Unlike the United States, European countries do not have high school athletics. It is a completely different system than what we have in the USA. Generally speaking, in America, athletes grow up playing sports for their respective schools and club teams. In Europe, the only option are club teams, because high school sports do not exist.
How Do European Club Sports Operate?
During my time here in Spain, I have had the opportunity to experience first hand what an athletic club is like, as well as have an inside look as to how a Spanish volleyball club operates. One of the main differences between the United States and Spain, is the mentality with playing sports beyond the age of 18. In America, athletes will play for their high school teams, and then for a club team during the offseason of high school, most with the hopes of securing themselves a scholarship by the time they are heading off to college. However, that is typically an American dream. For example here in Spain, athletes grow up playing club sports, and continue playing for clubs until they deem it’s time for retirement.
Another main difference between club teams in the United States and Spain, is the amount of levels and teams they have at each club. In America, clubs are divided by individual age group teams (15’s, 16’s, 17’s etc.), whereas in Spain they are also broken down into age brackets, but combined. For example, there are three levels you play at under the age of 18: Infantiles (this would be elementary schoolers), Juveniles (middle schoolers), and Juniors (high schoolers).
Once you turn 18 and head off to university, a club can have a range of different teams, offering the same teams for men and women. The different leagues are as follows: Autonómica 1 and 2 (think of this as a no travel, play for fun type of league), a national team (requires a decent amount of travel, with a much higher level of competitive play), and then you have Superliga 1 and Superliga 2. Both of the Superliga league teams are the Spanish professional leagues, with Superliga 1 being the best of the best.
How Do Teams Get Into Each League?
When a volleyball club in America opens their doors for the first time, they can have as many teams in any age level that they can afford, and have the athletes for. In Spain, you have to earn your right to play in each league above the autonómica level. For instance, if I wanted to open up my own volleyball club here in Spain for the upcoming season with a team of players 18 plus, I would have to register the team in autonómica 2 league. The team would play the season, and if they earned the way to the final tournament and took first or second place, the upcoming season we would be in the autonómica 1 league.
Each season as two teams move up one league, that requires two teams to fall down to the league below. When the season has finished, the bottom two teams in the league will then play in the league below the following season, and have the opportunity to earn their way back to the higher league just like everyone else.
If Athletes Only Play On Club Teams, How Do They Play Professionally?
Every professional team is associated with a club as listed above. Each club will generally have at least one professional team where they offer contracts, and sign athletes from all over the globe. However, these are also the same clubs athletes grow up playing for. By the time athletes reach the age where American athletes are thinking about playing for college, many European athletes are seeking out the opportunity to play professionally.
Some universities have university athletic teams, but normally athletes will play for both their club teams and university teams at the same time. Whereas in the United States, this is against NCAA rules. There are many athletes in Europe who go straight from their version of high school to playing professionally, and skip the university stage altogether.
However, many European athletes also have the dream of playing college athletics in the United States. They will create highlight videos and reach out to American universities just like any American athlete would, showcasing their skills and abilities from their club years. So just because many European countries do not have high school sports, it does not keep them from being successful in their respective sport at either the university or professional level.