High school and college sports in the United States are typically played at the varsity and junior varsity levels, so any student athlete wishing to compete will join one of the two. While both types of teams require excellent athletic ability and offer fantastic opportunities for self-improvement, there are important differences between the two.

A group of football players practice on a field.

Age and Ability

The varsity team typically represents the high school or college in intercollegiate or national competitions. It's usually made up of older and more experienced players than the junior varsity team. In high school, this means that the team is made up of students in grades 11 and 12. But in some cases, and depending on the school, a highly talented freshman athlete may be accepted directly into varsity.

The junior varsity team is made up of younger or less experienced players. Freshmen in high school typically join a junior varsity team first where they have time to mature and develop their skills and in later years may move on to varsity. In some cases, participation in junior varsity is a prerequisite to be eligible to play on the varsity level.

Do Junior Varsity Players Compete?

Depending on the sport and a particular game, junior varsity players may occasionally travel with the varsity team to games and be asked to participate when needed, for instance, to replace an injured varsity player. Occasionally, if the game is less important, a school may send a junior varsity team to compete.

Other than that, junior varsity teams compete with other junior varsity teams in a much lower-pressure environment than varsity.

Is Varsity Better Than Junior Varsity?

The varsity level may be something that every competitive student athlete aspires to achieve, but there are benefits to playing in junior varsity that go beyond participating in prestigious competitions. Because junior varsity is a much lower-pressure environment compared to varsity, it's an excellent setting for students to gain experience, hone their craft and develop leadership skills without the pressure of a big game.

Can You Participate in Both?

Some schools allow students to participate in both varsity and junior varsity competitions as long as the total number of competitions doesn't exceed the allowed contest maximums. For example, if a varsity team is allowed to participate in 40 contests according to the sport’s rules, and the junior varsity team is also allowed to participate in 40, a student athlete can participate in both as long as the total number of contests he participates in doesn't exceed 40.