Tag Archives: winning

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:  http://www.amazon.com/Coaching-Outside-Box-Changing-Mindset/dp/0615700128/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1398179501&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=coaching+outside+the+lines+soccer.  


[1]           Reyna, C.: Coaches should sit down, Soccer America http://www.socceramerica.com/article/41990/claudio-reyna-coaches-should-sit-down.html.

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

[3]           Snow, S. (2008) Beware of Tournamentitis, Soccer America at : http://www.socceramerica.com/article/25076/beware-of-tournamentitis.html

[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 http://thecenterforkidsfirst.org/pdf/DougAbrams.pdf.

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

[7]           Id.

Can Winning be a part of Player Development?

barcaYes!  It has to because soccer is a competitive sport.  When I say “competitive” I mean at the end of the match, there is a usually a winner and a loser.  This topic has intrigued me for a while.  At the same time, there are several sources that I have quoted here that have stated that our emphasis in youth games is a detriment to development.  The problem is that if you take an 8 year old with a team of 8 year olds, if you emphasize winning you will do things as a coach that neutralizes development.  It could include position specialization.  It could include too much emphasis on tactics.  Too much pressure on results leads to less experimentation, creativity, allowances for mistakes, etc.  As I was reading Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, by Graham Hunter, he includes some information about the concept of quality competition in development that is interesting.  In Chapter 9, Breeding Ground, he includes quotes from Xavi and others directly on point.

Pep Guardiola states in Albert Puig’s (Technical Secretary of the Youth Program at Camp Nou) book La Fuerza de Un Sueno,

Winning is not incompatible with a good early  training. On the contrary, good early training means that youngsters develop into players who win, but who win the right way.  They respect their opponents, behave at all times as representatives of the club, accept that there is someone in charge, have tactical discipline and work hard at training. That is the way to win. (Hunter, 342)

Sometimes in our “player development model” we forget that soccer is a competition – the ultimate objective is to win.  We need to make sure, in our effort to stem the tide of over-coaching at young ages that we do not swap sides of the continuum — kids need to understand that their objective, however they are placed, is to win.  Xavi stated:

Before you become a professional you need to learn and develop, but without losing your competitive edge. In Barca, we all understand that. Development is a priority. The young lads learn footballing concepts and understand why we do things in a certain way whilst maintaining their competitive spirit, their desire to win.  It’s good to express anger you feel when you lose. In the futbol base the priority is training and development, but the objective is to win. (with emphasis)(Hunter, p. 342)

So, how can we structure academies and the like to reconcile development with winning?  To be sure, players need to be challenged at their level to grow.  Last Spring, we resolved this problem with a small group of U10 academy boys by removing all teams but still having games every saturday.  Each game was on an official field, with an official refereeing.  Uniforms were worn.  Each Saturday, the small group of boys reported to their field to play a game — they played against the same small group of kids each week — these were kids within a small development grouping so the balance on the field was always good.  But, they had different teammates each week.  The reason we opted for this method was that the boys that were in the Academy were more advanced than the players their age in the area.   Having them play each other each week solved the problem of ability-based competition.  At the end of each game, there was a winning team and a losing team.  The boys knew that.  The competition during the game was intense.

At the same time, no standings were kept.  Since we had no defined teams, standings would have been meaningless and administratively infeasible.  In other words, we preserved all aspects of a competitive game:  the field, the uniforms, the teams, the referee, the length of the game.  The only thing we tossed was standings.  Was this a success?  To me, it was a tremendous success and a great deal for the boys.  In the prior fall, they had to play up into a level above them, at a competitive level (Division 2).  Even then, they won the bracket but regularly were playing boys older and bigger than them.  In this Spring Academy, they were able to compete against people at their age AND ability.  And, since we only had 12-14 boys each week, we played 6v6 which meant a smaller field and more ball touches — another plus for the boys.

How did the parents receive this?  I must say, at first there were some questions.   Over time, I would like to think that the parents appreciated what we were doing and the benefits of it.   The atmosphere of the game, while competitive, was also congenial.  The parents were all excited for the success of any of the boys, even if the player was against them on the day.  That was another plus.

Soccer is a competitive sport.  While we need to focus on development in the early ages, it is important that the players still realize that soccer is a competition — one in which there will be a winner and a loser (usually).  To highlight the balance, Hunter provides this great quote from Mazinho, Brazilian world champion and father of Thiago and Rafinha.  The boys’ 5 a side coach routinely told them that the most important thing they did was “to participate.”  He corrected the coach:  “You are mistaken. The most important thing for any of them to do is to compete.”  (with emphasis)(Hunter, 344).   You can structure opportunities to compete while allowing for player growth.

Tactics v. Technique: Are Americans too Tactical too Soon?

What is the difference between tactics and technique?  When is the right time to develop tactics?  While there very well may have been times or years where I was guilty of the subjects discussed below, it is by experiencing the mistakes of over-teaching tactics to young players that I have learned its weakness–it retards soccer development.  So, for starters, let me set out some definitions.


When I refer to tactics, I am talking not about how to pass, but where to pass.  Technique covers how to perform various passes, dribbles, traps, runs, etc.  To me, tactics are about the when and technique is about the how.   If you watch trainers work with kids, some will spend more time on technique while others are more tactical in their sessions.  I think I am somewhere in between.  I pitted them against each other in the title to this entry because, from what I have seen, many of our parent coaches have over-emphasized tactics (result) at a young age rather than technique (player development).


Tactics, in a U9 game, may mean keeping your best goalie at goalie all game to ensure the victory.  While he or she will gain valuable experience between the pipes, if treated like that regularly, will be prevented from growth in other areas.  Soccer is like everything else — you best learn the technical stuff early because the older we get, the harder we are to teach (or un-teach bad habits).  So, between the ages of 6-12 kids are primed to learn correct muscle memory.


Another typical example is having a fast kid as forward coupled with a strong defender instructed to send the ball up (long balls).  The tactics in this situation maximizing scoring but marginalizes technical improvement.  So, while playing a long ball up front may make it more likely that your team scores a goal with a given forward, it deemphasizes important aspects of technical improvement, like ball control and dribbling, that need to be developed at young ages.  


Or how about when a boy or girl who is relegated to one position every year from age 6-12.  It may be that a child has a talent to play fullback, but if he is not given opportunities to play in the middle or up front then his growth in the game will be limited by his experience.  It may be that playing a certain kid at fullback gives your team the best chance of winning an under 9 game, but how will that help the player later on?  


A couple of our soccer authorities have weighed in on the issue.  We all know Landon Donovan.  Here is what he had to say:  

“As a kid you need to touch the ball as much as you can. You should always be with the ball. You should have a feeling that wherever the ball is, you can do anything with it. No matter where it is, where it is on your body, how it’s spinning, how it’s coming at you, the speed it’s coming at you, anything. You can learn the tactical side of the game later. It’s amazing to me that people put so much emphasis on trying to be tactical and worry about winning when it doesn’t matter when you’re 12 years old. We’re going to have big, strong, fast players. We’re Americans, we’re athletes. But if we never learn at an early age to be good on the ball, then it’s just useless.”  Landon Donovan, USA World Cup hero, Soccer America, July 2002 (with emphasis).  

Read what Bobby Howe, the former US Soccer Federation Director of Coaching Soccer said about selfish young soccer players while he addressed the unimportance of winning small-sided youth games:

“Even when the kids graduate to six-v-six, there should remain little or no emphasis on playing a position, on winning, or on restricting individual decision-making. The individualist who would rather dribble than pass may not quite be the pariah that (s)he’s assumed to be. The ability to dribble past several defenders in a limited space is a quality that only a handful of the game’s greatest players have acquired. Kids should not have their creativity stifled, especially at younger ages.”  Bobby Howe,  How to Play the Game: The official playing and coaching manual of the United States Soccer Federation (with emphasis).  

Some of the problem associated with this issue comes from the parents.  Our culture not only overemphasizes winning in youth games, we overstate the value of the forward.  Parents routinely demand (or passively demand) that their kid play forward.  The kids are aware of this.  Many parents offer incentives on the number of goals scored by a kid.  That may be a good incentive in an U6 game where you are teaching kids what a goal is, but it is not helpful later on.  It overstates the importance of the shot taker with no regard to the assist or build up.  Kids adopt the beliefs of their parents too.  So, if parents only value goal scores, then a kid will usually feel likewise.  To me, a kid who “does not want to play defense” is usually paired with a parent who says that “their kid just doesn’t know how to play defense.”  From a coach, the statement is a back-ended justification of why their kid is playing up front (I find most coaches’ kids play forward).  From a parent, it is a back-handed way to request the kid to play forward. Ironically, forwards and midfielders (and attacking mids) play a lot of defense.  Further, the modern soccer game is going away from a beefier front line and placing more strength in the middle (4-5-1 formation variations).  You better know how to defend to attack. 


The solution to this is to deemphasize the result and rotate kids around more.  If between the ages of 6-12 we deemphasize winning in lieu of player development, it won’t matter that “Little Johnny doesn’t know how to play defense.”  Now, we have a perfect environment to learn.  Play kids that have only played defense at offense.  Play kids that only play offense on defense.  We have a rule on our team — if you say you will not play defense, you will not play offense.  


Finally, I will say that it has taken me some time to come to these thoughts.  I love competition.  But, I think the best way to compete when it matters is to deemphasize winning (not competition) at early ages.  Then, later, when your are building teams to compete for Cups, you have players well-rounded in the game with better ball control.  If it is structured appropriately (matching skill levels in Academy games), then there will still be plenty of competition.   I do not advocate throwing kids onto a field and saying “it doesn’t matter, go have fun.”  I am the opposite of that.  I only think that the best way to advance is to devalue results at U7-U10 levels (U11 & U12 are qualifying years id EDDOA so it applies there too).