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Soccer Tournaments: The Plain and Simple Truth

By Tim Bradbury, Director of Coaching Instruction, Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association
There are key moments in adult life that act as epiphany times. Moments when the truth about certain events seem crystal clear. One such moment for myself was the first National Director of Coaching (DOC) meeting I attended which was being hosted by Dave Chesler, the technical director from US Soccer. All such meetings start with some form of ice breaker; I've sat through witty, entertaining, dull and truly educational ice breakers. On this occasion, Dave chose to pass around a magic wand which each DOC could take and announce one soccer wish.
I was intrigued and fascinated as the wand passed around the room and 90% of all present wanted the same wish. An entire room of many of the most respected and educated names in youth soccer and almost in total agreement…Soccer tournaments banned. Some wanted this for three or five years and some forever.
Thinking that over 90% of the 55 DOCs within the country could not all be wrong, I set about talking to a number of my colleagues to ascertain why this was such a passionate desire within the group. My conversations and research since have led to this article which I share in the hope that team managers and soccer parents can all gain a true understanding of the many issues that tournaments present.
From a historical perspective, when there were no regional or sub-regional premier leagues, tournaments were a method by which better teams could play better teams. A good idea that would be supported by any professional coach. The problem at this time was simply the format they used. With all that has been learned about child development, rest and overuse injuries, the two or three games a day format for an incredible two days was the source of the concern. The vast majority of tournaments insist on using a format which ensures the games are simply and truthfully anti-development and dangerous to the players participating within them. If at age 14, a player needs 72 hours to recover before playing or training at maximum ability again, how is it realistic to ask they play four games within 48 hours?
Based upon Nelson Mandela’s creed of
"There is no keener revelation of a societies soul than the way in which it treats its children."
As a soccer nation, tournaments suggest we are failing badly.
Three things happened, chronologically I am not sure in which order, but I fully understand what they are:
1) The structure of youth soccer changed and regional and sub-regional leagues became common. This development enabled better teams to play better teams in league play.
2) Clubs realized the enormous money-printing machine tournaments can be.
3) Got soccer was born as a result of teams being or feeling unfairly treated with tournament applications.
I will examine each of the three above individually as they are all worthy of major discussion.
1) With the structure of regional leagues and success at this level being another method of entry to the National Cup outside of State Cup play, things seemed to be heading in a good direction. In the majority of regions, these leagues involve single games over a 8- or 9-week season. This game format with elite teams playing other elite teams with an appropriate training / game ratio is close to an effective development model (suggested ideal is 1 game to 4 training sessions). Unfortunately within Region 1, the two games per day format negates the positives many other regions get to enjoy.
These high level elite leagues have been affected by the rise of US club leagues competing to attract elite teams with the promise of relaxed rules and more games (the very thing that player development experts believe to be one of major flaws of the US Youth soccer program).
2) The amount of money that clubs can generate from tournaments is both staggering and tempting. Clubs make tens of thousands of dollars from annual events. These clubs in an effort to constantly raise more money research more fields, accept more teams, recruit more referees and do all they can to get more $. Unfortunately, the cost of this endeavor is often one in the quality of the event. Fields that are subpar, refs that are shattered by doing eight games in a day and tournament schedules that are simply insane (try getting up at 5 am to travel 1one hour to a field for a warm up done in the dark to play a third game on a semi-frozen ground). You will have to search long and hard and possibly well outside of Region 1 to find a club based tournament where the above temptations have not been succumbed too. Once the main reason to host a tournament became a simple one of $ raised at the expense of the welfare of the players participating, parent alarm bells should have started ringing!
3) Got soccer and the machine it has become is simply another cog in the tournament money machine. Simply put, the more tournaments you play (the greater the costs to the soccer families), the more points you collect and the higher the bracket you get placed in. I have often been saddened and amazed by teams that enter tournaments while their players endure the high school soccer season. I remain convinced that research will one day produce the facts and numbers regarding injury rates of high school players who play in tournaments during their high school seasons and these results will leave us all shocked. Often competitive teams feel they must play more Got soccer events to get more points despite creating a ridiculous training/game play ratio. As a rule of thumb, if your youth team is U14 and they play more than three tournaments a year please politely ask why?
It is difficult to consider the tournament machine without considering the place of the professional trainer within it. This is where things become even more difficult. I do not consider people who get paid to train team’s professionals without at least a USSF B license or NSCAA Advanced National Diploma and a US Youth National license. With this being said, tournaments can be huge money machines to trainers as well. A great way, to judge the integrity of your trainer is to ask them how many tournaments within a year they consider to be developmentally appropriate while they also explain the extra income they will generate by having you play in them. Perhaps the most insane piece of this conundrum lies in the moment when the same trainers say they are only playing in these events due to parent demands.
The placement of teams in brackets is a whole other article that I will not go to in depth. Suffice to say at this time that due to Got Soccer, the nepotism of tournament directors to their own teams or odd rules like "we can't have two teams from the same club in the top bracket" placing’s will always be a source of discontent with players, families and team managers feeling betrayed and cheated. Unfortunately, the outcome of these debates is typically damage to the game.
I know in reading this many will agree with the points while thinking, "College showcase events are above the rules of common sense." In short, they should not be, indeed due to the enormous pressure on those playing and the more physical demands of the longer more adult like games, these events should be held to a higher standard. Three games maximum spread over three days would be my minimum suggestion. Perhaps the recent trend in college coaches holding three day onsite clinics will lead to a decline in the number of showcase events, perhaps not.
I fully realize that for the average soccer parent I have shared an enormous amount of information and that typically I would be asked to suggest a solution. I am acutely aware that nothing noted in this article will slow down the tournament machine. I am also acutely aware that tournaments place unrealistic and even harmful demands upon our youth players. It is my hope that if enough parents and players read and understand the issues involved that at some point in the future the players will be put first, after all, it is supposed to be their game. Perhaps at this future point in time we will use Mandela’s quote as a source of great pride.
"There is no keener revelation of a societies soul than the way in which it treats its children."