Youth Soccer

Youth Soccer: We’re doing it wrong, Part 7

Scott Pugh continues his series discussing some of the most important problems facing youth soccer (between the ages of about 5-13). Much of the ideas and content are derived from the work of onetwothreefour, five, and six of the series.

The need to travel

Traveling for soccer is as American as apple pie. It’s seen as a badge of honor among parents. Our youth soccer culture assumes that tournaments are beneficial endeavors for our young soccer players just because “it’s the way it’s always been done,” rather than actually examining the potential harm. Tournaments have come a long way from the days of my childhood where they were focused on promoting the game and raising funds for clubs. They have become big business, big competitions, and a staple for many youth soccer clubs.

Yet a great majority of youth soccer experts and developmental researchers believe that tournaments, in their current format, are detrimental to children. Bobby Howe, the former coaching director of the USSF says, “There is no need for players under the age of 13 to play out of state.” The current US Youth Soccer developmental manual, endorsed by 55 state youth soccer coaching directors, expresses serious concern about the negative impact of tournaments on young players.

Claudio Reyna puts it best: “For me, it’s irrelevant if coaches win state cups, regional cups, and national cups. How many trophies they have in their cabinet 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 tournaments you win.”

The pressure is ramped up when the obvious goal of winning is emphasized in the tournament setting. All the negative aspects of a win-first mentality we’ve discussed in previous parts in this series are therefore amplified as well. These games offer very little learning opportunities for children. As games take on bigger importance, the screaming from the sidelines is ratcheted up several notches. Players become so riddled with fear that they often seek refuge on the sidelines by feigning or exaggerating injury.

The unequal playing time problem is even more evident in tournaments with advanced children expected to carry the weight of the entire team, while less-advanced players drive long distances only to sit on the bench. Children are often subjected to playing on fields that are way too large for their ages. Asked to play 11 v 11 on adult-sized fields before the age of 13 is counterproductive to their development and health.

The risk of injury is dramatically increased as players compete in as many as five or six games in a two day stretch. Research has shown that when players compete in two games in a single week, rather than just one, their risk of injury increases by an alarming 600 percent.

Nutritional demands placed on children are often overlooked. As their muscles are depleted of glycogen stores, they become fatigued, which not only reduces their performance, but increases their chance of injury as well. The options offered at most tournaments — burgers, hot dogs and fries — leaves a lot to be desired.

Many of these tournaments are carried out in the summer when temperatures often exceed the recommended threshold for youth sports. Children can lose up to a liter of water during a typical game, and being less adaptable to heat than adults, often experience signs of heat stress (headaches, dizziness, cramps). It is not uncommon for a child playing a tournament to suffer from heat stroke, a potentially life-threatening condition. Did you know that the American Academy of Pediatrics (of which I am a fellow) recommends canceling all athletic activities when the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT, a measure of heat and humidity) exceeds 85 degrees F? Yet organizers, coaches and parents often march their kids out there in 100 degree weather believing they are helping these youngsters.

Parents, falling into the “reverse-dependency trap,” push for tournaments to see how their kids compare against “the best.” As we discussed previously, due to the variable rates of development for children at these young ages, this assessment is pointless and serves no purpose other than to boost adult egos.

There is a false mantra in youth soccer that says, “If you want to be the best, you have to play against the best.” This actually makes little sense when you look at the science. Playing against significantly superior teams, in a competitive setting, only serves to increase fear of mistakes. It decreases the opportunities for young players to have time on the ball. While they may still be able to work on some defensive skills, even these opportunities are less beneficial than when playing against more closely matched opposition. Coaches, who often have no prior knowledge of their opposition’s skill level, cannot appropriately plan for their players’ learning challenges.

Another way

It is true that some parents and children actually do enjoy tournaments despite these negative aspects. Many point to the joy of visiting a new city and experiencing different styles of play than they are accustomed to locally. Parents typically enjoy the social opportunity of tournaments in the form of a long weekend away from work, sitting around hotel lobbies with other parents, discussing their team’s highlights. And much to the chagrin of hotel staff, the kids obviously love getting away with their friends and finding mischief in pools and hallway ice machines.

There is another way for parents and players to experience the social perks without the need for a tournament setup. In fact, some clubs around the country have begun to implement positive changes. For instance, a team could vote on a city they would like to visit, contact a couple clubs in that area and schedule one friendly game each day of the weekend. These games would almost assuredly be much less pressure filled, and the team and parents would still have the social benefits of traveling.

Another option is the soccer festival, which can mean different things, but primarily removes the focus away from winning and places it on the celebration of the sport. Some are simply tournaments where no scores or standings are recorded, and teams play a round-robin format. Unfortunately, kids and parents are keen to keep score and figure out which team was “the best” anyway. Some clubs have moved to internal soccer festivals in which players from various skill-level teams and ages can be split up randomly, perhaps into World Cup countries, where they compete for prizes in small-sided games. These typically allow the kids to enjoy the fun of competition without the pressure to perform and win at all cost.

There is an endless stream of expert opinion and scientific research that warns of the dangers of the traditional soccer tournament for young soccer players. It is time for them to change. At these age levels, the belief that playing against the top-competition is the only way to improve, is false. We know that time on the ball is one of the biggest predictors of success in the developmental ages of youth soccer.

Just imagine how much better these children could be if rather than spending hours in cars traveling to and from pressure-packed competitions, they spent it just playing the game they love.


  1. You know….I always asked myself why the hell they have these tournaments all summer when they really don’t mean squat……….if you don’t make regionals or nationals…..then just train and work on development the rest of the summer…..instead of going to these stupid tournaments that don’t mean a damn thing. I know academy clubs will sometime put their reserves into some summer tournaments…but thats different….they are getting guys some match minutes that need them. I always said to people growing up….if your club is playing a summer tournament they are probably $hit……the real clubs are at regionals and nationals. Before the Academy’s inception…….summer was ODP time. Again, I understand that traveling for 13 and under is counter-productive……but at the same time…….academies and the better clubs are doing their recruiting at that level now since the DA has expanded to 13/14’s………12’s are on the way………….

  2. Another good piece.
    The only metric to developing players in this country is the senseless photo opportunity taken with 9 and 10 and 11 year olds holding a trophy. That is THE major problem. There is no incentive to develop talent. None. I repeat, at the club level there is no incentive to develop talent- other than to go from tourney to tourney singing, “we are the champions.”
    Claudio Reyna can say this stuff all he wants but until he and the powers that be CHANGE the policy and infrastructure of US Soccer, it will never change. The tourneys, the medals, the ‘prestige’, the trophies they are all hollow but they are the only metric of judging the ‘quality’ of a club.
    Change the system, change the development patterns, change the incentive and the game changes— for the better of the kid and certainly for the better of the game. This HAS to start at the top with policy.

    • yet the DA is going to have U-12’s traveling up and down the EC and WC playing matches………………isn’t that hypocrisy? My hope is that, at least for 12’s, that its more training focused with fewer matches than the 14’s, 16’s, and 18’s. The DA really doesn’t do tournaments, except the showcase and championships, thats a good thing. I hope they tailor it for the 12’s……

      • Yes….we abhor the idea of turning children in to little professionals, child labor laws and the like, but we already are and with not clue how or why or that its even happening- at least lets do it the right way, create incentives in the form of the almighty exchange of dollars for talent.

      • Those kids abroad are seen as investments to make the clubs ducketts in the long run. I always wondered how that would look here in the States considering our child labor laws… the MLS and DA advance and progress. I don’t think the American public would stand for it………..a kid getting bumped out of the academy at 16 in Europe…translates to a hard life and recovering lost time….

      • I bet if you looked at the Philadelphia Union roster U18 U16 U14, you could easily find ten players that were birthed from LMSC.
        The picture of those players should be on the web page along with a very nice cash (incentive) to said club for producing MLS Academy level players- and if they ever sign an HG contract, holy shit, another kicker back to the LMSC. We don’t need to see 9 year olds holding a trophy from Indoor State Cup- but they have too cause that is LMSC only avenue to advertise itself. We need to see a picture on the webpage of Joe Player shaking somebody’s hand with a smile on his face.
        Maybe another kid signs with the Cosmos Academy etc, etc, etc. across all levels of ‘professional’ soccer the higher the level of club the contract is signed for the higher the level of compensation.
        THERE is your incentive.
        That is how you build a powerful professional league and wait for it, wait for it…… a world class player – did I just say that and wait..wait..wait…
        you guessed it and WORLD CLASS national team.
        Change it.

      • wait wait it gets better, a rising tide lifts all ships so now this money said club is making can put it in to their own infrastructure and coaching education and other teams, like say…. girls youth soccer, which in turn then allows for the TRUE emergence over time of professional soccer avenue (as we are seeing all over europe) for women where they can actually earn a living and then wait for it….wait for it… once again become a legitimate World Class USWNT.
        Holy shit.
        350,000 million people in this country, you want the rest of the world to really scratch its collective head at the USA- fix the soccer problem and let us dominate the world’s game Imperially. You think we are despised now. You haven’t seen the half of it.
        I’m Done.
        Thank you Scott.

      • *slow clap*

    • I agree Joel, but since I can’t make changes from the top-down approach, I’m trying from the bottom-up so to speak. The more we talk about it the better.

      • For sure. That’s why I’ve enjoyed the energy time and work with these articles you have provided. Nearly every one of the points is salient. The more we talk about it the better as you rightly point out. Your energies give me energy too. It’s a good thing.
        For my part, I think a professional development model solves so many of the problems with the game (from IM to Professional and National teams) which invariably is why it is the soap box I stand upon. Your articles highlight many of the symptoms of what is wrong but what is the root problem. In America we are always trying to vet ways to treat the symptoms…i.e. tournaments becoming rebranded or bandaged as Festivals now but that doesn’t address the real problem.

        It is my belief more and more ‘disenfranchised’ people, to steal Gary Kleiben’s words, are organizing and making their voices heard in many many different ways to display disapproval with the current system. Nothing I have written above is original thought. I am just rewriting the disenfranchised narrative from my own POV.
        Change is coming, whether you and I see it or not is a different story, but change is coming.

  3. I’d like to add that the cost of these tournaments can be ridiculous – $750 and up for 3 maybe 4 games. This summer my elder son’s U15 team is thinking about replacing a trnmt with a scrimmage day with local teams – the cost will just be ref fees.

  4. Great job Scott, I enjoyed this as much as the others in the series.
    Well done.

  5. Scott,

    I agree a lot with what you say but you make it sound as if things are terrible and make it easy for parents to say ‘why bother’.

    They should since although there are many downsides the players make friends for life during the tournaments, since it is not just a jolly trip. During some games and/or hot days it is like going to war. And when you go to war you make friends for life. Also, the tournaments are key to be seen by College Coaches.
    I will also give you examples of 2 LMSC teams of which the core of the teams have stuck together since U8. Most LMSC Velez players have now graduated from College but many had successful playing careers at places such as Wake Forest, Penn and Amherst. This was one of the last pictures taken of the team:
    Here is a picture of the LMSC Lightning team after recently winning their bracket at the Disney Showcase in Orlando:
    Some of these players were also part of a team that won the U19 Regional Futsal tournament in Wildwood. All in all they have won many many trophies and medals over the years. Many Lightning players will be playing in College and some have already made commitment to Colleges such as Swarthmore, Carnegie Mellon, Widener and USMMA (only 18% of applicants get in!). Soccer is a way of life for them and they love it. They are proud of all the silverware they have won and have build up a lot of confidence and leadership skills that have served them well during the College application process as well for life.
    Your ground up approach will take years to come to fruition. In the meantime parents should just stick it out and go with the flow and learn from those who recently went thru the process!

    • Thanks for the comments Guido. I don’t disagree with you, except for the age that the negatives can turn into a positive. For me, that is at least by 13 or later (basically adolescence). I’ve purposely tried to avoid discussing specific clubs because I have kids entering the system as well, but there are obviously some clubs that are doing a much better job than others 😉

  6. Fan of Scott's Series says:

    Funny how you don’t hear stories like the wonderful tale of medals and college enrollments from the LMSC in places like Chester, PA… or Collingdale, PA, or Upper Darby.
    Wonder why that might be, hmmm… perhaps its just affluenza.

    • Fan of Scott's Series Too says:

      I don’t understand your point.

      • Fan of Scott's Series says:

        Pay to play is a failure.
        Adults who run around and judge a youth coach, or club, on wins and college enrollments are leaving out the part where they had to recruit kids to come play for their team. They leave out all sorts of things that do not fit the narrative. The point being that in towns with working class families you do not find huge soccer clubs with tons of resources, or open spaces to put soccer complexes.

      • Just for your info: LMSC has no soccer complex and gave these teams no resources whatsoever. Most of Lightning practices happened at Bonner and we had tons of kids from Upper Darby and other places try-out. We also gave many kids scholarships (some who now play for the Union in one way or another and one is tryout out for teams abroad). Also many of the players of Velez and Lightning come from all over town and the suburbs. There are also many ‘working’ class teams who are successful, such as Upper Freehold in NJ, Smithtown in NY, etc. showing that it is possible but it takes some organizing.

      • A few years back Guido……I had a kid on scholarship at LM and it caused major friction between the coaches and parents who were paying full freight. They thought since they were paying….their kids should play more. It lead the coach to have to sit his three best players, all Philly kids, in the state final……and they lost. Thats the one problem with clubs giving some kids a pass and others pay full………the academies, if free, negate all of this.

      • Sorry you had that problem. We did not; at least it did not cause major problems. The Team Manager is key in all of this.

      • Do me a favor………..look at the Academy rosters and see how many of the kids they are grabbing from Philly. If they weren’t picking up working class kids from the city, who can ball, I would completely agree with you. But, the Union are actively looking for those kids in the city………….maybe not Upper Darby……..but Junior Lonestar is in Southwest…and they actively watch them for talent. Thats why all the academies need to be free……like the Union…… this argument is mute and void. Joel, totally correct about LMSC……I would add PSC to that too….look at how many kids they are grabbing now from inside the city. And actually….there are plenty of serious ballers in Philly who go out to play for LM before the DA gets them.

      • There are plenty of working class kids in the ranks of the best clubs. Their parents take them to where the good football is……….believe me if the player is good enough……..people will find them…………..doesn’t matter if its on the Main Line…..or Kensington. You can’t hide talent.

      • I wish “pay for play” wasn’t a thing, too. A few years ago, I had a kid who was his family’s youngest of four. He had shin pads that were hand-me-downs – from all four. They were the absolute worst piece of equipment I’ve seen, from any sport. His parents just couldn’t afford to buy him new shin pads – feeding the kids three meals a day was a larger struggle. I bought him shin pads – frankly, I thought the ones he had were downright dangerous. You’d think I gave him gold.
        Unfortunately, the family was unable to save up money to register to play again the next year. And when I offered to pay the entry fee for them, they were too proud to accept it. And that family isn’t the only one I’ve seen drop out of soccer because they couldn’t afford the $90 registration fee. There’s a family in our organization now that has two kids, and last year only the younger played. They couldn’t afford two registration fees, and decided the younger one had more skill so they signed him up. I didn’t learn about that one until it was too late to pay for the older child.
        And I don’t live in a “poor” community, over all. I don’t think our registration fees are outrageous, either. And I understand bills need to get paid – electricity, gas for the mowers, paint for the lines, ref fees, insurance, property taxes, all of it.
        So, yes. I think pay-for-play sucks. I’ve personally seen it take several kids out of the game. But I don’t know what the answer is. We’re not talking about kids that would ever have a shot at an academy team, or even – most likely – their high school team. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to play if they’d like to.

      • We need to build more community fields. There are a lot of lower-income kids that get to play basketball every day on their neighborhood court for free. It would be amazing if the same happened for soccer, but that requires a culture of kids who love soccer and parents who aren’t afraid to let their kids play in the street…

      • Bingo. It takes an act of congress for me to find 4 kids for a SSG.
        My 3rd born takes his size 3 to elementary school to pick up his brother and sister- everyday- nobody wants to play football. We think we want to play football but we don’t. Maybe a little basketball maybe a little american football but thats it. Ultimately the problems with the game are policy and cultural.
        A friend of mine went back to Tunisia with his 8 year old over the summer and the boy played all day everyday in the streets. Asked his dad why doesn’t this happen at home?
        Two pretty big problems. I for one think converting basketball courts to street football courts is the best measure. Much smaller. Less maintenance. Promotes smaller sided activities than huge fields- typically walk to able as well.

      • Exactly…….+1

      • What does pay for play have to do with this series?

  7. Scott: Thank you for taking the time to put this series together. You’ve raised many important issues and concerns about youth soccer in your articles, and I hope coaches and club leaders throughout the Delaware Valley will give serious consideration to such matters as they prepare for future seasons.
    That being said, I find the overall tenor of your series to be much too negative. I’ve been involved with soccer (as a player, coach, fan, and father) since the early 1970s, and I don’t find the current status of youth soccer to be nearly as rotten as you suggest. Are there problems in the current system and room for improvement? Certainly, but there’s also a lot of good things going on.
    Take travel soccer, for example. My daughter spent ten years playing for a series of travel teams in South Jersey. During that time, we witnessed some of the ugly sides of travel competition (successful local teams being broken up by the arrival of a new academy squad; tryouts where “who do you know?” mattered as much or more than “how well can you play?”, etc.), but the overall experience was a positive for my daughter and our family. Meeting new friends, visiting new places, keeping physically fit, developing a passion for the game, having an opportunity to play at a high level, those were all very real benefits of playing travel soccer for my daughter, and I’m sure other parents can speak of similar experiences with their children.
    Frankly, I don’t think my daughter’s soccer experience would have been nearly as positive if she had spent all her pre-teen years playing solely in a local recreation league. Working her way up from a rec league to a mid-level travel team to one of the top teams in NJ was an essential part of her development as a player, and I doubt that she would have gone on to play college soccer if she had waited until high school to join a travel program.
    You end your piece above by imagining children getting together on their own just to play the game they love. From what I’ve seen over the years, it’s the boys and girls involved in higher-level soccer programs who, in their free time, are most likely to do just that.

    • Travel programs are not the end all to end all to make a college team.
      Confirmation bias is always a problem for some people. It worked for my kid, etc. What if your kid was one the game left behind? Ever put on those glasses and imagined that kid’s situation?
      The answer is usually no.
      When someone stands up for the kids who just leave the game they inevitably run into the confirmation bias parents. It also doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t work for some people. It just says, overwhelmingly kids leave the game at age 13 in numbers upwards of 60%.
      Trying to have a conversation about those kids is not an insult to the people who benefit from the current system. It is about trying to bring awareness for the silent majority who quit.
      Good for your kid. The system worked for them. For many kids it does not and they never find out how good they might be in high school, or college, because they quit at age 13.

      • You’re right. I do see youth soccer from a certain perspective, a perspective which I felt was being overlooked in this series. (A series, by the way, which I commended in my opening paragraph.) What’s the harm in noting that there’s another side to this story?
        And, yes, I do know what it’s like to be the kid “left behind”. There were years in my own youth when I spent more time warming the bench than playing on the field. I’ve also seen my child turned down by teams following tryouts. Were those moments fun? No. Did they push either of us away from soccer for life? No.
        Here’s my question for you: what do you propose as an alternative to the current youth soccer system? My sense from your comments is that you would like to see everyone participate in a local, recreational-style league until high school, with strong athletes mixed with weaker athletes and everyone treated exactly the same. Do you really think this would be an improvement over the current rec and travel offerings, or would it just frustrate everyone involved?
        Here’s one more question for you: is it really that surprising or unfortunate that some children stop playing organized soccer as they reach their teens? From what I’ve seen over many years, it’s perfectly normal for boys and girls of that age to start focusing on their favorite activities while letting others drop off. Is it the end of the world if organized soccer isn’t a top choice for all high school students? I don’t think so.
        Personally, while continuing with soccer, I stopped playing organized basketball and baseball early in high school, and never played an instrument after 8th-grade band. None of that has stopped the adult version of me from playing catch, shooting hoops, buying tickets to watch both sports, or enjoying music. My guess is that many of the 60% you cite will continue to enjoy soccer, too, long after their organized playing days are over.

      • I’m not going to have an arugment on the internet.
        This is an important topic for me but it is more important that in the real world, outside of the internet, I am working on different programs for kids.
        My hat is in the ring to work on what I feel is a problem with youth sports.
        If you have a problem with how this series is written, then write your own about how you feel the current soccer system is great. The whole point of the series was to talk about those ‘other kids’. If that bothers you, or makes you feel like it insults your life experience, please, write that series yourself.
        Have a nice night.

      • Steve – No one is looking for an argument here, just an open exchange of ideas.
        Clearly, this is a subject that you are passionate about. Unfortunately, it appears that your passion is causing you to read things in my comments that just aren’t there.
        I can assure you that I, too, would like all children who enjoy soccer to have the opportunity to play somewhere, if they so desire. You and I just have a difference of opinion on the best ways to achieve that goal.

    • MSG – Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that not everything is bad about youth soccer. In fact, there is a lot of good out there.
      Steve H – Thanks for your comments as well. Spot on.

    • Thanks MSG for helping me out here.
      The majority of 13 yr olds who quit do so because:
      – they just are not good/athletic enough
      – they start another sport (we had one who concentrated on fencing and is now a world champion, another concentrated on basketball and now has a basketball scholarship).
      – they pick it up again and play in HS
      – they have parents who just don’t want to commit the time to take them to practices.
      Don’t make it sound as if all the ones who quit do so because they have no fun.

  8. Juan R. Salvadores-Canedo says:

    Scott: thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
    A million of times.


    UEFAPro License and NSCAA Premier Diploma.

    Baton Rouge Soccer Club coach.

  9. It would be nice to get rid of GotSoccer too. Their ranking system seems to fuel some of this madness. Absolutely hate it.

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