Since sailing became a varsity sport, I get to deal with the absolutely silly notion of varsity letters. It’s just so high school. One more thing to establish bragging rights over others. One more thing for the college resumé. One of the benefits of being a grown up is that I shouldn’t have to play high school anymore. One of my grown up skills is avoidance of uncomfortable situations, so on our sailing team we just award varsity letters to everyone.At best, I think about it like awarding Super Bowl rings to everyone associated with the team - everyone contributes in some way to the success of the team. Making distinctions between degrees of accomplishment or degrees of value to the team seems more often to create bad feelings of inadequacy than good feelings of achievement. The kids at the top of the pecking order or depth chart know where they are and do not need a varsity letter to feel a sense of accomplishment. The kids not at the top need encouragement and focus on continued improvement, and do not need an awards banquet that ignores or minimizes them in front of their friends. They’re teenagers for God’s sake. Are there any people more vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy than teenagers?
Aside from that sentiment, I can't come up with criteria that are really fair. First, the different levels are fluid on our team. Rather than have a so-called varsity sailor sit on the bench for a varsity event, I prefer to give him/her sailing time at the JV level. (We hold both varsity and JV head to head meets at the same time.) Some kids sail mostly in JV meets, but do a couple of varsity ones. Does one varsity event make a varsity sailor? If not one, how many? For those who decide to be crews, the pairing up with skippers is more a matter of personalities than skill. Some pair with a steady varsity skipper and get to sail in varsity events regularly. Others pair up with a lesser skipper, but the chemistry makes the skipper much better than he or she would otherwise be. The pairing does not necessarily represent meaningful differences in skill or overall value to the team, especially when considering the long term. Some freshmen decide to be skippers and almost always sail JV all year. They are usually more accomplished sailors than the crews who might be sailing in varsity events, but I want them to have that year as a skipper because in their overall development, that extra year at the helm can make a lot of difference by senior year. For skippers who do events at both levels, who sails at what level depends mostly on the overall talent level of the team, not on the skills of an individual sailor. We currently have 11 skippers and crews who would have been among the top 4 on the team five years ago.
Our mission as sailing coaches is to help the kids improve their skills and learn about the hard work and sportsmanship associated with sports. If varsity letters are supposed to be a measure of accomplishment, they miss the mark on every important thing we are doing. The harm in that is that it sends the wrong message to the kids. When the measurement is useless, give everyone a prize. The kids who are stars throughout their high school career are great, but a kid who progresses from just learning how to sail as a freshman to the number one or two sailor on the team by senior year is the bigger success story. Similarly, the kid who matures into a leader on his team is achieving one of the big picture goals of high school sports, even if he is not the best sailor. Varsity letters and the lack thereof have nothing to do with the important stuff. It’s just so high school.