Monday, March 31, 2014
How about this? We should stop holding tournaments for U-13 and younger teams that channel participants into a championship game. Why? Because the competitive nature of those “win or go home” contests doesn’t facilitate the development of young players. Additionally, consider the cost to benefit ratio. The expense of attending tournaments for young families often eats up a big percentage of any discretionary funds they may have. Shouldn’t they be able to get a full complement of games for their time, trouble and money instead of having the tournament cut short if they don’t advance? Shouldn’t they be able to challenge themselves against a variety of skill levels? Isn’t it rather demoralizing to spend money on a hotel Saturday night knowing that your team is already out of the race but you still have to play one last meaningless game on Sunday? How does a club and a coach justify the expense and time of a tournament to players who get little to no playing time because the team wants, one might even argue needs, to win?
Some experts contend that youth players shouldn’t participate in tournaments at all. Health professionals believe playing several intense games in the brief period of a weekend accelerates serious stress injuries. Other experts will say tournaments put the emphasis on performance rather than on development, which should be the most important factor for young players. Clubs and parents have bought into the theory that tournaments played (and by extension won) increase the club’s and the player’s worth. For the club, that can mean wooing better players for future years, and for the players, it can mean being identified by scouts. So, the popular opinion is to enter competitive tournaments early and often. In some cases, teams will play twice to triple the number of tournament games than regular league games that have an accompanying expense, both financially and physically. Many parents feel pressured to buy into the tournament mentality and actually go into debt just to support their child’s tournament play. Bob Gansler, the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach, stated that America “suffer[s] from a huge case of tournamentitis.”
There are definitely both benefits and allure to tournaments. I remember when the boys’ teams were accepted into the Disney Soccer Showcase at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. We thought we had died and gone to youth soccer heaven, only to get there and discover that, like most tournaments, only a small percentage of the games were played at the main venue with all the other games scattered around a 25-mile radius. Nevertheless, we had fun attending games, playing against teams from all over the world, and, of course, visiting Magic Kingdom. The opportunity to play teams outside of your usual regional pool helps teams measure their development and give them targets for development. We attended a tournament in Tampa, Fla., where our U-11 team played a team from England. The boys were nervous since their image of English soccer came from watching the dexterity and power of the English Premier League. They quickly discovered that U-11 players from England aren’t necessarily any more advanced than U-11 players in the U.S. They actually won the match. It was a great experience for us and the banner the English team members gave to each player is still proudly displayed in Robbie’s room. Of course, for the British players and parents, it was an exciting trip to the U.S. made possible through soccer. Tournaments can offer families, not just players, the chance to travel to parts of the U.S., even the world, they might not usually go. It can be an enriching experience for everyone.
Therefore, how can we address the problems of tournaments while keeping the benefits? US Youth Soccer speaks to the importance of the issue: “We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development and can reduce long-term motivation. Multiple matches being played on one day and one weekend have a negative effect on the quality experience and development of the individual player. Further, far too many playing schedules include so many tournaments and matches that there is never an offseason.” We might resolve these difficulties by instituting some simple boundaries.
- Teams younger than U-14 should not participate in more than three tournaments a year (one or two a season).
- Youth teams should be allowed a larger roster so players can rest for a half or an entire game during the event.
- Rotating playing time should be strictly enforced for tournaments.
- Reduce the “competitive” pressure of tournaments by eliminating championships for U-12 and below. Do a round robin with tournament directors being careful to pair up teams from different regions and giving as many teams as possible international opponents.
- Limit the number of games concentrated on the days of the event. Offer a special for teams that want to come a day early. Many teams that travel a great distance have to arrive on Thursday or Friday, so they might be excited to spread games out over more days. Local teams would probably be happy to participate as opponents on a weekday afternoon.
- Clubs should try to only do one tournament a year requiring air fare (or a really long drive) in order to mitigate family’s expenses.
- Clubs should offer parents the chance to select tournaments from options the coach has gathered rather than just being told this is what is going to happen. This allows sensitivity to expense and family vacation disruptions.
- Guest player rules for younger teams should be relaxed through state associations. Clubs might even consider joining forces and merging two teams for a tournament, clearing this officially with their state association. If the rules don’t allow for tournament mergers, then perhaps the board should consider updating the rules.
- Parents should be able to opt out of tournaments without any adverse effects on their child’s position on the team. This would be easiest to implement if guest player regulations were more liberal for younger teams.
- Since these youth tournaments won’t be about winning, coaches have no risks and will be able to sub regularly to reduce the risk of stress injuries, fatigue and inadequate muscle recovery. The added benefits are that parents who make major financial investments in attending these tournaments will be rewarded by being able to see their child play throughout the weekend.
Tournaments are money-makers for clubs, not to mention for businesses that specifically manage competitions throughout the country. There’s very little likelihood of tourneys being cut back in the near future. However, we can do things to make tournaments part of the overall development of players rather than events adding stress to schedules, finances and health. There’s no reason for teams to be whittled down to find a champion at these young ages. Instead, tournaments should be places where teams can not only further the development of their players, but enrich their competitive experience playing unusual opponents. Teams could still be ranked based on their league performances in order tobe sure not to have blow-out games, but because the quality of any league in any region can be difficult to accurately assess, it doesn’t necessarily follow that tournament rankings will be fair and exact. Therefore, it’s most important that teams all participate in the same number of games for their fees, they don’t overdo the number of games for any particular player through the benefit of larger rosters and making frequent substitutions, and they experience a variety of teams and levels in their matches. With some creative thinking, “tournamentitis” can still be infectious without worrying about its risks.