By Dr. Jay Martin
Tournaments! Tournaments! Tournaments! They are swallowing youth soccer in this
country! Everyone wants to play in tournaments!! Soccer America has an entire issue
devoted to tournaments. Every soccer publication in this country lists pages of
tournaments for our children to attend. Every year the biggest decision a club team makes
is...which tournaments do we attend? Most clubs have a person or three who do nothing Most clubs have a person or three who do nothing but prepare for tournaments! Stop the Tournaments, I want to get off!!! Tournaments are
hurting America’s soccer playing youth!
Soccer tournaments started in this country as a way for clubs to make some money to pay
the bills. Great idea. Clubs would sponsor a tournament early in a playing season, or in
the summer when league play was suspended to make some cash. Now these tournaments
rule youth soccer.
It is now very important to participate in these types of events. Many
clubs advertise for players based on the tournaments they attend. Many coaches entice
U16s, U17s, and U18s to their club by promising attendance at tournaments where college
coaches will attend. Really? Many players (and parents) choose a club solely based
on attendance and success in certain tournaments. Today, the main focus for teams, clubs,
parents and players are ... Tournaments!! The weekly league game (or two) is secondary
to the Tournaments! And maybe even eliminated from the busy tournament schedule. In
Central Ohio club teams must participate in a sanctioned league to be allowed to play in
tournaments. Some clubs have a team for the weekly league (usually a weaker team) so the
A team can compete in tournaments all over the country. And, if you don’t get into the
tournaments of your choice? Change clubs or create your own tournament. It works! Try it!
These tournaments allow our soccer playing youth to play a variety of teams in a variety of
states all year long. But, they are expensive. It costs the average family a weekend, car
mileage, hotel expense, entertainment for between games, food and video game money to
play in these weekend extravagances. Why? Because everyone plays in tournaments! The
kids will become better players. The college coaches can see them play! Everyone plays in
tournaments. Everyone that is except youth teams in other soccer playing countries.
The weekly game is the most important game for most other countries. Teams have one
week of training. One week of learning. One week to prepare for the game on Saturday or
Sunday. The most important aspect of learning the game happens in well-founded training
programs. The habits necessary to become a complete player are developed in training.
Training is important. Training is critical to the success of these soccer-playing nations.
Why is training important? Training allows a supervised and progressive means to learn
the game, if done properly! Training allows the player, coach and team to focus on the
areas of the game that will influence performance. What are those areas?
· Constant technical improvement
· Improvement of tactical understanding based on problems in the previous game
· Improvement of the mental aspects of the game by applying stress in the training situation in a variety of situations
· Team building
Do any of these things happen during a tournament? Not very likely. The very nature of
tournaments prevent this from happening.
Maybe in America, we are uncomfortable with training. It is a fact that some of our
youth soccer coaches do not have the background in the game as a player to feel
comfortable in training. The obvious solution is play games. So, we play games and don’t
train. Soccer teams in Germany, England, Holland etc. do play in tournaments. But those
tournaments are usually during a holiday break or serve as an excuse to go to Madrid for a
week. During the soccer season league games count! The entire focus is on the league
game. Promotions, relegation, rivalries all depend on the weekly game. Only in America
do the players play in tournaments to collect patches for their bag or to spend Memorial
Day in Lexington, Kentucky. Play. Play. Play. What happened to training?
These tournaments are killing soccer in this country. Young players can not learn how to
play in these types of situations. Everything about these tournaments is bad for the
development of American soccer players!!
Tournaments allow players and teams with slow pace or no pace to succeed. Teams play
three games in a twenty four hour period and if they are lucky play two more and win a
trophy. Assuming we accept the fact that minimum recovery takes twenty-four hours, it is
physically impossible to play that many games in a short time. In a recent tournament in
Central Ohio, for example, a U18 team played at 4:45 pm and 6:00 pm Saturday night and
at 7:30 am Sunday morning! What can a coach expect to get from the players in these
games? Nothing! It is not possible to play soccer in these situations. These tournaments
breed Underwater Soccer. Nice and slow...no change of pace...no defending. Soccer is not
meant to be played this way. Soccer is a game that is played when the player is
uncomfortable...when the player closes in on fatigue...when the player runs, works and
defends for ninety minutes. The very early laws of the game of soccer stressed a physical
component by not allowing a lot of substitutions. Fitness is a part of the game. Ah, so you
think there is a fitness component when playing in a tournament? No, there is not. There
is an energy conservation component...not fitness? American youth players stop running
when they are uncomfortable. And since they are playing so many games in a short
weekend, they just don’t run at all. When the players try to move on to the next level
(college),they are shocked to realize they cannot make the team. They don’t know how to
play! They don’t know how to run and they don’t know how to work. They don’t know
how to defend. They don’t know what the physical aspect of soccer is all about. They have
never been taught what it takes to play this game at a high level.
Technical development in a tournaments situation? No chance. The games do offer a
variety of opportunities to cultivate technical improvement. But, because the games are so
slow and there is very little defending, the time and space available for players is not
realistic for a real soccer game. In fact, it is counterproductive. When a player does get
into a real game, where time and space are limited he/she cannot play!
Tactical improvements? Don’t look here. There is no time between games to either discuss any tactical problems or work on them before the next game. If your team faces a
formation or tactic you haven’t seen before, what do you do?? Hope you don’t see it
again. As a rule, there is very little teaching going on in regards to tactics in many clubs.
The prevailing mentality is simply ...find the best players and let them play! Not a bad
strategy. But as players move on in their soccer career, an understanding of tactics is very
important. Even a constant teaching/review of 1v1; 2v1; 3v2 etc is essential to complete the
maturation of a soccer player. This tournament mentality does not allow this teaching to
take place. A player who relies only on athletic ability without learning the game will
hit a soccer plateau and not get any better. This happens far too often in the United
States. There is too much emphasis on the athletic ability of a player at the expense of
soccer ability. In addition, tactics are important in the development of the whole team. If
you agree with Alan Wade that the most difficult aspect of coaching a soccer team is
getting all the players on the same page then you will agree that teaching tactics is very
important.. To accomplish that, the team must have time to train together and learn
about tactics after each game!
And the problems do not end there. The mental aspect of the game is lost. Soccer is a
game where the mental aspect is so very important. In fact we delight in selling the game as
a player’s game and as a mental game. But, we do nothing about it. No less an authority
than former German international Jurgen Klinnsman feels that working on the mental side
of the game is lacking right now in soccer all over the world. There is no mental
preparation during tournaments at all. If it’s 2:00 it must be Vardar. Let’s go play
The young players do not learn that a warm up prepares you to play physically and
mentally! Rather they show up, perform some cursory warm up(or no warm up at all) and
play. As a result they simply go through the motions of the game and never get any better.
Preparation is important. Preparation is important for the individual and for the team.
The game of soccer is both physically and mentally demanding. It is the responsibility of
the coach to prepare for both. In tournaments preparation does not happen.
Fields? Are you kidding. So many teams want to attend tournaments that most
tournaments don’t have the space necessary to supply good fields. Fields are created on
any space possible. The grass is too long, the holes are too big, the field is too narrow and
very bumpy. The fields create problems with injuries and bad soccer. Narrow, bumpy,
heavy fields are not the surface to learn how to play. These fields contribute to a very
direct style of play and don’t allow for any creativity or any positive dribbling. The fields
at most tournaments are simply unplayable.
Officials? There is a shortage of officials all over this country. Any fall weekend will see
many officials working a high school game in the morning and a college game or two in the
afternoon and evening. As the hours on the job increase, the quality goes down. This is
exactly what happens with tournaments. Officials will do four, five or six games each day.
Officials have been known to eat lunch while working a line. And, how about that six-o-
clock game. What can anyone expect from an official who has been on the field for six or
eight hours? These long hours for officials can cause real problems in tournaments!
Some parents and coaches argue that they cannot get better playing the same old teams
and tournaments allow better competition. Every league in every other country plays
the same teams each year. The concern for these teams is to make themselves better.
There is very little concern about who they play. The teams train hard all week to put
what they learned on the field on the weekend. They learn how to play the game
systematically and with a sound progression. Our tournaments kids miss out on a lot
of necessary soccer information. Traveling eight hours to play three games in eighteen
hours does not make a team better. Quality of competition is important, but the
quality of each team’s effort each game is what counts in the end. The time spent traveling
would be better spent training at an intense level and preparing for the GAME on
Some tournaments have addressed some of these problems. The Cincinnati Blue Chip
Classic each April allows each team to play only once each day. The teams play three
games in three days. Not great, but better than the usual five games in two or three days!
Recently adidas began an Elite Soccer Program (ESP) that brings in some of the best
male and female soccer players to a site for five days of training and games. Each of these
programs allows the players to be seen by college coaches and play only one game a day.
The players have a chance to play the game at a higher level than the weekend
tournaments. The college coach can see if the kid has a game.
A tournament now and then is fine. It can be fun for the club, the players and the
parents. Maybe they can travel to some cities that are fun. A tournament can bring a
team together and build some morale. But too many tournaments will prevent the
natural progression of learning that will take place in well organized and thoughtful
training sessions. Training sessions that use the last game as a learning situation to build
on and training sessions that prepare the team for the next opponent. The old coaching
expression that ...the game is the best teacher is not true. Games used as a laboratory
and supplemented by systematic and progressive training sessions ...is the best teacher!
Stop the tournaments!
Dr Jay Martin is the current head soccer coach and Athletic Director at Ohio Wesleyan University, the 1999 NCAA Division III national champions. He is one of the winningest collegiate coaches. Jay is the past president of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), and serves as the head district ODP coach for the Columbus area.