It flabbergasts me that I am writing a survival guide on youth soccer tournaments.
For something that should be a fun and carefree enjoyment of the beautiful game, tournaments can, unfortunately, add a lot of stress to the mix. And tournaments seem to be becoming a bigger and bigger part of youth soccer, and at younger and younger ages.
This article will not discuss the pros and cons of the tournament structure in youth soccer. Of course, it is a fair conversation to have, but that is the scope for another article. With that said, the youth soccer system is not changing anytime soon. Jam-packed tournaments are here to stay, and I want to shed light on how kids can optimize performance and recovery, as well as stay healthy during such rigorous weekends.
Although the tournament environment can be filled with an exuberance of soccer and time with your team, they can leave players exhausted, sore and mentally drained. A full weekend of non-stop games is no joke and can take its toll on the young athlete.
If you are a parent, chances are you’ll also feel wiped out from the travel, driving and planning. There are hotels to book. There are snacks to pack. There is gas to put in the car. There are carpools to organize. There are multiple fields to find.
It is a lot, no doubt.
Although this survival guide is targeted to soccer players, I would argue parents can utilize all of these tips as well, as they can help you relieve stress and enjoy the vibrance of a tournament weekend!
1. Eat and Drink to Perform
Because sometimes the McDonald’s drive-through just won’t cut it. Sure, McDonald’s and other fast food joints have a small handful of healthy options, but more often than not, kids are tempted to order the greasy foods because they feel like they “earned it” after a game.
That’s totally fine every once in a while, but during a tournament weekend when you likely have another game the next morning or even within the next few hours, there’s nothing that’s going to decrease performance, energy levels and sleep quality more than downing a bunch of fast food sludge.
With that said, finding quality meals can be tough, so be sure to pack emergency snacks full of carbs, protein and ingredients you can recognize. RXBARs, Lärabars, peanut butter (and/or PB&J sandwiches), fruit, crackers, trail mix and pretzels are all light snacks that can provide energy-boosting carbs without bogging players down.
As far as hydration, general guidelines for water consumption are at least 16 ounces during the few hours leading up to activity, though that number increases substantially if it’s hot and/or humid. During activity it is best to drink 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes. For more guidelines on hydration, go here.
Don’t forgot, though, even if the tournament is taking place in a cold climate, players still need to hydrate. Just because they are not sweating a whole lot does not mean they don’t need adequate amounts of water to perform their best.
2. Chill Out!
Soccer tournaments have their way of putting our nervous systems into sympathetic (fight-or-flight) mode for an extended period of time. The volume of games wears on athletes, as well as the extensive amount of travel.
Between games, I urge players to shut their phones off, perform mobility work (more on this later), read, hang out with teammates and laugh, or just walk around a little. Tournaments are a great opportunity to team bond, crack jokes, smile and enjoy each other’s company.
Performing restorative activity like this will not only decrease stress, but it will also improve quality of sleep and propel kids to come back with tenacity the next morning for their next match.This bears repeating, too: Get off Instagram and stop staring at a glowing screen. The last thing you want to see before bed time is something that stresses you out on social media. Turn off the technology and go chill out.
3. Have Fun
Tournaments are supposed to be a time when players hang out with their team in a new, fun area and escape the grind of practices and trainings.
This does not mean don’t take tournaments seriously, but enjoy the memories with your teammates. Some of the best memories in the game of soccer are the epic things you did with your team. Having fun is going to make the entire experience a lot less stressful and a lot more enjoyable, and with all the traveling and tournaments fees involved, don’t you want to have a good time?
4. Stay Mobile
So a hard-fought game was played, and now there are 2-3 hours until the next one. What a great time slot to recover and stretch.
Working on mobility could be something as simple as foam rolling for 5-10 minutes post-match. I encourage soccer players to buy a mini foam roller or a lacrosse ball that they can pack in their bag. Then, do some dynamic mobility work. Static stretching between games is going to have little benefit; in fact it very well may lead you to be more susceptible to injury and to perform worse.
Here are some of my favorite mobility moves for soccer athletes:
5. Get Warm
It is about an hour before your second game of the day, and after the restorative work with mobility drills in between games, the players are feeling nice and supple.
The warm-up for the second game of the day does not need to be too demanding, but it also cannot be too nonchalant. 7-10 minutes of movement bodes well, and I highly recommend the FIFA 11+.
Activating the hips are a great way to get players ready for soccer-specific actions like shooting, cutting and accelerating. Here are a couple of my personal favorites.
Perform two sets, 15-30 seconds on each side
Perform two sets, 10-12 reps on each side.
In addition to this, exciting the nervous system with a few short accelerations will also prepare your players for game speed. Not only is this good for improved performance, but also for injury reduction. The last thing you want is for your players to go in cold and not be ready to maximally sprint. Here is a short distance multi-planar speed drill to add to your warm-up:
Perform 3 sets, 10-15 yards. First set at 75% speed, second set at 100% speed, third set again at 100% speed.
6. What Else?
The above tips are my “big rocks” that I think can help young teams thrive at soccer tournaments. Remember, tournaments are generally structured so that the longer you play, the further you advance. Thus, those who plan on winning the tournament or making a deep run cannot afford to neglect their bodies and just hope for the best. In addition to these big rocks, I’d be remiss not to mention several other pieces I think you shoulder consider:
- Bring iPhone music and speaker for pump-up before the game. This ups the fun factor!
- Bring sunscreen to protect skin and discomfort from sunburn, as you may be out in the sun for many hours each day.
- Limit social media use throughout the tournament to decrease anxiety and sympathetic nervous system response.
- Explore the town you’re in to help you escape from the soccer grind and re-charge.
- Bring an uplifting book to help you relax and wind down.
- If you’re going to stress all weekend about the homework that awaits you on Sunday night, perhaps bring some school work to do during the multiple car rides.
I understand soccer tournaments can be overwhelming and in some cases provide more duress than fulfillment, but we need to remember what makes the sport fun. Feeling good, winning games and bonding with your team in a new location are some of the best aspects of a tournament experience. Take the right steps and you drastically increase your odds of leaving a tournament happy!
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