By Mike Woitalla
Way back in 1989, when asked to name impediments to player development, U.S. national team coach Bob Gansler said that American youth soccer was "suffering from a huge case of tournamentitis." And that was when the tournament industry was in its infancy.
I’ve yet to meet a sports medicine professional who thinks the popular youth tournament format of several games over a couple of days is a good idea. But business trumps in American youth soccer. Tournaments have become a main revenue stream for many clubs. They help fund facilities and attract tourism to communities, which encourages local governments and businesses to support the sport.
Tournaments, at their best, provide fun times for young players, and can expose them to different styles of play and new competition. Sometimes they’re opportunities to be seen by scouts.
But rare are the tournaments that avoid the grueling schedule of several games over a weekend.
“I’ve been with MLS since its inception  and we have a hard time getting the guys to play games on Thursday and Sundays,” says Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, also the team physician for U.S. Soccer national teams and a pioneer in injury prevention methods for soccer players. “Here are these kids playing five games Saturday and Sunday.
“I think we’re doing the wrong thing there. I think we’re sending the wrong message. We’re potentially increasing the injury rate.”
Yet most tournaments that club coaches feel obligated to attend continue to force on young players a crowded schedule in which games get more intense as players become increasingly strained.
“If you have to do this, have more players and substitute as much as you can,” says Mandelbaum. “Rehydrate them as best you can. And have them live by the concept that ‘less is more.’”
Dr. Dev Mishra says research in the professional ranks has shown increased injury rates from multiple games in a short period of time and he believes it’s reasonable to assume that could also be the case at the youth level. But Mishra, a member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation, says he understands there's pressure on teams to participate in certain tournaments despite the grueling format.
Mishra offers the following advice:
* Go into a tournament with the awareness that some players will need to be subbed out more frequently and get some rest.
* Take as large a roster as possible and be able to have a player rotation -- either per game or within games -- and give certain players rest.
* Take injury complaints seriously and have a really low index of suspicion when a young player says he or she is hurt. Or if they’re just not functioning at their maximum -- at that point they probably need a little bit of rest even if they’re not injured -- because the risk of an injury is high if they’re not playing at 100 percent.
* Pay extra attention to the pregame nutrition and hydration, generally emphasizing carbohydrates and minimizing fats. (For further information on rehydration, click HERE)
Mishra says the postgame routine is crucial:
* The team should engage in some form of cool-down, eg: Active stretching.
* After that first game, research shows that the first 20 minutes are the best time to rehydrate and get some carbs and protein back in the body.
* Icing down sore areas such as thigh, hamstrings, calf, knee, ankles can help recovery.
* At tournaments with certified athletic trainers on site, players, if necessary, should utilize the professional trainers to help them with injury recovery.
For its part, U.S. Youth Soccer recommends that during tournaments: “Players under the age of 12 should not play more than 100 minutes per day, and those players older than 13 should not play more than 120 minutes per day.”
Also, in U.S. Youth Soccer's Player Development Model curriculum, you’ll find this statement:
“We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development and can reduce long-term motivation. Multiple matches being played on one day and one weekend have a negative effect on the quality experience and development of the individual player.
“Further, far too many playing schedules include so many tournaments and matches that there is never an offseason.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)