Understanding the Youth Soccer Culture – Playing Brackets and Winning

Playing Brackets and Winning

In its purest and honest form, playing brackets are a great way to have even match ups between teams. Unfortunately, playing brackets have been swept up in the youth soccer madness.

One of the advantages of having such a populous region, with multiple clubs within a close geographical area, is that playing brackets can be set up between cities in short traveling distance. The idea of these brackets is so teams of similar ability can play in competitive games. Sadly, the playing brackets have become a false indication of a player/team’s actual ability. Promotion/relegation is the adult’s world where we live by results orientated work (ironically US professional leagues bypass this, but that’s an entirely separate issue). A player’s development is not correlated to wins and losses, but how they are progressing in each of the four pillars of player development.

Firstly, there is no promotion or relegation, and brackets are decided upon by the directors and coaches of clubs. There are a lot of changes that take place not making promotion and relegation feasible, so accurate brackets rely on the integrity of the clubs, and this is where the importance of brackets starts to diminish.

Brackets are now used in two ways.

Brackets to Win

Clubs/Teams will now enter certain level brackets, so they can win, or increase their chance of winning. All too often as coaches we speak to other teams and we hear they chose to enter a ‘lower’ level bracket as they lost one game the previous season, games should be evenly matched for competition, losing a game is not a negative, it’s a chance to learn. To use winning as the barometer of success in youth sports does not correlate with a player’s level of development, this effects the decision making of clubs and teams. Not only does this need to win service the ego of the coach, but it also conflicts directly with those who are trying to develop players appropriately. Youth games should exist where coaches speak before the start of the game, and ask what they would like to work on, where the opposition then plays in a certain way for the period of the game, so coaching can take play, with both teams accommodating each other’s area of development. Ultimately, you then find these teams chasing wins get their 1st place news straight on the website, and spreading through the community, using it to recruit players.

Brackets to Recruit

The flip side is clubs and teams entering brackets to advertise and entering ‘higher’ brackets. The brackets follow the metals, just like in other sports, gold, silver, etc. Teams who rely on winning, who do not provide player development, will apply for and advertise their participation in the ‘higher’ bracket. Immediately this sets off ‘Fear of Missing Out’, and this must mean all the best players are on that team. What this does is draw in players to the program because parents are fed that their kid will get ‘more exposure’, and they need to be in these brackets. Then the importance of winning takes over with new recruited players, and development is again over looked.

We have all been involved in a game where there is a clear mismatch, whether its the whole team, or one individual that dominates a game, and quite often through their physical maturity.

The emphasis placed on winning effects a coach’s decisions on playing time, rotation of players through positions, and prevents players from taking the risks and making decisions on critical problem solving and creative thinking on the field.

Competitive is the worst word that could be used for a youth program. There is always competition when two opposites play against each other, in any activity. It is the focus on must win that derails development. All games should be competitive, but it relies on the integrity of the clubs

Some Interesting Articles

Coaching to Develop Players vs Coaching to Win


What’s wrong with winning?


Identify Success When Losing


Higher Purpose than Winning


Tony Strudwick, Biggest Mistake in Youth Soccer


Cost of winning in youth sports


Understanding the Youth Soccer Culture – Tournaments and Trophies

Tournaments and Trophies

One of the hot topics which I have been very passionate about for many seasons. The USA are the only soccer nation that has tournaments where kids are playing 4 – 6 games over a 2-3 day period.

‘Youth players in America are regularly required to play as many as six competitive games in three days during weekend tournaments’ USC Soccer Journal, Dr. Jozsef Fabian

You will never see a full professional playing two games in two days, let alone playing two games in one day. The effect of this is an increase in the incidence and severity of injury, along with a significant drop in the playing ability and skill level of the player. In an education weekend on fitness and performance presented by Raymond Verheijen, he was disturbed at what youth players are put through, and made coaches complicit in allowing this to happen and ending playing careers of youth players due to ligament injuries, largely serious knee injuries. The education, research, and knowledge is there for all of us, yet we ignore this and still continue to make tournaments longer and more intense while knowing the incidence of serious injury increases. Showcase Tournaments being the biggest culprit, using ‘exposure’ as a selling point to playing 6 matches, even though a players skill level will be diminished by the final game of the 3 days.

‘The ability of soccer players to sprint, jump, and perform repeated intense exercises is impaired when they have to play two competitive matches a week’ Ian Rollo, Loughborough University 

‘Players who play two matches per week have a six times higher injury rate, including a five times higher rate in the incidence of severe injuries, than those who play once a week’ Gregory Dupont, Lille 2 University

Tournaments serve a purpose for generating an income stream for clubs and organizations, and an opportunity to splash trophies across their web-page and social media outlets. We are just as guilty, hosting 3 tournaments throughout a season, for the purpose of generating funds to keep training fees low. However, we have been very consistent in not entering teams in to tournaments outside of Fremont. Additionally tournament play goes against the development model, development and winning cannot co-exist, when winning becomes the focus the coaches decisions are no longer based on the welfare of the player, but on what will get them the win. Players are put in to dangerous situations of getting injured as they are the ‘best’ player so will not be subbed off. Lower level players get far less play time if any. A style of play and focus on comfort on the ball, the proper mechanics being performed, and the enjoyment of the game go out of the window; but in come the fear and pressure on players of making mistakes.

Attending tournaments then becomes the advertising machine for clubs, as they will travel out of state and over hundreds of miles to play in a tournament, adding to the perception that they must be a high level team due to the needed travel. This only serves the purpose of putting families under a financial burden for travel, difficult decisions on missing family events, youth players under pressure to win over developing their game, and strokes the ego of the coach lacking in education and knowledge. This has lead to a downward spiral getting out of control with teams going to even more tournaments and traveling even further.

This bleeds in to the Fear of Missing Out, no longer making youth sport the player-centric environment it should be.

Local teams will always be a challenge for any team, and if a team is that much more developed, then the coach should have the skill set to be able to add targets and competitions within the game to further develop and challenge the player.

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