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. 
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.’
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!”
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.”
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.
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:
- Are they enjoying soccer?
- Are they learning?
- Do they feel like they are improving?
- Do they feel safe in their soccer environment?
- 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. 
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.