The Perils of Tournament Play: How to Cope

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 [1996] 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

8 comments about "The Perils of Tournament Play: How to Cope".
  1. BJ Genovese, May 24, 2013 at 5:52 p.m.

    I whole heartily agree with this. By the time my boy gets to a 4th or 5th game... His little lets and body is warn out. He even walks off the field like an old man. I always wondered why we are doing it with kids and the pro's wont even do it. To think comp kids aren't going 110 just like the pro's could be a dangerous situation. I have to sound like the dip shit helicopter parent and let the coach know that my Son really can't perform 100 percent of the tourney at 100 percent unless managed and subbed properly. Glad the new team he is on took 18 on the roster because we may be doing to surf cup and Dallas cup and we will need subs.

  2. BJ Genovese, May 24, 2013 at 5:54 p.m.

    That being said I think US soccer should implement something on this topic.

  3. uffe gustafsson, May 24, 2013 at 8:05 p.m.

    Mike I think you got a typo early on when medical proffecional think its a good idea with tournament think you forgot the NO In that sentence.
    And tournament in the middle of our season sure are a bad thing, not only for the kids but us parents as well. Need a break from soccer during the season to heal and recharge our batteries.

  4. Mark Grody, May 25, 2013 at 11:22 a.m.

    Never been a fan of tournaments as a coach, but loved them as a player, and many parents actually like them, so as a middle ground, it's great that this article gave some practical advice on how to better manage tournament participation. Nice harm reduction model.

  5. Martha Diop, May 25, 2013 at 9:29 p.m.

    Maybe thMaybe this thread will help solve of the many things I heard or read and that never made sense
    First of all, the notion of games is misleading, because all depends on the game duration and how long a kid actually plays
    Too many games or two few games for a team: to me this means nothing because in any team, players rarely play the same amount of time. Coaches are famous, at all ages, for keeping on the field the players that make them win.====
    So cutting the number of games across the board for the entire team could mean denying many kids of playing time valuable for their development ======
    Too many games for a player: this does not make sense either, since all players are different. Ten games could be too much for a given player, but perfectly fine for another one, given the differences in their physical build, stamina, character, previous fatigue, etc.====

  6. Martha Diop, May 25, 2013 at 9:29 p.m.

    Too many minutes of play: the merit of the comment is that it moves away from the meaningless notion of number of games, and addresses the actual play time. But here again, some experts will give magic numbers, that we all want to know where they are coming from, what type of clinical studies and observations, etc. If you are 12 years old, it should be 100 minutes and not 108 nor 86 minutes. Never mind what the player actually does on the field, what position he is playing, the demand of that position based on the opponent, etc. So, this too, does not make sense to me====
    In tallying the number of games per week or per month, etc., do we include the minutes the kids plays in the back yard, the informal scrimmages with friends, the pickup games? Or is it the parents should make sure that after he has used 59 minutes in organized games, then he should be entitled only to play the balance of time, for informal games in the back yard or the park? So this does not make sense for me either.=====

  7. Martha Diop, May 25, 2013 at 9:30 p.m.

    In setting limits, are we specifically talking about limit just for soccer or any other physical activities ? If a kid just played 95 minutes, could he play some basket games for another 45 minutes, or swim, or play volley ball, if he still have the energy to do that? So after all, it may about limiting the excessive physical activities, and not limiting number of games?

    In many countries, don’t kids just play and play, with no stopwatch to measure how long they have played, so that someone can stop them from playing more?
    This is what would make sense for me: let the kids play as much as they want, but closely monitor and spot the ones who are at risk of hurting themselves, and let the other play

  8. Eric Herman, May 28, 2013 at 2:39 p.m.

    Youth soccer is beginning to feel a little like professional wrestling (or at least professional boxing) where any number of sanctioning authorities is vying to crown champion of this or champion of that. In reality, champions of these tournaments are only champions of the teams who chose to (or could afford to) pony up the entry fees, pack their kids into a rental car or airplane, pay for the hotel rooms, coaching fees, rental cars, meals, parking, etc.

    There is no doubt that Disney has become the master at creating a tourist industry around duping clubs into spending untold thousands at their sports oriented theme parks.

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