The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Softball

Everything you need to know to get out and play the perfect summer game today

Everything you need to know to get out and play the perfect summer game today

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Softball is the perfect summer pastime. It's a sport, so you're getting exercise. But not necessarily up-at-dawn count-your-macros wear-out-your-spandex exercise. If it's more your speed, it can be put-on-your-softest-tee and sip-beers-between-plays exercise. If a couple of hours of friendly competition in the afternoon sun and the smell of cut grass sound good to you, softball is your perfect pastime. If hard-core skills training and intense competition is your thing, then you can also take it to that level.

The best thing about softball aside from the inherent fun of throwing, catching, and swinging sticks at moving balls is that it's a great social activity. Team sports are a fantastic way to meet new people and to bond with those you already know. The team provides camaraderie and a common purpose; the opposition provides new faces or, if you're the competitive type, bitter rivals. Plus, the game provides just enough activity so that you'll all have something to do, but not so much that you have to block out everything else. Softball makes plenty of space for chatting.

Because softball is such a popular amateur sport, it can give you a way to plug in to almost any social network you are or want to be a part of. There are neighbourhood teams, teams based on friend groups, company teams, bar teams, and competitive teams. There are men's teams and women's teams and mixed teams. There are teams based on ethnic and religious communities as well. Most importantly, there are teams for all skill levels from cutthroat competitive to complete klutz.


Softball's beginnings, like many great pastimes, were humble. It all started in a boat club in Chicago where a bunch of men were waiting around for some sports scores to come in by telegraph. One of the men threw a rolled up boxing glove at another; the second man swung at it with a broom handle; and a third shouted "play ball!" "Indoor baseball", as they called it, was born. In the early years, the sport went by many different names, including: "kitten ball"; "mush ball"; "pumpkin ball"; and "cabbage ball." It settled on "softball" in 1926.

Whereas baseball is more of a competitive professional sport, softball has always been a community sport aimed as much at bringing people together as at creating stars. After its beginnings in Chicago, the sport spread quickly and community teams and leagues sprouted up across North America, with the first Canadian league starting in Toronto in 1897. Now over 500,000 Canadians play league softball on over 40,000 teams. This means you'll be able to find a team just about anywhere in the country.

What you need to know to get started:

Softball is like baseball in that it involves swinging a bat at a ball and running around bases. But it is not baseball, as any softball player will be quick to remind you. Softball has a bigger ball, a smaller field (less running!), and only seven innings instead of nine. Also, the ball is pitched underhand rather than overhand. This doesn't necessarily make it easier though. At the top levels, softball pitching can actually be harder to hit. 

Fast pitch vs. slow pitch: There are two main kinds of softball played in Canada. In slow pitch, they pitch slow. The ball is served to the batter in a slow arc, making it a lot easier to hit. Slow pitch is meant primarily as a recreational game because it makes hitting easier. If you are a beginner, start with this one. Fast pitch also serves the ball to batters underhand, but at greater speed. There are still all levels of teams at fast pitch, but it's the more competitive version of the sport.

The rules: If you know how baseball works, you know how softball works. If you don't know how either work, then the best way to learn is to find someone who does, watch a game with them, and let them explain what's going on. You can look at a rulebook (here are the World Baseball Softball Confederation rules for fast pitch and slow pitch), but as with most sports, the best way to learn is by doing.

What you need to have to get started:

All you need to start in softball are a ball and glove; the rest of the equipment is usually supplied. It can also help to have a bat. That said, you can always go old-school and use a broomstick and boxing glove. Once you get more advanced and commit to the sport, you can start shopping for batting gloves, eye black, and stirrup pants.

What you need to do to get started:

There are three important steps to getting started in softball, and the second step is optional.

Step 1: Find your people

Softball is not a solo sport, so the very first thing you need to do is to find some people to play with. Ask if any of your friends play, look up some local teams and clubs, or start your own team. Having other people who are also interested will motivate you to actually do it, and teach you how to do it better.

Step 2: Practice your skills

One of the most intimidating things about starting softball is doing it in front of at least 18 other people, half of whom you can disappoint (your team) and half of whom want to see you fail (the other team). This is one of the biggest barriers to starting any new activity, so it's important to get past it. First, don't worry so much. In recreational softball, people are pretty friendly and encouraging to beginners. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't brush up your skills so you are ready come game time.

There are two basic skill-sets in softball: defence (throwing and catching); and offence (batting). To practice the first, play catch. That's it. Grab your glove and a ball and a partner and start chucking the ball back and forth. Throw it straight, throw it high, bounce it off the ground. You want to prepare to catch it no matter which way it comes to you, and to be able to send it to the right place with speed and accuracy. Our top tips for throwing are: take your time, set your feet, and aim directly at the person you are throwing to, not their glove.

To practice batting, try wall ball. Find a wall in a local schoolyard. The wall plays catcher. One person pitches the ball, the other bats. Anyone else you can scrounge up is there to catch or chase hit balls. Take turns.

Step 3: Get out to the field and play ball!

Top tips include:

  • Keep your eye on the ball and concentrate on making contact.
  • On ground balls, bend your knees and get your butt low. Otherwise, your glove will be behind your head and you'll miss it.
  • When throwing, your palm should face away from you in the backswing.
  • On fly balls, keep your fingers pointed up and the glove above your head, so you can see the ball into the glove.
  • When batting, one thing to remember is that your back elbow should ride your hip as you start to swing, and the palm of your rear hand should be facing up when you make contact.

Do those things and anybody can play the game.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.