Club sports vs. high school sports

Over the past decade or more, the debate over participating in club sports versus high school sports has grown more intense. Much of this has been driven by factors stemming from the increasingly competitive and commercialized nature of sports on all levels.

No one has ever drowned in sweat.

-Lou Holtz, Football Coach

In the case of high school sports, the introduction of pay-for-play has negatively impacted the number of teenagers who can participate. On the opposite end of the spectrum, club sports have grown massively as a part of the youth sports landscape, with travel teams proliferating and private coaching offers to emerge everywhere. Many opinions have been voiced by teenage athletes, parents, coaches, administrators, and other stakeholders involved in sports regarding the best option. Still, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Club sports

The recent growth of club sports has come about because it is now seen as a more severe environment to practice sports. With the increased competition for college scholarships, parents have sought to give their kids every advantage. Many parents and teenage athletes believe that playing in a club environment gives them the best chance of getting exposed to college coaches and, therefore, a better opportunity to be offered college scholarships.

This desire to give themselves a leg up has driven club sports, with some high school sports coaches across the country being told by players that they are quitting high school sports to focus on club sports so that they have a better chance at college. Other athletes and parents leave high school sports to specialize in one sport they can play year-round, for example, elite club soccer.

Club sports participation usually provides higher competitive levels for athletes, which can significantly help the development of players, giving athletes more contact with other high-quality athletes in each practice session and game played. For example, AAU basketball is renowned for displaying all of the top-ranked players in the country and allowing them to face off more regularly against each other than the average high school season does.

Some clubs and club coaches, knowing that the pull to club sports exists, seek to restrict their athletes from participating in school sports, ensuring they always have access to these athletes by dangling the recruitment carrot. However, high school sports involvement has its benefits. Still, it has a role in the college recruitment process, especially in major sports such as football and basketball, where high school coaches are well-connected with college coaches. This is particularly the case for the larger high schools.

High school sports

High school sports offer unique opportunities for the athletes who take part. One basketball coach relayed his feeling that high school sports emphasized more team concepts in play than club sports that highlight individuals, as each player tries to stand out to college coaches during showcase tournaments.

The added dimension of keeping your grades up to maintain your eligibility can be an essential factor for coaches at the college level. Your proven ability to maintain these standards will allow you to get into quality schools to pursue your athletic and academic careers and showcase your college readiness.

Other definitive factors of the high school sports experience are the attachment, pride, and loyalty that can be built between the school athletes and the communities they represent. This is why Texas high school football is renowned, as it is an integral part of the entire community’s identity, with the top players held up as icons. This same connectedness also exists in college sports, separating the two environments from club sports, where there is no sense of playing for something bigger than yourself, your team, your school, or your community.

The way forward

Recent high school sports administration trends have seen the number of opportunities available fall significantly. Coupled with the seeming advantages of club sport ― higher level play, greater chances to be seen by college coaches ― student-athletes and their parents may be driven to choose between the two.

It is essential to weigh the positives and negatives of each to decide which environment is best for you. This will all depend on what you want from your sports experience as a teenager. The quality of competition available in your town or city, the rules of governing bodies, and the sports you play will also determine which experience is best suited to getting you to your goal.

If the possibility to do both exists and is desired, additional issues may come to the forefront, such as overexertion. Cases of athletes attending two separate practice sessions in a day, playing multiple games on the weekend, or having to choose one team commitment over another might have to be navigated. They will introduce a whole new range of physical and mental pressures, which should also be considered.

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer; each student-athlete and their parents must decide for themselves.