The Plague of Youth Soccer

I’ll begin with this: If you are a board member, administrator, director, or even a coach at a youth soccer club, you might not like the remainder of this post. Particularly if your club or organization hosts a tournament. What I’m about to say might sound like I’m calling you out. I’m not. But I do hope to bring some things to your attention that you might not have realized or thought about.

Almost every single weekend of the year, somewhere in the United States there is a youth soccer tournament happening. Hundreds or thousands of kids and families find themselves spending all day Saturday and Sunday on the field watching and playing soccer. There might be vendors, trophies, and all sorts of fun things going on. Some tournaments almost resemble a carnival of sorts. And they’re one of the biggest plagues in youth soccer.

That’s right. Despite the excitement of funnel cake, portable soccer balls on a string, and trophies, tournaments do more harm than good.

As we get into the reasons why, let’s first put things into perspective and remind ourselves: As adults, our number one priority is to serve the youth who play the game and do what is in their best interest. This must drive all of our decisions, and anything that contradicts what is best for player and youth development must be compromised.

Why Tournaments Exist
Why do tournaments exist in the first place? The cynic in me believes that the main reason we have tournaments is money. They are a major money-making venture. “Adults making money in youth sports at the expense of kids,” you ask? Of course! Such blasphemy has pretty much become the norm in today’s society.

The optimist in me recognizes that not everyone has such selfish motives and that many people might be trying to ensure the best for their players and children. They just don’t realize that tournaments are not it. Tournaments may seem fun, exciting, and like opportunities to learn. And sure, there are some elements of each of those. But the burden it places on kids is much greater than the amount of fun, excitement, and learning.

Why Tournaments Hurt Players
Tournaments hurt players. Literally and figuratively.

Physical Harm
Playing multiple games in a day is damaging to players physically. Therefore, playing multiple games within a 4-hour time span is ludicrous. This factor alone is enough to write off tournaments all together. We have kids who pull muscles, sprain joints, become overly exhausted, get dehydrated, etc. It’s not a natural or normal part of athletic development. It’s unhealthy. We are putting kids at risk of being seriously hurt and putting them through unnecessary physical strain. It’s a hindrance to their development as growing humans.

Science tells us that players whose muscles and bodies have developed (which can apply as soon as U12 or U13) should have at least 72 hours of recovery between games. The physical toll that players take from the intensity of a game is such that it requires three days of rest. Yet we often have kids play five games within 36 hours… Take a moment to consider that.

Due to the fact that we ignore the health of our children, we turn these tournaments into a competition of survival, not a competition of sport. You know that championship game on Sunday afternoon? It’s not a match between the best performing teams of the weekend. It’s a match between the two that survived and sustained less physical turmoil than the others. And since they survived and didn’t get as exhausted as the others, they get to play another game to ensure that they become even more physically harmed than the other teams.

Developmental Harm
Because of the physical damage of tournaments, the players’ development is also damaged. In order to become better players, children need to perform at their best every time they play. If they can barely run, they are not playing at their highest level. Since they have to focus on simply surviving, they cannot focus as much on making smart decision or executing technically.

The level of play drops dramatically when exhausted. Players cannot operate as fast or sharp when physically taxed. And worse yet, they become used to this level. The more our players play at a lowered level, the more they become used to it and the more that level becomes their definition of quality. It becomes their standard. By consistently playing at a slow and sloppy level, it becomes a habit, and it becomes the level at which they play normally, even when physically 100%.

And for all of us with college hopes: we better hope that all the college coaches watch us in our first game of a showcase. Because they otherwise won’t see us at our best. Speaking from experience as a former college coach, I always hated watching Sunday games at showcases — the level was so low that it was a waste of time, to no fault of the players.

So what do we do?
I know many coaches, club directors, and club board members who understand and know everything I have just said, yet they continue to host and play in tournaments with their youth teams. Why?

It’s often because the pressure they feel from other sources.

Hosting Tournaments
Financial survival can be stressful. We all have bills to pay and budgets to keep. Some clubs even rely on one annual tournament to ensure their financial survival the rest of the year. So they continue to host tournaments and sacrifice the development and bodies of their players so that they can pay their bills. To this, I encourage us to remember: the kids’ best interest is our number one priority. There are other ways to make money. We can be creative with it. You know all that work it takes to secure teams to play in a tournament? That same effort can be made to secure donations or sponsorships from local businesses. And like any financial advisor would tell you: don’t spend money you don’t have. Perhaps some of those bills the tournament is paying are unnecessary. Maybe you have to sacrifice or downsize that indoor facility, or have fewer full-time paid staff, or go from Nike to Score branded gear… There are many ways to get what you need and be efficient with your dollars.

Playing in Tournaments
“Because that’s what everyone else does.” “It’s the standard or what’s expected.” “Parents will leave because other clubs will play tournaments and we don’t.” All of these excuses are nonsense. They are not legitimate reasons for neglecting to do what is right. But the pressure is real. So use the information presented here to your advantage. Be the one club who is different. Proudly exclaim that you don’t play tournaments and tell everyone why. People surely cannot argue with the evidence behind it. And if they do, perhaps they are not the right fit for a player-centered club culture in the first place. And lastly, by not playing tournaments, we save a whole lot of money! If we don’t play in them, we don’t have to pay for them… Parents ought to flock to the club whose yearly fees are significantly less than the others, right?

So please, help put an end to the plague. Keep our country’s youth healthy, happy, and performing highly. Put an end to weekend tournaments.


Originally published at www.switchingthefield.com.

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