Thumbnail graphic by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern

On game days in high school, my soccer team would dress in a chosen spirit theme – from blue-out to cowgirls, you name it, we did it all. The idea: unity, team spirit and advertising the upcoming game. The unintended side effect: everyone automatically identifying me as an athlete the second I walked into the room.

I loved every minute of it.

I wanted people to know I was on the soccer team because I earned my spot through hard work. Being recognized for my sport validated the years of training on and off the field. During high school, it was easy to see where this work was leading me: the next game, the next tryout and ideally a state championship. After graduation, I wasn’t so sure.

Luckily, Northwestern is home to 29 club sports teams that allow students to continue to train and play or perform at a high level, while exploring other interests and finding other fulfilling communities.

NBN spoke to various club athletes about the role their sport plays in their college life. These students discussed how club sports strike a careful balance that provides community and high-level competition without being too much of a commitment to keep them from other interests.

Many club sports teams require tryouts and play in competitive leagues against other schools. Teams may travel on weekends for away games, sometimes staying overnight in hotels. These teams usually practice two or three times a week, depending on the time of year.

Like many participants on the more competitive club teams, McCormick second-year and Vice President of Women’s Club Soccer Nicky Williams has been playing her sport for much of her life but chose to attend college for academics over athletics. Soccer is one of several club teams with tryouts held early in the year.

“Having a community right when you come into school was massive because it already gave me a group of friends that I could lean on,” Williams said. “Especially having upperclassmen as mentors to talk to and hear about their experiences – that was huge.”

Medill first-year Club Hockey player Tyler Brown and McCormick first-year Club Basketball and Club Tennis player Sujee Rubio both agreed it's challenging for their teams to balance intensity and high-level competition with fun and inclusion. Brown, and several other athletes, said playing time in particular can be a point of contention.

“We do have a good enough team to win – our top end of the team is pretty good, but then [our coach] doesn't really utilize those players enough,” Brown said. “He wants to create more inclusive and equal playing time, which is fair because it is a club sport at the end of the day.”

For teams that do not have hired adult coaches, including women’s soccer and baseball, the often-elected student captains manage everything, including finances, practice locations and times, equipment, communications with the league and referees, playing time, and the structure of tryouts and trainings.

Weinberg fourth-year Sam Essex is the president of the Club Baseball team, a role he said he ran for because of his leadership ability and commitment to the team. Essex said it can be difficult to serve as an authority figure to their peers, but understands that it’s part of the job he signed up for.

“It’s pretty easy with the freshmen because I naturally feel more mature than them…But when I have to discipline someone like a senior friend of mine, that's a conversation that I don't really want to have,” Essex said. “But also, it's a disservice to the other people on the team if the seniors are able to get away with things just because I'm friends with them.”

Williams added that she was initially uncomfortable with leading players senior to her, but the older players recognize her commitment and respect her role.

“With our team, I think there’s a really good group understanding that I signed up for this position because I’m willing to put the work in and I want the team to do well,” Williams said.

Essex said younger players on the team have a skills advantage because they were more recently playing on teams with frequent and intense trainings.

“We're kind of all coasting off of our skills from high school. We're not really developing new skills; we don't have the time to do that,” he said. “The freshmen, a lot of them played summer ball, and then they go right into tryouts for club baseball. So they're in peak baseball shape.”

Not all club sports teams require experience or tryouts. Some are opportunities for students to try new ways of getting exercise and form a community. Weinberg third-year Olivia Sotos is on the executive board for Triathlon, a co-ed club open to anyone who is interested. Triathlon practices five days a week: two swims, two cycles and one run. Club members can sign themselves up to compete in triathlons throughout the year.

Sotos joined Triathlon as a first-year after she missed Club Soccer tryouts but still wanted to find a community she could exercise with. On all club sports teams, competitiveness and intensity vary by student. But most recognize that what they put in is what they will get out. Sotos said everyone on Triathlon has different skill levels but the same love for fitness.

“Sometimes I’d be playing high school soccer and I’d just be like ‘I’m stressed and I’m busy and I don’t want to be here’ even though I enjoy the sport,” Sotos said. “But at triathlon, you’re here because you want to be here and people continue to show up.”

Weinberg fourth-year Rui Wen is the president of the Aikido club, a group of fewer than ten students who practice a Japanese martial art twice a week. Wen had no experience in Aikido before coming to Northwestern, but she said it has improved her physical coordination and given her a valuable community.

“One very cool thing about Aikido is that it really requires you to focus on how you feel in your body. You need to be accurate in your movements and you need to just feel your body,” Wen said. “It’s kind of like putting your mind and body together. I think it’s a pretty good mindfulness practice.”

Many club teams organize social events to help their team bond and get to know other teams. According to Wen, Aikido has a club dinner once a quarter and sometimes goes out to ramen after practice. Many teams have a social chair, and for Triathlon in particular, Sotos plans social events to bring members together. She said she values how Triathlon brings many different people together because of a shared interest. Because of travel and practices, Sotos said she ends up spending a lot of time with her team.

Williams said Club Soccer is a “happy medium” between intramural and varsity in many ways: “[In high school], that was who I was: a soccer player,” Williams said. “I think I’ve healthily shifted away from that.” While she still prioritizes soccer, she believes it is “really important” to explore and develop other parts of her identity, like being an engineering student.

Brown said he has enjoyed playing hockey at an intense level without it being the only thing he is recognized for.

“We only had 300 kids total [in my high school], so the hockey team definitely had a stigma around campus,” he said. “Back then we’d have to wear suits to classes on game days, so everyone would be like, oh, this kid's a hockey kid, he's an idiot, he's a jock. Here, I can just be myself.”

For first-years such as myself, it can be a new feeling to not identify as an athlete anymore. Essex said he sees younger players holding on to that identity more at the beginning, but they grow out of it with time. I look forward to exploring other aspects of who I am in college, without having to give up soccer entirely. Because while I no longer need soccer to be my main priority, it is definitely still an important part of who I am.