Today, we're talking about playing varsity soccer. This is a dream for many young players. It's a motivator, a status symbol, a chance to get noticed for some, and for others, it's considered a mixed bag. Do we need to spend thousands of dollars on "select" or "travel" programs to get on a varsity team? Let's talk about playing varsity soccer.
The Allure of Playing Varsity Soccer
As this episode is coming out, we're in pre-season for Fall 0f 2019. At this time of year, high schools in Maryland are finishing up their tryouts, we're in second or final cuts, pre-season conditioning is underway at some schools, and at others, kids are just now finding out if they made their Varsity team.
When I was a kid, making a varsity team was a big deal. It still is today! I'm dating myself, but letterman jackets were worn with pride. More letters meant that you had "lettered" more than once or in more than one varsity sport. And I think the Varsity experience pretty much topped to pyramid of potential athletic options and it meant no one questioned that you were an athlete.
I lettered in three different sports when I was in High School: swimming, gymnastics, and track; played JV wrestling and lacrosse, and was indicted into a fraternity-like community service focused club called the Varsity Leaders Club or "VLC" for short. As a multi-sport kid, proud to wear my VLC jacket to bed at night (just kidding), I can report first-hand that the Varsity experience was about a lot more than the sports. It paid additional dividends in school socially. It got us boys closer to the cheerleaders and other mixed gender social situations. And it gave us a sort of brotherhood among "jocks" that sometimes meant what we considered a better social experience at an otherwise awkward time in life. For most of us when I was coming up through school, getting on a Varsity team was also the best was to get noticed by college recruiters and it looked great on an athletic resume. We wanted to be varsity, and we were willing to work hard to be a varsity player.
Getting on a Varsity Team
Getting on a varsity team and playing varsity soccer is a process that starts a few years before the actual tryout. It is possible to make a team without a lot of formal prep work. I was recruited by my swim coach who also ran our swimming program at school in New York. He plucked me right out of the pool in gym class, but I grew up in a nautical family, was taught to swim as a toddler at the local YMCA, had a swimming pool in my back yard, and spent nearly every possible day swimming and splashing around since I was very young.
It helped a lot to be part of a formal development program, but it wasn't - and still isn't - absolutely necessary. I know plenty of kids who are killer soccer players who have not had a chance, or maybe don't have the resources to be involved in a formal development program. For these kids, varsity soccer is their chance to shine.
Getting on a varsity team is a competitive process. Tryouts are announced. Sometimes, summer camps are offered by the varsity coaches. Players need to work and prove that they are stand outs among their peers in order to be selected. I think most high school athletes would agree that the process can be intimidating and even discouraging for those who don't make the cut. On my swim team, our coach on day one told everyone to get in they water and swim a mile without stopping. Anyone who stopped or touched the bottom was cut immediately. Many of us had never knowingly swam a mile in our lives. I certainly didn't, so accomplishing that first objective was pretty scary. Being one of the people who overcame that and other challenges was also something to be proud of. Making a varsity team means earning something worth being proud of.
Just because I like to give you the balanced picture, I'll also add that I've seen a fair amount of politics and favoritism in the selection process too. This is maddening to me, as I was an unknown who had to prove his worth on merit. But youth sports is not immune to favoritism or back room politicking by parents. That's all I'll say on this subject for this episode - other than to say if you're one of those people who participates in this kind of corruption, knock it off.
You Don't Have to Spend Thousands
This Fall, nine (9) of my former recreation players (from the same team) just made the cut against their peers in a region full of "select" and "travel" players. This should speak to you as hard evidence that kids don't need to spend thousands of dollars or wear fancy uniforms to get to the varsity competition level.
The key to getting on a varsity team is to do the work. The work can be done in a select travel environment, or it can be done in a recreation and/or a home environment. Setting goals to get on a varsity team, understanding what varsity coaches are looking for, then doing what it takes to bring skill levels in line with what's needed, doesn't take travel or select pricing to achieve. It takes focus and community support.
Playing Varsity Soccer Requires Community
To be fair, there is a significant amount of preparation and work that goes into playing varsity soccer. We're going to pay one way or the other. Either we're going to give our time and attention, we're going to clear land and provide free-play opportunities for kids to play a lot, or we're going to pay money for professional coaches to put that time and attention into the training of our kids.
I'm personally not impressed by what I see on most select and/or travel teams. The level of play from the kids and the level of coaching from the coaches is no different from what my kids get on their recreation team. In fact, in some cases, it's been lower.
When I was raised, all we needed was a big field and a ball and we were off to the races. Kids would play soccer at the local park or in back yards for hours on end. Kids are still playing soccer in back yards and in local parks every chance they get, and some of those kids - without a single day of coaching in their lives - are pretty darn scrappy and creative players.
A community with a strong varsity program and local fields can get kids with talent into a structured environment, teach them the academics of the sport, and turn out some strong athletes. Why we don't see more of this in local communities is beyond me.
Clubs like mine can accomplish the same thing with volunteers. Volunteers make the financial model more appealing for many families that would not be able to play the game otherwise. A community that comes out to support kids will have stronger athletes simply by nature of the fact that more kids can participate.