Tournament football – beauty or beast?

With the summer approaching, a number of youth football teams will be signing up and playing in tournaments as part of their continuing football experience. These summer tournaments can be a great opportunity for our players to learn, offering them the chance to experience the highs and lows, the winning and the losing in a format that often means a whole competition in one day.

However, there is often too much pressure placed on our young players by focussing solely on results a determinant of success from these competitions. Our children are so often provided an adult’s version of competition when they are crying out for a child friendly alternative.

As a team, we began thinking about how we could run a tournament that would provide a rich and valuable learning environment for our young players. This summer, that is what we tried to do and this is the experience…

The format

No referees…the players managed their own games and they had increased responsibility to play to the rules, play fairly and negotiate with the team they were playing against. There were minor issues with player disagreements but they found a way to solve them each time. The games were centrally timed so players knew they had to be quick or they would waste game time. With no referee to question, there was very little comment from the sidelines.

High tempo…games were kept small sided at 5v5 and only had one team ‘resting’ on each round of games. Where teams had more than five players, they were able to agree to play 6v6 with the team they were playing.

Managing difference…we wanted to avoid one sided score lines where limited learning takes place on both sides. We introduced a condition where if one team gained a 4+ goal lead, the opposition could add an extra player onto the field of play. This was only needed on a few occasions but prevented teams ‘running away’ with games. The two biggest winning margins were 5-0 and 5-1 in 12 minute games.

No trophies…no trophies were awarded to winning teams or individual players with the idea to focus on intrinsic motivation of playing in the tournament. We were also interested to see the reaction and behaviour of coaches/spectators if no medals were on offer.

Tiered competition…we played a round robin consisting of two groups of 5 and 6 teams. From this, the top 2, middle 2 and bottom 2 then proceeded into three tiers of knockout competition (World Cup, Champions League and Europa League) so all teams were able to experience knockout, not just the top 2 in each group as we have often found. Losers of the ‘semi finals’ then played against each other in a 3rd/4th place playoff with the two winning teams playing a final.

Managing our team’s experiences

We entered three teams (all mixed ability). Each team was given a list of their fixtures and a set of challenges:

Choose formations…how do you want to play? Will you change based on the team you are playing against? What might help you achieve your goals?

Choose positions…everyone has to play a minimum of two positions throughout the day and any ‘sub time’ should be shared equally among ALL players.

Choose your learning objective…each team chooses a team that they want to play like from the cards (this idea was stolen from @SoccerIQ on Twitter) and then chooses a player that they want to try to play like, each has a different individual challenge. You can swap your player each game or you can stick with the same one. How many challenges can you achieve?

Player Cards – these are a great resource (I think!). Our players have asked if we can make ones with their pictures which they can put their individual challenge on each week for games through the season.

Define success…Go away as a team and decide on two or three aims that you want to achieve for the day as a team. We had a variety of responses including:

  • try to win the tournament
  • try to score more than 10 goals in the day
  • try to concede less than 5 goals in the day
  • try to score a ‘sweaty’
  • try to be Barcelona

Be in the right place, at the right time…as simple as it sounds, but kids had to be organised. They had to make sure they were on the right pitch and had their team selection sorted before KO. We saw players taking responsibility for their team the demonstrating leadership skills.

Tell me one thing you enjoyed about the day…this challenge was given even before the day begun. We debriefed at the end and received some interesting responses including:

“scoring a bicycle kick”

“saving a penalty in the shootout”

“choosing where I got to play; I nearly scored!”

“Playing matches. I didn’t have to be sub once as we only had 5 players”

Feedback from parents

“it was really nice to see them just get on with it and play without having pressure from people on the side”

“they played some great football today. They could have won more if they had played a different way but they seemed to be smiling still”

“so much more relaxed [than other tournaments we have been to] and not so much waiting around”

Feedback from other coaches

“It was brilliant. Really made some of out parents think, they realised the kids can have fun when they are playing”

“thought the set up and format worked really well, they [kids] really enjoyed it. We had some tears when losing the final but they soon got over it!”

“thanks for organising a great day – all the boys really enjoyed it and I was really impressed with their behaviour on and off the pitch – your confidence in them all was richly rewarded

3 of the 5 boys in our team that won today didn’t win a single match in the league this season (played 18 drew 2 lost 16) so they’re made up as well – only one of them asked where his trophy was and didn’t seem remotely bothered when told he wasn’t getting one! Again really supports the ‘just let them play’ approach”

My reflections…

  • I was able to sit back and watch my players play. Great opportunity to observe them working towards LOs and how they conducted themselves.
  • The atmosphere was relaxed. I felt the biggest challenge for the spectators and coaches was playing without referees but this seemed to have a great impact on the touchline behaviour, perhaps as there was no one to ‘blame’ for any incidents. Watching some of the games reminded me of some of the kickabouts in the park we used to have!
  • Social skill development. My own players had to negotiate with each other to decide on formations, player positions etc. Whilst I wasn’t part of most of these conversations (probably a positive thing as it meant they could get on and sort it out themselves), parents overheard a few heated debates about where it would be ‘fair’ for someone to play. These tended to be resolved with a deal of ‘you play there this game and I’ll do the next one’
  • Huge amount of trial and error on the players’ behalf. There was times when guidance could have been given i.e. when a team played a GK-1-0-3 formation with the aim of taking an early lead. However the opposition defenders and goalkeeper intercepted and distributed high to their strikers who were 2v1. Our team were 2-0 before they changed their defending approach by dropping a player back to make it 2v2. I could have gone in before the game to pose questions to get them to that way of thinking quicker but it wouldn’t have been their choice to do so. They are far more likely now to recognise the issue of leaving defenders outnumbered in the future and will make adjustments to prevent this.

This was such a different experience to a number of tournaments that I have been to previously where kids were kept involved at a higher tempo, had responsibility to manage their own games and played in an environment that was, most importantly, child friendly. We’ll certainly be doing it again.


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