Player Development Series: The Value of Tournament Play

When I first started coaching teams, as we advanced we quickly distanced ourselves from local competition.  Being close to the Houston area, we used tournaments in Houston to find competitive matches in our age groups.  Otherwise, in our home area (Golden Triangle), we had to play teams several years older.  While that is less of a problem between 15 and 18 year olds, the differences between pre-pubescent and post-pubescent kids was extreme.  And, even as we found older teams to play, there were very few.   Tournaments were a way for us to play different teams and to have some fun at overnight trips.

So, tournaments were a way for us to improve and compete against teams our age.  But, as we started winning them, the allure to play in more and more tournaments grew.  Were we playing to build memories and improve, or just to win trophies?

And, while tournaments are valuable fundraisers for clubs, if the focus for a team is on tournament victories, is the team doing what is best for the individual players?  In most cases, the tournament games are shorter.  With emphasis on success in the specific games of the tournament, parent (and coach) anxiety is at an all time high.

I have been reading the book Coaching Outside the Box by Paul S. Mairs and Richard E. Shaw.  It is an excellent book by two former English professionals that pulls together lots of useful information on player development in the U.S.  Here are some great quotes regarding tournament play (they dedicate an entire chapter to it):

From Claudia Reyna (former U.S. MNT player and U.S. Technical Director) directed to coaches of youth soccer teams:

For me, it is irrelevant if coaches win state cups, regional cups, and national cups. How many trophies they have in their cabinets isn’t important. It’s about the kids, it’s not about you. We care about how many players you develop rather than how many trophies you win. [1]

The authors suggest that we participate in tournaments because of the “reverse-dependency trap.”  What this means is that parents are curious to push their kids into these environments to see how they compete and compare with the “best” players and teams around.  They say:

But again, being concerned about how your child measures against 9, 10, or 11 year old children from another state is a waste of time because significant variances in growth and development will take place between players; so how your child compares now will most likely be completely different in the near future anyway.  However, desperate for another ‘fix,’ many parents march on as they are driven by an insatiable appetite for temporary gratification coming from their child’s and their team’s performing well while picking up another trivial medal on the ‘big stage.’[2]

Sam Snow, our U.S. Youth  Director of Coaching says:  “Often teams participate in tournaments for poor soccer reasons or no soccer reason at all!”[3]

Another problem with tournaments is that sideline coaching is magnified at tournaments because the coach feels the pressure to win the game – even though the focus should be on the kids, not the coach.  “Often, coaches and parents simply hijack the games, constantly stifling players’ opportunities to make their own decisions, experiment, and implement imaginative skills.”[4]

Professor Douglas Abrams from the University of Missouri, states:

 Screaming, ridicule and other adult-imposed pressures do nothing to toughen child athletes, hone their skills, or enhance competitive spirit. Indeed, the pressure often backfires by inducing debilitating fear of failure, which inhibits performance and leads some children to seek comfort on the sidelines by feigning or over-exaggerating injury or by quitting altogether.[5]

Another problem with playing too many tournaments is risking injury to youth players, especially during times when their body is developing.  “Overuse” injury accounts for 50% of injuries in youth sport.

I can sympathize with parents and kids who enjoy the tournaments, the hotel stay, and even winning trophies.  But if it is the primary focus of a team, then that team is not necessarily doing what is best for its players.  For example, in the hyper-competitive tournament play cycle, players in brackets as young as 10 years old are limited to 1 position because the team is so focused on results it cannot afford to let players experiment, especially in a shortened game.  So, the player develops one aspect of their game.  This is why some excellent youth teams do not translate the team success into individual player success at the highest levels.  It is why a great “team” has to look for players on teams where the emphasis is more on development rather than results too early–where kids are given the freedom to experiment–where players are more developed because they have not memorized and learned one coaches’ tactical instruction (and limitations).

I know it is hard for parents to see this.  And it can be frustrating when they see the teams that their players are on lose to other teams they feel they should win against.  But, ultimately, as a parent you should ask yourself (and your child) the following questions:

  1. Are they enjoying soccer?
  2. Are they learning?
  3. Do they feel like they are improving?
  4. Do they feel safe in their soccer environment?
  5. Are they okay with failure in their environment or are they afraid to make mistakes?

Obviously, you are looking for yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and NO!

If you are looking for a team for your child because they win a lot of tournaments, you may be making the wrong decision.  In any professional youth soccer environment, that is not a criteria used to measure talent, growth, or success.  It is doubly sad that in our state of youth soccer coaches from different clubs actively recruit players from their club based on their “tournament success.”   If approached, merely ask the person why they want your child or team to change clubs?  (Or, as my cynical lawyer’s mind would ask – “what is in it for you?”).

Here are two final quotes quoted by Mairs and Shaw – one from John Allpress, the National Player Development Manager with the English Football Association (F.A.) – he has worked with players including Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott, and others who play in the English Premier League.  The other from Dean Whitehouse, a youth coach for Manchester United.  From Allpress:

 Games are about helping players improve. For example, we would focus our half time reviews on the learning objectives we set before the game, rather than the score. Therefore, we could be losing, but if we witnessed our players trying the things we spoke about before the game, we would praise them. On the other hand, we could be winning, but if the players were not attempting the things we had referred to before the game we would remind them that the main goal was learning. [6]

From Whitehouse:

 It is crucial that everyone understands that games should be utilized for learning and players feel they have the freedom to express themselves.  We realize that the final score is not as important as learning at this moment.  If young players are pressured to win every time they step on the field, they will not receive the opportunities that are vital to their development, nor will they feel confident about practicing and implementing new skills or ideas.[7]

I highly recommend the book Coaching Outside the Lines.  Here is a link to order it from Amazon:  

[1]           Reyna, C.: Coaches should sit down, Soccer America

[2]           Mairs and Shaw, Coaching Outside the Box, p. 112.

[3]           Snow, S. (2008) Beware of Tournamentitis, Soccer America at :

[4]           Mairs and Shaw, Ibid. at 113.

[5]           Abrams, D.E., (2002) The Challenge Facing Parents and Coaches in Youth Sports:  Assuring Children Fun and Equal Opportunity, Villanova Sports and Entertainment Law Journal, Villanova Univ., 1-33, at

[6]           Mairs and Shaw, Ibid. at 23.

[7]           Id.

Ajax Video Review Part I: Heroes of the Future, The Ajax Training Concept (age 7-12)

D381-2I purchased the video set from Ajax titled Heroes of the Future to get a glimpse at Ajax’ storied youth development model.  I will post about different parts of it in a series.

1.  Recognition of Talent

Everyone is born with different hereditary differences and whether a player will develop into a star may be based on genetics.  Here are characteristics they look at:

  • Technical – how a player touches the ball; ball control
  • Tactical – ability to read the game and make decisions; anticipation
  • Mental – discipline, self-knowledge, and the will to win
  • Physical – agility and good acceleration

Characteristics are the traits you inherit – for some, you can do nothing to improve them (like height), but for others you can stretch them (within limits).  Skill is the process of improving your characteristics.

2.  Key Determining Factors

The two factors are (1) the Playing Concept and (2) biological considerations (emphasizing different skills at different ages).

3.  Integrated Approach

The 4 skills are interwoven in soccer training.  Depending on the age, depends on the amount of focus.  For example, Technique is worked on from 7-9 — you must learn to master the ball.

  • Technical – heavier focus from 8-12
  • Tactical – heavier focus from 12-18
  • Physical – throughout

Ajax has their players participate in judo and gymnastics at young ages to compliment physical development of agility and acceleration.  Ajax refers to this as “multi-skills” and they see this as critical in the 7-12 ages for proper development of the motor system.  In other words, playing other sports and doing other activities other than soccer is seen as not only healthy, but as assisting the development of soccer-related physical skills (agility, coordination, speed, strength).

4.  Self Confidence (7-12)

Coaches are critical to players being creative.  Coaches must be careful (1) what they say, (2) when they say it, and (3) how they say it.  Never give negative feedback to players during play, especially at young ages.  Give praise when they do something well.  There is no need to praise all the time as it marginalizes the praise when it is earned. Be specific with your praise.

5.  Age Considerations

While coaches will work on all 4 categories throughout the soccer education, you will work on some more at some ages.  In the young ages, more time should be spent on technical work and Ajax likes the use of repetitions.  For example, repetitions of dribbling sequences.  “The best way to learn is to constantly repeat the same move in the same situation.”  What I get from this is that static dribbling exercises are encouraged.  Everything does not have to be dynamic.

Do not criticize decision-making at the young age (7-12).  That is a tactical approach that is focused on from 12-18.  The “have you made the right choice” question is reserved for the 14-18 ages when training is more focused on teams and less on individual play.  “You mustn’t clutter players’ minds with team tactics too early…too much emphasis on team tactics can be detrimental to a player’s development…that is why in the large part of the program, team tactics are subordinate to individual talent.”

6.  Passing

Ajax is most concerned with the accuracy and speed of the pass as opposed to who the pass is played to.  This is where they advise staying away from criticizing decision-making; rather, design exercises where good decisions are easy to make.

7.  Individual Learning Plan

Each player has his own individual learning plan.  You must discover the specific skills a player has.  One player may have vision but lack speed, or vice-versa.  Here are the questions they pose for each player:

  • What characteristics does he have?  What skills does he have?
  • What skills does he need for his position?
  • In what area should he improve?
  • What is the best way to achieve that?

It is different for every player.  As a coach, you must be honest with the time spent on developing a skill with a player.

I will share information from the other videos one by one.  Very interesting stuff.

CTE & Soccer – New Stories Out

For those of you who read this blog, you know that I post as much information as I can find about the effects of repetitive heading and brain injuries in soccer players.  Yesterday, a story broke about a recently deceased soccer player confirmed with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).  He died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) at age 29.  He played soccer all of his life and continued his play in college then in the Professional Development League (PDL).  Here are a couple of stories about it:

The main point that is made is that soccer is a game where there is repeated trauma to the head.  The first article noted practice as the main culprit because of the repetition there.  Interestingly, in Italy, they had already concluded a study stating soccer players were more likely to develop ALS than populace in general.  (See first article).

The Often Overlooked Role of the Trainer as Teacher, Part III

This is the final piece in a Three-Part Series from Sebastian Giraldo, PhD, regarding the role of the soccer trainer as a teacher.  You can access the prior posts on the home page if you cannot find them.  There is also a search feature.  Many thanks to Sebastian.

The Trainer as an Actual Human Being

To this point, we have covered some basics on the important role of the teacher in student learning. Let us now move to understanding the teacher as a person. What characteristics do good teachers possess? Do trainers need different skills to succeed? You will quickly realize that research findings in regard to the characteristics of a successful teacher largely overlap with common characteristics possessed by a successful trainer.

1. Effective teachers care and show that they care. Caring can take on many vehicles but the important part is that the caring is acknowledged by the student. Research shows that students believe successful teachers to demonstrate gentleness, understanding, knowledge of the students as individuals, nurturing, warmth, encouragement, and overall love of children (I cannot claim the last one  <—-don’t worry, this is a joke). This leads to several implications for youth soccer training. Our players want us to connect with them beyond the soccer level. They want to be treated as individuals, listened to, and understood. Players want teachers who give them focused and sympathetic listening. If you understand your players through their problems and try to help them, they will value you as a teacher. I will use my dad as a perfect example here. Despite being 59 years old, he connects with younger players better than anyone on our GEF staff. This provides a glimpse into his personality .

Parents often tell us that he has a gift and some kind of magic in the way he handles kids. I don’t doubt that he is gifted, but I have also witnessed the effort and relentless work he has put into becoming a great teacher. He always tries to understand his players and students as individual people. He goes well beyond what is expected of a teacher to connect and gain the trust and understanding of his pupils. The lesson is that while he might have an aptitude for teaching, he is a person that has put work into his craft and understands that caring is an essential component of being an effective teacher.

2. An environment of fairness and respect is vital for learning. Effective teachers establish rapport and credibility by emphasizing, demonstrating, and practicing fairness and respect. When people attend GEF sessions for the first time, one of the first observations always has to do with the respect, discipline, and friendliness of the training environment. Be fair and respect your players and they will begin to open up (remember more effective teachers know their students on a more personal level) and will begin to buy in to the message of the training program. We often want to give instructions for every little detail of training, but in reality, as research demonstrates, the more we empower our youth the more committed they will be to their learning and the program itself. Treating players fairly and with respect will go a long way in accomplishing training goals.

3. A teacher’s enthusiasm for teaching and learning is an important part of effective teaching. Bottom line is that students view effective teachers as motivational leaders. Effective teachers know how to target individual student needs and be flexible in their teaching. This is a significant concern in soccer training as we have trainers that often develop a certain style and then stay committed to that style for decades. Effective teachers are flexible in their teaching and learn how to motivate players as individuals. High levels of motivation and enthusiasm in a teacher has been positively related to high levels of student achievement.

4. A teacher’s attitude toward their profession makes a large impact on learning. Effective teachers are not only committed to student learning but also to personal learning. This goes back to the commitment addressed earlier in regards to personal professional development. Effective teachers are constantly learning so that they can better know their subject and themselves in order to target students successfully. Teachers must be positive about their profession and their students. Every student can learn. Every player can learn and become a better soccer player.

5. The most effective teachers are constantly reflecting on their craft. We need to accept as trainers that we are involved in a profession that requires endless learning. This should be exciting for trainers and not daunting. We should constantly be searching to refine our craft and examine ourselves. The best trainers are often concerned about the art and science of training, improving lessons, how to better target player learning, and are willing to try new approaches (it is ok to fail). One of the best pieces of advice I have received in my professional experiences is the idea that my learning should never stop. Even from less experienced trainers or unlikely sources, try to learn something.

This discussion on successful and effective teaching has myriad implications for youth soccer training. One of my biggest concerns is that we continue to try to improve our soccer development programs without addressing one of the major problems. The majority of trainers are not trained to teach. Some of the research presented here can be easily applied to current soccer programs at little cost. If we shift from the perspective that soccer trainers are there to train kids in soccer and start viewing trainers more as educators, we are moving in the right direction. We always tell our GEF trainers “an average person could be extraordinary at this.”

Sebastian Giraldo

Co-Owner Giraldo Elite Futbol



Twitter: @GEFSebastian