USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. John Moore began his athletic career playing four sports in high school. After battling through injuries (including playing his last high school basketball game on a broken ankle) he went on to earn scholarships at Tri-State University (now Trine.) At Trine, John excelled as a player in both basketball and football. After graduation, he coached high school basketball and football in his home state of Michigan before returning to coach basketball at his alma mater. John is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

“Ex-college coach explains why high school sports should die.”

“Club sports pushing athletes away from high school.”

These are just a couple recent headlines detailing the rise in club sports will be the death of high school sports as we know it. While club teams are becoming more prevalent, are they really replacing high school sports across the board?

Many families assume club sports are the key to getting recruited, while others still rely on their high school teams to strike recruiting gold. We looked at the data to better understand the club vs high school sports debate and found some interesting answers.

Club sports: Why you might want to invest your time and money

The NCAA recently surveyed 21,233 current college athletes, asking them if they played club or high school sports. Athletes in a few sports overwhelmingly reported that they played on a club team:

  • Soccer: 95 percent of women and 93 percent of men played club soccer.
  • Basketball: 92 percent of women and 89 percent of men played club basketball.
  • Women’s volleyball: 91 percent of women’s volleyball players competed on a club volleyball team.
  • Swimming: 90 percent of women and 88 percent of men competed on a club swimming team.
  • Baseball/Softball: 94 percent of softball players and 87 percent of baseball players competed on club teams.
  • Ice Hockey: 91 percent of women and 86 percent of men competed on club teams.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a mere 24 percent of football players competed on a club football team. And only 31 percent of men’s track and 32 percent of women’s track athletes competed on a club track team.

Data show club sports are sweeping through the U.S., and this trend is on the rise for sports like soccer, volleyball, and baseball/softball.

Club teams promise elite competition and DI athletic scholarships for their athletes. These “pay-to-play” programs immerse young student-athletes in their sport for up to 12 months of the year, focusing on honing their sport-specific skills. Boasting high-end facilities and knowledgeable coaches, club sports cater to top-level athletes.

Erick Raich is a former high school coach who also founded California Club Baseball and now coaches at De Anza College, giving him a unique perspective about club, high school and college sports. He explains to Mercury News, “If you have the top five players on your [high school] team and you don’t allow them to play travel ball, you are holding them back. It’s like letting them play Little League, but not letting them play all-stars.”

Raich insists that travel/club teams allow students to showcase their talents in front of college scouts, as well as really develop their skills. However, he warns, not all club teams are created equal and not all student-athletes will thrive in the club environment.

High school sports: Why you may not want to hang up your jersey just yet

While it might seem like club sports are overtaking high school sports, of the college athletes surveyed, most played their sport in high school as well as club. More than 95 percent of athletes in the following sports played on their high school team:

  • Soccer, men’s and women’s
  • Softball
  • Basketball, men’s and women’s
  • Track, men’s and women’s
  • Football
  • Wrestling
  • Men’s swimming
  • Lacrosse, men’s and women’s
  • Volleyball
  • Field hockey

The sports that saw less participation in high school athletics were:

  • Ice hockey: 65 percent of men and 74 percent of women competed for their high school team
  • Tennis: 71 percent of men and 74 percent of women competed for their high school team
  • Women’s rowing: 39 percent competed for their high school team
  • Gymnastics: 11 percent of women competed for their high school team

For most sports, high school athletics are certainly not a thing of the past

In fact, there are many benefits to competing in high school sports. High school athletes represent their school and community, playing in front of family, friends and a crowd of fans. They get to engage in traditional rivalries and be featured in the local papers. Each of these benefits prepares them for competing at the next level. College coaches get to see how they react to high-pressure situations and how they represent their community.

Furthermore, high school sports encourage athletes to develop their leadership skills and understand the hierarchy of sports. Freshmen have certain duties to the team, while seniors have different responsibilities. Athletes are given the opportunity to change, mature and eventually become leaders on their team, a trait that is greatly valued by college coaches.

The bottom line: Playing club or high school depends on your sport and your goals as an athlete

If your family is wondering what your best move is—club or high school—the answer will depend on a few different factors.

  • What are your goals as an athlete? For athletes who want to specialize in their sport and really hone their skills in that one sport, joining a club team could be a great way to get the coaching and sport-specific development you need. Multisport athletes competing in different sports year-round, might find their best fit playing high school sports where each one has a distinct season. Read our article about multisport and one-sport athletes.
  • What sport do you play? If you’re a gymnast, soccer player, basketball player, swimmer, baseball/softball player, or play hockey, you might want to look into joining a club team. To stay competitive in the recruiting landscape, you may need to play club. For football players and track athletes, there is not essential to compete on a club team at this point.
  • Can you play both club and high school sports? Most current college athletes reported that they played both high school and club sports. For sports like baseball, this can be very realistic, as the baseball season (spring) doesn’t usually overlap with the travel ball season (summer). However, other sports—like soccer—are making it increasingly more difficult to do both. Do your research to learn what the season is like for club teams and your high school team. What you don’t want to do is have a huge overlap and get injured from playing too much.

It’s important to do your research, talk to your coach, and ask questions of families in your shoes. Club sports may not be right for you or your family’s budget, and that’s OK. You can still get recruited if you put in the work, have the talent, and utilize the right resources.

Read our article about getting recruited from a small high school.