What are we doing in youth sports?

On Sunday, I was an assistant referee for an u13 girls soccer game in a local tournament. These were recreational players and teams masquerading as “select” or “comp” teams; none of the “elite” or “competitive” teams participated, as most are finished for the summer after regionals and nationals. These were your average community-centric teams similar to the teams on which I played at this age. Of course, when I played, we played 12 games in a fall season; now, these teams apparently play year-round (I knew the elite teams played year-round, although many – some – of the elite players play multiple sports – basketball in the winter, usually – based on what I learned as an assistant referee at a national tournament, but I did not know the local teams played year-round now too). 

It was the late Sunday afternoon game, either the third or fourth game of the weekend for these girls. They played a full 11v11 game, and neither team had more than two substitutes. One team was clearly better than the other team. Eventually, the better team scored to go ahead 6-0. At this point, the losing team’s coach yelled out, “They can’t score anymore of they lose points. Let them score for all I care. I want everyone to attack.” The coach instructed the goalie not to play goalie anymore, and she was thoroughly confused. Parents yelled at the goalie not to play goalie. The winning team dribbled around. Twenty-one players crowded around the midfield line until a player from the team in the lead broke through and dribbled until she stopped and gave away the ball. The goalie ran around saying that she didn’t understand. Parents yelled at the losing team to get the ball. It was a complete farce.

I understand the objective of a tournament or league to prevent blowouts. However, what positives can anyone take from the game? After two minutes, it was clear who was the better team. Likely, anyone who had seen these teams play through the year knew who was going to win. Why are they matched up in a tournament? If they are matched in a tournament, why the six-goal rule? What are we trying to accomplish? I honestly think that everyone making a big deal about the winning team not being able to score again was more embarrassing for the players than losing 7-0 or 8-0. Are there not better ways to enforce level-playing fields and sportsmanship?

The same happens in basketball. My friend refereed a weekend basketball tournament and did not have a game finish closer than 20 points. If these teams play as many games as everyone says – 40, 50, 60 or more basketball games per year, by the end of the year, shouldn’t we be able to rank teams and play more competitive games? In the games, there were all sorts of artificial rules – no fast breaks, no defense outside the three-point line, etc. – that were aimed at preventing the leading team from scoring easily, but these rules actually make it more difficult for a lesser-skilled team to score as well. aren’t there better ways to avoid 50-point blowouts?

As I watched the soccer game, the field was too big for these girls. It was an age-appropriate field by national standards, but these girls weren’t skilled enough, fast enough, or strong enough for the size of the field, outside 2-3 girls on the winning team. If they really want to improve, these players should be playing 7v7 on a smaller field, and maybe the 2-3 best should be playing u14s (from a purely skill development perspective without accounting for the social and emotional factors).

Rather than not allowing the leading team to score, why not have the leading team drop a player when it goes ahead by 6 goals?

What about coaches actively substituting positions before a team goes ahead by 6 goals rather than keeping the goalie in goal the entire game when she touched the ball maybe 2-3 times in 60 minutes?

What about stopping the game at 6-0 and splitting the teams evenly to play out the rest of the game?

What about the coach of the leading team creating new challenges for his team when he goes up by 6 goals with the current rules? What about rewarding the team for every time they can string together 11 passes that use all 11 players? What about working on getting wide by turning the corner flag into goals and seeing how many times you can get to the corner flag (I’ve seen that used as a practice drill at college practices, with 1 point for scoring through a small goal in the corners and 2 points for a normal goal)?

In basketball, why not mix up the teams? Why not play 3v3 if some teams are so unskilled? why not prohibit the leading team from scoring inside the three-second area? Why not adopt netball-like rules where the defense cannot reach in and take the ball from an opponent or block the shot in the opponent’s hands?

If these are so many blowouts that we have to create these artificial rules, that should send a signal that something is wrong. The answer should not be to create these artificial rules. The answer should be to be proactive, to create better tournaments and leagues from the outset that make blowouts an anomaly. Use some creativity and common sense and create a better environment from the beginning.

In tournaments with teams from different communities, there will always be discrepancies in skills, size, talent, etc. However, when we are playing this many games, often against the same or similar teams, can’t we do a better job with the match ups? Can’t we find a way to make these games developmental for all of the players without eliminating all challenges for the better players or giving the lesser players no competitive chance?

What are we really trying to accomplish with these youth sports and leagues? Trophies? Dominance? Wins? Playing time? Fun? Fitness? Motor skill development? Let our objectives guide the changes and be proactive to create a better environment for all players.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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