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Redefining Competition in Youth Soccer

By Cyrus Philbrick

Competition is a hot word out there in the soccer world. Everyone agrees that competition lies at the core of soccer’s value; it makes the game fun and exciting while improving players. But to what degree should competition function in youth soccer tournaments that risk emphasizing winning over more important aspects of player development, such as fun and improvement?

Answering this question requires examining what competition can mean in youth sports and tournaments. Different types of tournaments promote different types of competition. And instead of favoring one type of tournament over another, coaches should consider them all with an open mind, but with knowledge of the values and risks inherent in each type.

Traditionally, a competition refers to a contest for a prize or reward. But youth organizations like US Youth Soccer have recognized that “competitive tournaments,” which often eliminate losing teams and reward winning teams with trophies, create an environment that can harm youth development.

On the US Youth Soccer website, Sam Snow writes: “We believe that youth soccer is too competitive at the early ages, resulting in an environment that is detrimental to both players and adults; much of the negative behavior reported about parents is associated with preteen play.”

The competitive air of tournaments can cause coaches to focus on the results of games rather than on developing well-rounded and savvy soccer players. Also, it can enable parents to breathe venomous insults on coaches, referees, players, and even fellow parents.

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For these reasons, US Youth Soccer now suggests that players under the age of 10 should play “non-competitive” soccer festivals, or jamborees, instead of traditional tournaments.

However, many competitive tournaments for younger players (U-6 to U-12) still exist. And while competitive tournaments tend to create a more intense atmosphere than jamborees or festivals, this atmosphere is not necessarily detrimental to player development if tournament organizers, coaches, parents, and players have the right attitude and take the right precautions.

Despite the more risky nature of these tournaments, they can benefit a team in ways that a more non-competitive tournament might struggle to. For example, competitive tournaments can teach young players plenty besides learning to win.

America Scores Bay Area runs both jamborees and more competitive tournaments because the organization believes that both types of competitions hold value. Colin Schmidt, the Executive Director of America Scores Bay Area, says that competition, and trials that come with losing, can teach young players some of the most important values.

“Losing teaches you about sportsmanship, about pride, about respect, and about what you need to do to improve as an individual and as a team,” said Schmidt. “Learning to compete is valuable, as long as you define competition in the right way. It’s about much more than just winning.”

When coaching a team in a more competitive tournament, a coach has the responsibility to ensure that players and parents understand the values that competition buoys. As these values can take a degree of maturity to understand, coaches might want to ask themselves whether or not they think their team can handle such a test.

“Everybody loves competition,” said Roberto Gil, the Soccer Director of America Scores. “You get more participation and attendance. The kids try harder. It means more to everybody … Of course this has a downside. Players and parents can get out of hand. And if the competition is not designed well then it might be counterproductive.”

Many competitive tournaments are structured to help players, coaches, and parents have a positive experience. For example, America Scores runs tournaments that rank performance in areas besides wins and losses, such as sportsmanship. And some don’t eliminate teams, allowing all teams to play an equal number of games even though they might finish in different places. Also, like jamborees, many tournaments provide every participant, not just the winners, with a reward.

Jamborees eliminate the double-talk that can occur when coaches want their team to win, “but not to focus on winning that much.” Jamborees can also make structuring the event easier, as everybody wins, or receives some reward for participating.

Labeling jamborees as “non-competitive,” however, can mislead. Although they might promote a less intense and less challenging atmosphere than competitive tournaments, they still rely on competition, as any game of soccer does inherently. Kids want to score, and they want to score more goals than the other team; these are the objects of the game. Ideally, players can learn to value competition by itself, the purity of a game untarnished by the ugly behavior that coaches, players, and parents display when winning is on the line.

By taking the emphasis off of winning, jamborees also allow coaches the freedom to focus on valuable aspects of player development. Coaches can focus on player improvement by ensuring that players get to play equal time, and many different positions.

Also, the friendly nature of jamborees can serve to promote a more community-oriented atmosphere than traditional tournaments.

“Jamborees are great because they can connect communities together through the sport,” said Carlos Danny Mora, an America Scores club coach. “Parents can come and talk, eat together, and meet face to face. They can see how other teams or schools do things. They get a chance to build good relationships.”

Before entering any event, coaches should pay attention to, or inquire about, the event’s structure and rules. By knowing the nature of the event, coaches can prepare players and the parents of players to gain positive values from the experience. Whatever the type of event, jamboree or tournament or something in between, coaches of younger players should try to focus on the values besides winning that accompany competition, like player and personal development.

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