We often think of tournaments as one riveting game after another. But the truth is that, no matter how many games your team plays in one day, players will spend the majority of time not playing.
"Down time," or the off time that occurs between and after games, serves as a crucial period for players to relax, unwind, bond, and recharge. As a coach, you should think about the purpose such time serves and the opportunities it allows.
Experienced coaches do not simply view down time as free time. Adrian Cox, who coached the FC Delco Hammerheads to three straight US Youth Soccer Region I (East) Championships and now coaches the U12 Lower Merion Lightning, organizes his team's breaks so that players and parents can stay informed and together as much as possible.
"I like to establish a routine throughout the trip," Cox said. "That goes for everything from having set meal times, to pre-game meetings, post-game meetings, and night meetings before the players go back to their rooms. The schedule might change every day, but it's a ritual that keeps everyone on the same page."
Darren Marshall, the new Director of Coaching for Eastern Massachusetts FC, says it's important to schedule down time activities before the tournament.
"We make sure to allot time for relaxing activities to keep the players fresh for the next time they hit the field," Marshall said.
Marshall suggests scheduling activities such as movies or homework time. Players need to conserve and replenish their energy between games. They should stay out of the sun, stay off their feet, and eat right.
Many coaches emphasize the importance of doing activities as a team off the field, as tournament trips can often provide a rich atmosphere for team bonding.
"I like to do a lot of things as a team," Cox said. "We do a lot of team meals. Or we'll go watch other games together."
"I like to do some group problem-solving," Marshall said. "I'll do an activity where everyone sits in a circle and you've got a milk carton with a quarter inside. There's a stopper in the top of the carton, and the players have to figure out how to get the quarter out without using their hands. So they have to work together.
P.J. Brown, head coach of the U15 and U16 Arsenal FC Boys Teams from Southern California, says he sometimes has bowling competitions in which the losing foursome has to clean the vans.
But Cox also suggests that coaches remember to give players some time to themselves, to let them unwind the way that they want to, whether it's hang out, listen to music, read, or watch TV.
"I also try to give players some freedom to do what they want on their own time," Cox said. "I'll let them go to the pool, or go to a movie. It's a balance."
Younger players need more supervision, but these players are also more likely to have parents accompanying them that can help supervise.
Many coaches set simple limitations on what players can do on their own time or with their parents. Brown states three basic rules for his players: "No beach, no small-sided soccer or other physical activities between matches, and no soda."
Because so much of the down time at tournaments concerns refueling with food and drinks, coaches might also want to review, or provide, recommendations for appropriate meals and snacks. Coaches, or assistants, should consider handing out a list to parents of good pre-game and post-game foods.
Although players might spend a lot of time with their parents at tournaments, coaches should also have lots of time to bond with their players, to talk to them about soccer, school, or anything else. Cox suggests that coaches take advantage of these opportunities, which can be rare during a typical soccer practice or game.
"On a trip you have a lot more opportunities to talk to players individually," Cox said. "You can pull a player aside and talk to them one on one. You have to pick and chose your moments, but there's a lot of time to get to know players, to talk about soccer and anything else that's going on. I enjoy letting the players get to know me, not just as a coach, but as a person. Off the field, I can be a leader, and a role model for all the players."
For Cox, although soccer games serve as the focus of tournaments, non-soccer activities can prove just as important.
"Those activities that you do together off the field are things you remember just as much as big games you play in," Cox said. "The times you spend in van rides, or having a meal, joking around, telling stories, those are good memories that can last a long time."