The ABCs of youth team organization

Howard At Play

Recreation and local sports in Howard County


The soccer tournament on this page was a "classic," which may seem odd, especially if you are getting acquainted with youth sports. But use of that word has meaning if you are into youth soccer, which like all team sports for kids comes with an array of competitive jargon.

Here is something of a primer on how youth team sports are organized:

AGE GROUPS: Players as young as 4 or 5 begin in "clinics," or introductory play. Age groups evolve into "rec-level" and then "travel" teams for players through high school age. Through it all, the idea is to keep things competitive with players of similar coordination, experience, physical development and ability. Older teams, in general, beat younger teams.

Age-group definitions vary from sport to sport.

Soccer, for example, forms teams in one-year increments, with "under-12s," meaning for players who are ages 12 or younger.

Baseball and softball usually group players in two-year increments.

Hockey makes age groups mind-boggling for outsiders by clinging to outmoded names such as "peewees" and "midgets" -- it's a Canadian thing.

Football, for safety reasons, allows players a couple of years apart in birthdays but under certain weights to compete against one another. In most sports, youngsters can "play up" with players who are a year or, occasionally, two older, depending on skill and physical maturity.

RECREATION: "Rec-level" teams, sometimes called "neighborhood" or "in-house" squads, compete for the most part within a given community or area, say, Columbia or Savage or western Howard County. For most, regardless of the sport, that term "rec ball" emphasizes fun, learning and participation far more than winning.

Depending on the number of players and the skills of those players, rec leagues are sometimes subdivided into "A" or "B" play in another attempt to keep things competitively balanced.

TRAVEL: On "travel teams," which compete in age groups against teams from other communities, coaches begin to emphasize winning -- not that fun and learning aren't important, too. But anyone who wants to play usually can find a rec-level team on which to participate; not so with travel teams, for which tryouts are usually required, and more skilled players are retained.

Travel teams typically practice more frequently than rec teams, compete in tougher leagues, have longer seasons and at least once or twice a season compete in multigame tournaments that are played over a three-day weekend.

Within travel teams, you will find another delineation. In Howard County, for example, you will hear about football clubs competing in "American" or "National" divisions -- a demarcation that divides players according to experience and skill level.

In soccer, you will hear of "premier" and "classic" teams and leagues. Premier teams, in general, have players capable of playing faster and with a more consistent skill mastery than those on classic teams. While the national soccer minds who decided on the premier/classic terminology some years ago were trying to avoid obvious labeling of kids, players on classic teams know that there is another level of play to conquer.

The players on this page were competing last weekend in the Soccer Association of Columbia -- Howard County's annual Classic Tournament. The club's widely known tournament for premier teams from up and down the East Coast, and sometimes beyond, is conducted over Memorial Day weekend each year.

On Saturday and Sunday, players from 105 classic teams -- up from 85 last Labor Day weekend -- that normally compete in the Baltimore Beltway League and the lower divisions of the National Capital Soccer League (for boys) and the Washington Area Girls Soccer leagues, took part.

The preseason tournament included some -- pay attention, now -- rec-level A teams that are not normally invited to such tournaments. But it is from rec-A that classic and premier travel teams get new blood.

"We wanted to broaden the opportunities for rec-A teams, so they can see just how good they are," said Columbia's Louise Waxler, the tournament's director. "But even so, this is a tournament that's about kids playing, not necessarily about winning a trophy. We try to make it kind of a laid-back, fun event."

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