Last weekend I ran an on-field training session with a club team at Bill Crother’s Secondary School in Unionville, a relatively nee high school with very impressive facilities, including 3 full size soccer pitches (2 turf, 1 natural grass) plus a full 400-metre track and stadium-style bleachers. For me this was a regular day at the “office” except for the fact that on this day, the school was also hosting a youth soccer tournament. As I began the long walk from the parking lot down to the field where I would be working with the team, I passed by dozens of young soccer players, tournament participants who looked to be about the U13-14 age, and their parents. I couldn’t help but notice some of the things I saw and heard as I walked by. Among the things that stood out the most to me were:
- Players walking to their cars with all of their gear still on (including full uniform, cleats and shin-guards)
- Parents unpacking coolers full of food, snacks, and drinks, plus tents and lawn chairs
- One player holding an ice pack on her face, and her mother trying to explain to some friends how she had been “kicked in the face, but no penalty was given”
- Another parent speaking to a group of players, telling them they “had better win the next game” because he “didn’t drive all the way here to come away with nothing”
Once I got to the field, I saw a very familiar sight for someone working in soccer in Canada. A game between two U13 girls teams, in which no passes seemed to be made by either team, yet parents from both sets of teams were cheering wildly and, on more than one occasion, coaching/instructing their children from the sidelines. At one point during the game, the referee (who couldn’t have been older than 16) missed an offside call, and a goal was scored on the ensuing break-away. Naturally, one parent from the team which conceded the goal started yelling at the referee, questioning his eyesight and calling him names. By this time I had to get to the other field to start my session.
As I mentioned, if you work in or are involved in youth soccer in Canada, the scenarios involving soccer tournaments described above may seem perfectly normal, and maybe even harmless. The problem, unfortunately, is that tournaments actually do a lot of real harm to player development in this country. First and foremost, tournaments hurt development because they force players to play in too many games, without enough recovery in between each game. The fact that players are keeping their shoes and gear on in between games, and that their parents are packing so much food and snacks, can only mean that they are playing multiple games over the course of each day, and in many cases, over multiple days. Basically all the scientific literature pertaining to youth soccer has indicated that players require at least 48 hours between games in order to recover, and all major youth soccer organizations (including our own Provincial and National associations) advocate that youth players play only 1 game per week. This is because, when players play multiple games without optimal recovery, their performance suffers (speed, power, strength, and endurance all get significantly lower) and their chances of becoming injured become much greater.
A second and perhaps more significant way in which tournaments hurt development is that they encourage competition over player development, and reward winning at all costs. Parents complaining about referees’ decisions (to the point that they become verbally and even physically abusive) and criticizing their own children/team for not winning, shows just how important winning can be in the typical tournament setting. Unfortunately, placing undue emphasis on winning games and tournaments puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on players, who end up determining their own worth in the sport not by their skill level, tactical knowledge, or fitness, but rather by whether or not their team wins or loses. Adding to the absurdity of the situation is the fact that winning any youth tournament or league means absolutely nothing in the long-term success of a soccer player. I have worked in several different higher level soccer environments in this country, including college/university, the Toronto FC Academy, and the Canadian National Teams, and I can say without a doubt that the coaches at these levels do not care whether or not any of their players won tournaments or leagues as youth players. What high level soccer coaches are concerned with when they are identifying and selecting players is only the players’ technical/tactical ability, physical fitness, and attitude. The development of these key attributes in youth players is almost always hampered with participation in soccer tournaments.
I can’t help but wonder why, in the year 2015, we are still subjecting our players to 2+ games per-day, and 3+ games per-weekend soccer tournaments? The rest of the world has long since changed the way they structure youth competitions, so that even in most international soccer tournaments, teams do not play more than one game in a day and frequently have at least 1-2 days off in between games. If our goal is truly to develop more talented, confident, fit, and injury-free soccer players, then I say it is time to stop playing soccer tournaments and to fully commit to long-term player development.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.