graders. Extra Innings Softball Elite 100 ranks the top youth players from around the nation. The rankings start with graduating seniors of the current year, then juniors, and so on. However, 2023 was the first year that seventh graders were featured and ranked by the publication.
The article, which has been viewed over 1.5 million times, was met with an outcry from professional and college softball players, coaches, and parents alike. The majority of the comments pointed out the negative effects of ranking middle schoolers, echoing the same reasons the NCAA decided to push the recruiting cycle back. Many of softball’s best athletes added that they never would have made the list in middle school. Two-time Olympic medalist Cat Osterman tweeted:
Professional players Danielle O’Toole, Sydney Littlejohn Watkins, and Hailey Dolcini added a similar sentiment, highlighting the importance of development over production at the middle school level:
In response, three days later, Brentt Eads for Extra Inning Softball posted another article to Twitter, seemingly in direct response to the online criticism:
The linked article features an excerpt from Benjamin Holland, a Clinical Mental Health Counselor, who argues for the potential positive effects of praise and recognition on an athlete’s mental health.
Ironically, Holland has pointed out the exact problem. While the athletes who are on the receiving end of a top 100 ranking honor could potentially benefit from the recognition, what about the other 1.3 million players in the U.S. who aren’t?
Extra Innings Softball evaluates players who are nominated, predominantly from coaches, along with scouting and recruiting information found online to provide context to spotlight the player. Eads states that ranking younger athletes was motivated by, “Players [...] being more dedicated to the sport via hours and hours, spent in lessons, practices, showcases, camps, tournaments, and travel all over the country to compete against other top players their age.”
Eads adds that players do not need to pay for an Extra Innings Softball subscription to be nominated as an Extra Elite 100 player. And while not requiring the $110 annual magazine subscription is nice, the gesture falls flat when it comes to the cost associated with being on a team with the recognition and credibility to stand out amongst the nominations. For a competitive “college-exposure” team, the average player fee is $2,000 a year. This does not include player equipment, travel, lessons, etc. One southern California travel softball family estimated that the total cost of participation in travel ball to be around $11,400 annually.
Even more concerning than the economic toll that the rankings inadvertently force families to take on is the potential for devastating costs at the expense of the wellbeing of the athlete. Mental health in athletics has become an increasingly important national conversation that is being used as the catalyst to create policy change. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that, “youth athletes, who demonstrate perfectionism, including fear of failure, high external and internal pressures and expectations for performance, pose a greater risk of burning out and developing a mental health concern such as anxiety, depression, eating concerns, and substance misuse.”
So, while Eads claims that Extra Inning Softball’s Rankings should be looked at for its “positive publicity it brings to these great young athletes who give their all on their journey to become the best they can be,” the rankings represent a potential external pressure that could be stopping another athlete’s journey before it can even begin. The NCAA policy change prioritized the mental health of the youth athlete. But this progress falls flat if middle schoolers are still facing the same recruiting pressures as before. With social media alone already pushing youth athletes to prematurely grow up, it is no wonder why so many resisted the rankings with protests to “LET KIDS BE KIDS.”
References:  Brentt Eads. Extra Inning Softball’s Top 75 College Recruiting Rankings (Class of 2022). https://extrainningsoftball.com/extra-inning-softballs-top-75-college-recruiting-rankings-class-of-2022/.  NCAA Softball Recruiting Rules Calendar: When Can Softball Coaches Talk To You (https://cdn2.sportngin.com/attachments/document/0ee6-1943153/College_Recruitment_-_Everything_You_Need_to_Know.pdf)  Brentt Eads. The Top 15 Softball Stories of 2018: #15… Alexia Carrasquillo: The Shot Heard Round the Recruiting World (https://extrainningsoftball.com/the-top-15-softball-stories-of-2018-15-alexia-carrasquillo-the-shot-heard-round-the-recruiting-world/)  NSR. Huge Changes To The Softball Recruiting Calendar. (https://www.nsr-inc.com/scouting-news/divisioni-softball-recruiting-calendar/)  NCSA. How To Use Twitter For College Recruiting. (https://www.ncsasports.org/recruiting/contacting-college-coaches/how-to-use-twitter)  Extra Innings Softball. Twitter. (https://twitter.com/ExtraInningSB/status/1612600696250982404)  Id.  Id.  Team USA Softball. Welcome To The USA Softball Youth Program. (https://www.teamusa.org/usa-softball/play-asa/youth#:~:text=Over%2080%2C000%20teams%2C%201.3%20million,softball%20on%20an%20annual%20basis.)  Id.  Alexa Peterson. What To Look For In A Travel Team. (https://thehittingvault.com/travel-softball/#:~:text=Here%20are%20a%20few%20questions,competition%2C%20and%20the%20time%20commitment.)  Youthletic. Is Youth Fastpitch Softball Too Expensive? (https://youth1.com/softball/1645878-is-youth-fastpitch-softball-too-expensive-)  Sarah Kinsella and Cynthia Swanlund. How We Can Support The Mental Health of Young Athletes. (https://www.aap.org/en/news-room/aap-voices/how-we-can-support-the-mental-health-of-young-athletes/#:~:text=Youth%20athletes%2C%20who%20demonstrate%20perfectionism,eating%20concerns%2C%20and%20substance%20misuse.)  Id.  Coach Bonnie. Twitter. (https://twitter.com/coachbonnie36/status/1613747935073779713?cxt=HHwWgoC-sc3Ml-UsAAAA