What Varsity Means in Sports

The word varsity may be used in different ways in different areas of the English-speaking world.

What does varsity mean? Varsity refers to the primary team that will compete for a high school in a given sport. The varsity team is the best team that the school can create with their top athletes. Students are selected through a tryout process where coaches assess their ability to determine if they are among the best athletes in the school for that sport.

It’s very common to have questions about how the terms varsity and junior varsity are used and in some regions, you may hear them used differently.

The rules may change from country to country or state to state. In most areas, the governing body for high school or college athletics will determine the rules for varsity teams.

What It Means to be on a Varsity Team

If you decide that you want to play for your school team, you’ll have to try out and see if you’re selected for the team.

If you’re among the best athletes, you can be chosen to represent your school as they play against other schools.

The varsity team is a collection of the very best players that your school can assemble to form the strongest team possible.

Many sports have “club” or “travel” teams that are different from varsity sports.

For example in volleyball, you may play for your school’s varsity or junior varsity team, but then join a club team in the off-season.

These other teams play in different leagues with a mixture of athletes from different schools and allow athletes to continue to excel year-round.

In some places, you have the option of playing with your varsity team in a club or travel team system during the off-season.

So your entire team and even your coach would sign up to play tournaments against teams from anywhere in the country completely separate from your school system and league. 

In other places, you may have rules that restrict this.

In Alabama, where I live, we have a “50% rule” where club and travel teams are limited to 50% of the players required to play the game, that may be from the same varsity team and your coach is not allowed to coach any of their varsity players (source).

So for example in volleyball, since it takes 6 players to play the game, you can only have 3 players on a club team that are teammates from their school team.

School coaches may choose to coach in a club league but their team is not allowed to have any of their school players on it.

What Is A Varsity Game?

A varsity game is any sporting event where your primary school team is playing against another school’s primary team at the high school level.

Very common varsity sports are football, basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, cheerleading and track and field.

Some schools host a variety of less common sports as officially sanctioned varsity sports as well such as golf, wrestling, tennis, lacrosse, beach volleyball, swimming, bowling, and badminton.

The popularity of a sport in your area usually determines which of these becomes an official school program.

The Difference Between Varsity And Junior Varsity

The difference between varsity and junior varsity is that the varsity is the top team in the school for that sports and junior varsity (JV) is a lower level team.

In sports where there is only one team for the school, it becomes the varsity team by default.

In many sports, there will be one varsity team and one JV team. In some cases, there are even multiple JV teams.

For instance, in large schools, it is common to have a JV team that is the second-tier team and then a third team made up of only freshmen.

Coaches may choose to do this to build a stronger program over time.

No matter how large your school is, your varsity basketball team only needs 5 players on the court at once.

But over the four years of high school, there can be a lot of change in the athletes who are available to represent the school.

Sometimes schools have lost good potential players because they didn’t have enough “places” on the team for everyone in the early years.

Then through injuries, loss of interest or through some players moving away, by their senior year, a class of students may have very few or even no players left in that sport. 

By staffing a freshmen (or second JV) team, the coaching staff can invest time in developing more players and keep them engaged for the future.

This keeps more athletes in the pool of players that may be able to play for their varsity team in the future.

Can Freshmen Students Play on the Varsity Team?

Absolutely! Freshmen students can play on the varsity team. It is very common for freshmen to play for their varsity team in some sports.

For example, in high school football, there is usually only one team. So if you’re on the football team and you’re a freshman, you’re playing varsity!

In other sports like basketball or volleyball, the teams are a lot smaller and there will usually be junior varsity teams so that more athletes can compete and grow and represent their school.

In these sports, freshmen can play at the varsity level, but they’ve got to be strong enough athletes to beat the upperclassmen for the spot on the team.

Another consideration should be how physically mature the athlete is.

Although the player may have a higher level of skill, in some sports, the risk of injury may be much higher if the athlete isn’t a comparable size to the other varsity players.

Coaches and parents have to weigh what’s best for their individual case.

The Benefits of Varsity Sports

Earning A Scholarship

One of the first benefits students and parents think of when it comes to playing varsity sports is the potential to earn a scholarship.

In reality, in most sports, athletes have about a 1% success rate in earning a college scholarship.

This is a great benefit for those fortunate enough to achieve this level of success and opens the door for some athletes who would never have the opportunity otherwise.

If you are an athlete or the parent of an athlete who would like to earn a scholarship, be sure to check out an article I wrote about the recruiting process called: 17 Volleyball Recruiting Tips And Steps.

Although it’s written with volleyball players in mind, this advice will help you find your way in recruiting for any sport.

Recruiting in today’s sports doesn’t happen by accident and it can be a lot of work for athletes and parents, but it can really pay off if you are proactive and start early.

Finding Your High School Identity

High school can be a very challenging place with so many questions about identity and interests and values.

I believe young people are more successful overall when they have at least 1 extra-curricular activity that they really love and find fulfilling.

This can be in any sports team, band, theater, choir, club, or so many other programs.

When you are part of a team through this period of adolescence, you have structure and a support system that other young people simply don’t have.

While you may have drama and conflicts along the way, you will be held accountable to a high standard by coaches.

You will learn about prioritizing your time, making sacrifices to achieve a goal and learning discipline through fitness and nutrition.

When you walk down the hallways at school, you’re not just a random kid, you’re an athlete!

There can be a lot of stereotypes that come with that, but it’s also a side of your identity that gives you a place to fit in socially.

Developing As An Athlete

Many young people enjoy athletics and need time to grow and develop in a sport to see if they may achieve a higher level someday.

Varsity sports provide a great system for young athletes to try many sports and see if they have what it takes to move on to college, professional or even Olympic levels.

When I was in school I enjoyed competing for every school team because it was fun and it got me out of the classroom.

Most high school varsity players will never go past this stage, but it can build great memories and a habit of incorporating sports into your adult life.

Growing Into A Strong Adult

Over the years, adults in our society have become more and more stationary and sedentary.

People in our world today struggle with obesity at an alarming rate.

Being an athlete doesn’t guarantee you a life of health and physical prowess, but it’s a good step in the right direction.

Hopefully, during your high school and college years, you find a sport that you love that you can continue to enjoy for years to come.

Learning The Value Of Teamwork

This is often mentioned, but it’s so true and worthwhile. When you play sports in a demanding and competitive setting, you must learn teamwork!

Unless you plan on living a completely solitary life, you will be a part of another team at some point down the road.

You may find yourself on a team in a job setting, at your church, in some community program or maybe even coaching youth sports.

The skills of coordinating, communicating, volunteering, collaborating, and networking are in high-demand in today’s world.

These characteristics and skills are forged over time through a variety of experiences.

Coaches, parents and other athletes can have a huge impact on how an athlete sees their role and learns how to function on a team.

Learning Communication Skills

Communication skills are so important in many areas of life and in today’s society young people have entered a quickly-changing landscape.

As an adult, it’s tempting to think that today’s generation doesn’t know how to communicate, but the truth is they just communicate differently. In some ways young people today communicate more, but they have less face-to-face interaction.

Competitive sports are a great training ground for communicating in a variety of relationships.

Think about all the different interactions an athlete will have in a typical season that they would never have if they simply didn’t play.

Most athletes have to interact with at least one coach and one team captain.

They will communicate with team members about their roles and responsibilities during practices and in quickly-changing, high-pressure situations during games.

They may have to address referees or opposing coaches and almost certainly will interact with their opponents.

Each of these offers a different angle and valuable training in how to communicate effectively and appropriately.

For my daughter Heidie, this season has been a time of growth in her interactions with her varsity coach.

She has had to learn how to speak up for herself to an adult, in a group setting in a respectful way. Think of all the ways that will help her as she deals with other situations later in life!

Learning To Be Coachable

One of the most valuable benefits of sports is learning the ability to take criticism and to change yourself.

Coaches come in many different styles and personalities. While you may love some and suffer through others, with each one, you have an opportunity to grow by learning from them.

It’s not a normal or natural thing to simply take direction from a leader gracefully and humbly and change your actions or behavior.

Varsity sports are definitely a setting where this ability can help you experience true change and sometimes very quick results.

The earlier in life you can learn to take feedback and use it to adjust your future actions, the better off you’ll be.

What Is A Varsity Letter?

A varsity letter is a patch that can be earned by an athlete to indicate their athletic achievement.

Most colleges and high schools choose to recognize their varsity athletes by letting their athletes who play any sport at the varsity level purchase a “Letterman’s Jacket.”

It’s a strange name for a jacket, but the idea is that you earn a varsity letter patch of your school (usually the first initial or the 2 first initials of your school name) through your athletic achievements.

The letter patch is made out of chenille and is sometimes customized to indicate which sport the athlete earned it from.

The coaches usually have discretion over which players may receive their letters.

Players may have to play in a minimum number of games and end the season in good standing or even maintain a certain grade point average.

Each school may have its own standards and requirements. Usually, students receive just one Letterman Jacket during their high school or college career. 

These jackets have a uniquely classic look, they really stand out. They may have the student athlete’s name on the front and the school name on the back.

They come in your school colors and students wear their school patches with pride. It’s considered an honor to be able to represent your school by wearing this.

Sign Up For Varsity

Are you or your son or daughter considering trying out for a team? Good luck! Work hard and play hard and it may turn out to be an incredible experience.

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