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Whether you're thinking about attending your first travel tournament, have already attended travel tournaments, or are just exploring the idea to see if they are right for you and your family, there are several issues worth considering. From personal experience, there is definitely good and bad. No matter where you fall on the issues, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
My son and I just got back from three days on the road and we returned with all the tournament championship bling. In this episode, I'll share our experience, some of the issues our friends and colleagues from The Soccer Sidelines community had to say, and some of the things you should think about before climbing into the car for your next one.
What Are the Issues With Travel Tournaments
Let's start with the positive. Travel tournaments are fun. Soccer is fun. Competition is fun. Getting some sun in an open space, making fun of crazy people amped up with adrenaline, eating crappy road food, vacuuming the latest turf filler from your car... Ahem. Well... they are fun!
I haven't heard anyone say that playing lots of soccer isn't fun yet. The question that comes up frequently is usually some variation of a "too much" theme. For example:
- Are tournaments too expensive?
- Do tournaments take up too much time?
- Are tournaments too much strain on young bodies?
- Are tournaments too far away?
- Are these tournaments too much professionalization of youth sports and detracting from the youth development experience?
All of these questions are legitimate to ask, right? After comparing notes with some of my European friends and running some numbers on the back of my virtual napkin, I'd have to agree that asking questions like these is probably a good idea no matter who you are. The answers to them depends on what we can do about what we find when we ask.
In this episode, I'm going to share with you the experience that my son and I just had this past weekend. He played four games in two days. We drove 3+ hours each way. We came home with medals, the tournament champion trophy, and a bunch of fun photos and memories. I'll also share what I might want to see done differently in tournaments in the future, as well as a few things that you can do to help make sure that your player(s) go prepared and come home without injury.
The Travel Tournament Experience
The typical travel tournament experience starts with an email from a coach or a team manager explaining that there is X tournament in Y location on A, B, C dates. Who's interested? Once interest is confirmed and fees are paid, then we start the process of booking hotels, scheduling time off from work, checking supplies, etc. Our experience was no different.
We started our trip on Friday night at about 8 PM. 3+ hours later, we arrived at our destination. My son slept in the car while I listened to music and podcasts. We arrived tired and ready for bed. After we checked in, got our keys, got our briefing on the free breakfast schedule, we were asleep in probably 30 minutes.
The next day, we woke in time for breakfast and an early start to the fields. Our first game was at 11 AM, so we arrived at 10:30. My son warmed up while I walked the campus and chatted with other sideline parents.
We won our first match 3:0 and at about 12:45, we made some weak plans with other team parents about where we would all go to eat. My son and I bailed on those plans, picked up some lunch and headed back to the hotel, where he spent the next few hours doing homework.
After homework, my son watched a movie and fell asleep for a between-match nap. This was his first time sleeping on a sofa bed, which meant that it would also be his first time being folded up in a sofa bed by a sophomoric dad who thought folding him up in a sofa bed might be fun.
Our next match was at 6:30 PM. We grabbed some light pre-dinner snacks and arrived at 6 PM for warmup. I spent some time in the car reading and responding to email until game time. At which point, I joined other team parents, made a few inquiries about how their lunch went (others bailed on lunch too, it seems), and we watched our team win the second match of the day 7:1.
A little after 8 PM, we left the complex and went to iHOP for dinner. My son ate like a termite in a pile of dead wood and we headed back to the hotel. I have no idea why there was a fireworks show that night, but there it was! We had the perfect view from our hotel room on the 4th floor. We were overlooking the trees where the show was going on. We watched it and I recorded it for you below.
The next morning, we woke in time for free hotel breakfast. We got to the field by 10:30 AM for an 11 AM start. We won that match 2:1 and we broke for lunch on Day #2. Another trip to Panera Bread and some minimal rest in the restaurant and the car, and we were back at the field by 2:45 PM for a 3:30 PM final game.
About 90 minutes later, we won that match 2:0. We spend another 30 - 45 minutes regrouping, picking up medals, getting photos with the tournament champion trophy, and headed back to our cars. We left in the rain for another 3+ hour drive back home and arrived around 9 PM. No dinner on the road for us. Just snacks we packed before we left.
I will admit that spending time with my son for two plus days is a treasure all by itself. We could have enjoyed that time together if we were backpacking in the back country, playing soccer, or painting our garage. That part of weekend activities is always fun for us, so the Fun Factor of these tournaments gets a thumbs up from me.
The Costs of Travel Tournaments
The tournament that we attended boasted 146 teams that each paid between $575 and $725 per team. I did the math for you based on each of the teams ages and average fees on their Website. I figure this tournament grossed $97,750 in team entry fees. This number doesn't include the sponsorships they get from surrounding businesses, the percentage of all merchandise sold, or any kickbacks hotels give for booking them solid.
On the expense side for the tournament host, they had about $5,600 in field fees at $25 / hr x 14 fields x 16 hours. They likely paid $15-$20K in referee fees to cover 219 games at an average of $40 per official with 1-3 referee teams, depending on age bracket. They likely paid for security. They didn't need port-potties because they had facilities on site. They paid maybe $1,000 in trophies and medals, paid the tournament director and some staff, and incidentals - to include insurance, supplies, etc. My guess is they cleared maybe $20-$25K when all was said and done.
Our family costs were as follows:
- We booked our hotel about 5 miles or 16 minutes away from the tournament site for $126.75 + tax per night x 2 nights. $287.92 <Cha-Ching>
- We had 13 players split the cost of the tournament fee, which in our case was $725 / 13 or $55.77 per player.
- I drive a Honda Accord Hybrid that gets around 47 MPG. At $2.99 per gallon, I figure I spent $23 getting there and back with an additional $5 locally for a total of about $30 in gas. I was totally stoked to have made it there and back on less than a single tank of gas!
- For food, we got free breakfast, ate at Panera Bread for lunch, and iHop for dinner. Let's just say $100 for food for the two of us.
- We didn't buy anything while we were there. We brought snacks in the car for munching there and back. I figure all in, we spent $475 for a father and son weekend 3 hours from home.
Is that a lot? That depends on your finances, but with the numbers laid bare like this, I'm hoping you can make up your own mind.
If you figure that the average travel team will do 1-3 soccer tournaments in a season, you're looking at $500 - $1500 per year in just the travel experience. Most of this "travel" money is on top of whatever club, league, trainer, uniform and equipment fees is customary for your area.
In my area, we pay $2,600 + uniform fees in addition to travel experiences like this. In case you're wondering because you know I also coach and serve as President and board chair of my own soccer club, we charge about $800 for roughly the same travel experience, but I keep club overhead and staffing costs to a minimum.
The Mileage of Our Weekend (on the players)
All our our games were played in 35 minute halves with 5 minute half times. We played four games in two days or 280 minutes of play time. Yes, there were some subs for some players, but not many.
I've read estimates that a player playing a 90-minute game of soccer runs anywhere from 5-10 miles per game. If we take the median of 7.5 miles and divide that into 90 minutes, we get .08 miles per minute. In 70 minutes, a player will run 5.6 miles. Granted, some players run less than others, but if you'll allow the rounded math here for the sake of our discussion, each player ran about 22.4 miles this weekend. More than 11 miles per day across two back-to-back days.
A running marathon is 26.2 miles and they usually get 6-9 months to train before the event. This weekend, a bunch of 16-year-olds ran almost a full marathon. Think about that for a minute. They didn't run those 22.4 miles in one long amble. They ran it is a series of short sprints, cuts, and feints. They ran while dribbling a ball, while making and avoiding contact, while slide tackling, and while thinking strategically about what they need to do individually and as a unit to put balls in the net.
The stress we put on these young bodies is not insignificant. It showed as we got into Day #2. I witnessed several injuries on day 2. One girl was knocked unconscious and had to be taken away in a golf cart - concussion almost guaranteed in that case. MAN, I wish kids would wear concussion headbands when they play!
I saw several scraped knees and turf burns all weekend, but towards the end of day #2, I saw a lot of cramping. Whether through lack of electrolytes, poor hydration, cheap food, or over stress, these kids were coming off the field with limps.
The Age Factor
Here is where things get really interesting (and probably where many people's philosophies diverge). My friend Andy, a Physio in the European Football academy system - you know him from episode #34 titled English Football in America - tells me that in the English Academies, they allow kids to play in multi-day tournaments once they are 15 years old or older. He says:
We play 3 day tourneys but from u15’s upwards, we take into consideration the downtime in between games, players are GPS monitored to manage different types of info, distance covered, heart rate etc
Meals are prepped beforehand, physio on site for recovery, treatment of injuries, pre/post massage.
Andy Foxall - Coach and Physio in the English Academy System
If you look at the table I made for you in the show notes, you can see that in the tournament we just came from 63% of the players were under the age of 14. Only 37% were 15-years-old or older.
Number of Teams in Each Age Category
Total 15 - 19
The amount of support provided to these young athletes in England is impressive: GPS, prepared meals, medical support (many US based tournaments offer emergency medical support as well), pre/post massage... We felt lucky to find a pick-two at Panera Bread.
I think it's useful to think for a minute about what's going on here. Consider the mileage and the mental stress put on young player's minds and bodies. Consider the expense that parents of these players are laying out to travel each time we go to one of these travel tournaments. Some, like the English, would argue that highly competitive environments like travel tournaments are too much for kids under 14.
Norway, as another example, is a country who's youth sports participation rate is 93%. They prohibit the publication of game scores or rankings under the age of 11. National championships are prohibited under the age of 13. I will add that Norway has a population of 5.3 million people and took home 39 Olympic medals in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Compare that to our country of more than 300 million. We finished fourth and took home 23 medals. Have they figured something out that we haven't yet?
Nutrition and Hydration
Walk into any runner's club in the US and ask someone about their nutrition routine. You'll get a lot of different responses, but you're not walking out of there without a response. No person running, swimming, or biking a marathon doesn't think about nutrition and about hydration - a lot!
My goal here is not to give you the best nutrition routine. I'd have to round up a half dozen experts to give their opinions about that. But my point is that there is always a conversation around this with adult athletes. I have yet to attend a youth tournament that provides support around nutrition. No guidance. No prepared meals. not much of anything.
We co-own two tournaments in our area, and we typically see sponsorships by Gatorade. They come around with coolers of water or Gatorade sports drinks. They provide protein bars in pre-packaged wrappers. We even hired food trucks, but to be clear, we didn't put a lot of thought into the nutrition package we should be delivering to preteen or adolescents who are competing and literally running marathons around us all weekend. Why aren't we having this discussion?
At the very minimum, every club, coach, and tournament director should have some idea of the hydration requirements of young athletes and making an effort to do more than put water coolers out. Kids don't have any real background, education, or experience to know what's right to drink, when to drink, how much to drink, etc. Coaches and officials should have an eye on the thermometer and driving kids to mandatory re-hydration breaks when needed and between every bit of activity.
The Time Factor
I pulsed our Twitter Community, asking what people think of the 2-3 day travel tournament. I got some interesting replies.
In both cases, these youth soccer enthusiasts reference time and organization as factors. While Chris V didn't actually offer opinion in his question, we might read between the lines to suppose he's not happy when games are spread out over a few days. He's probably not tickled with a 90 minute travel time to get to the tournaments either.
Daniel Prenat also makes reference to not liking tournaments that are "drawn out" but he says in a follow on tweet that more compact tournaments are not only more fun, but can save parents money as well.
I think that both of these responses are pretty typical & I don't disagree with either of them. I wonder if we look at the time between games as needed recovery time if our opinions would change at all.
The Structural Factor
While USSF Liberator didn't give me any more detail on his comment that 3-day soccer tournaments are "One of the worst aspects of US soccer from the youth soccer perspective," I suspect that he (or she) is referring to the structure of youth soccer tournaments relative to what they contribute to the US National soccer standings on the world stage. Browsing through USSF Liberator's Twitter and Facebook posts leads me to assume that our standing in the world is important to him/her.
The contribution, if it can be called that, that 2-3 days youth soccer tournaments provide would be hard to identify.
These tournaments are recorded in GotSoccer, and the team has scored some points as a result of the wins we achieved this past weekend. But a standing in GotSoccer is just that - a standing. Does it help kids play in college or professionally? I've not seen evidence of this. If you have evidence of how GotSoccer has helped your player or a player you know, please visit my Connect page and leave me a message explaining how.
Other than being recorded in GotSoccer, I can't see how these tournaments help a soccer player achieve anything in the world of soccer. I can see using an appropriate level of competition to boost confidence of players and help a team that's gotten down on itself. I can see using a higher level of competition to humble a team that has gotten too big for its collective britches. But other that confidence adjustments and general life lessons, I wonder at the value they bring to the US soccer community or to players individually from a pure soccer sense.
Change my mind. I'm open to being schooled on this or any other related issue.
Travel tournaments are a great feature of the US Soccer landscape that deserve our thoughts and discussion. There are good and bad things about these tournaments that we should explore. I certainly don't have all the perspectives or the answers when it comes to the value that these competitive marathons of activity provide our kids and for our families.
I do know that they cost a lot of money, they run my son and I into the ground, that they take some special planning to do right (and safely), and neither my son nor I have any expectation that participating in them will advance his soccer career. But we do have a lot of fun on the pitch and with the sofa bed in the hotel!
- “Covering Ground at the FIFA World Cup.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/07/03/covering-ground-at-the-fifa-world-cup-miles-possession-and-miscues.
- Evans, Erica. “Youth Sports in the U.S. Are Time-Consuming, Expensive and Stressful. Here's Why Norway May Have the Answer.” Deseret News, Deseret News, 2 May 2019, https://www.deseret.com/2019/5/1/20672270/youth-sports-in-the-u-s-are-time-consuming-expensive-and-stressful-here-s-why-norway-may-have-the-an#norways-martin-sesaker-left-and-his-teammate-stine-haalien-work-on-the-stone-while-playing-against-estonia-during-a-mixed-team-curling-event-at-the-first-winter-youth-olympic-games-in-innsbruck-austria-tuesday-jan-17-2012-in-norway-93-percent-of-children-grow-up-playing-organized-sports-because-the-costs-are-low-and-joy-of-sport-for-all-rather-than-competition-is-the-focus.
- Farrey, Tom. “Does Norway Have the Answer to Excess in Youth Sports?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/28/sports/norway-youth-sports-model.html.
- “Recovery During Sports Tournaments - TrueSport - Learn.” TrueSport, 13 June 2017, https://learn.truesport.org/recovery-during-sports-tournaments/.
- “Importance of Recovery for Youth Athletes.” Importance of Recovery for Youth Athletes Comments, 4 May 2016, https://sparcathens.com/importance-of-recovery-for-youth-athletes/.
- “Recovery Techniques for Athletes.” Gatorade Sports Science Institute, https://www.gssiweb.org/sports-science-exchange/article/sse-120-recovery-techniques-for-athletes.
- Bergeron, Michael F. “Youth Sports in the Heat: Recovery and Scheduling Considerations for Tournament Play.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19530749.
- LM, Burke. “Nutrition for Post-Exercise Recovery.” Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/9127682.
- Zoorob, Roger, et al. “Sports Nutrition Needs: Before, During, and After Exercise.” Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice, Elsevier, 21 Mar. 2013, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0095454313000286?via=ihub.