I have come across various articles and opinion pieces discussing two important and related topics regarding the management of kids/youth soccer:
- Should there be scores and standings at the youth level? If so, at what age should this start?
- Should there be participation trophies for all players at the end of the season?
Traditionally scores and standings were kept at all age levels, I remember even at U6 recreational leagues. At that time players from the season champions got a championship trophy, all other teams received individual participation trophies. In some cases each team awarded “Most Valuable Player” and “Most Improved Player” trophies.
The main benefit of that system was that children learned about winning and losing. If administered properly these are valuable life lessons – not everyone wins and disappointment accompanies success. Unfortunately it wasn’t administered properly. By and large coaches, usually parent volunteers, wanted to win championships at all costs, meeting their own needs. Regardless of whether they coached recreational or competitive youth soccer this led to:
- Yelling at kids from the sidelines
- Yelling at youth referees
- Yelling at opposing coaches
- Not giving kids equal playing time, keeping out the better players to win the game
- Riling up the parents
- Fighting with parents about playing time
- Justifying their action by winning
- Trying to stack teams
- Focusing on winning, not on player and team development
This put a lot of pressure on the entire game and stress on children and everyone else associated with the game. In the end development suffered.
Things needed to change, and they did. A survey of youth practices across the globe indicates that in a lot of countries scores and standings have been abolished. Games are just played and the focus is on player development. Depending on the country and even the league within a country, scores and standings appear anywhere from U12 to U16. Along with it came the philosophy that everyone gets a trophy at the end of the season. The words that come with the trophy are “participation reward”, but in reality trophies indicate winning and kids are meant to feel they won.
This has worked reasonably well and most of the negatives from the old system have been eliminated. I see it every day at the field. Club administrations have put in good development programs.
But have we swung the pendulum too far? Children no longer have an incentive to work hard and to improve, there are no consequences for not trying hard and for not improving.
I suggest a slight adjustment to the current system with the aim to introduce incentives for children to perform better and coaches to coach better.
- I would keep the no scores/no standings approach for recreational and competitive soccer until age U12. At U13 even kids are asking for feedback. Weekend tournaments are the exception. The world cup format of group play, play-offs, and championship game should be implemented for all tournaments.
- I would not hand out trophies for all players at the end of the season, but some other form of participation recognition. Maybe a certificate or even a player passport which receives a stamp for every season played. These would be good keepsakes for the the future. Non meaningful trophies end up in recycle bins eventually. Championship trophies are kept.
- I would institute a new measurement system for players and teams. The goal should be that each player improves from beginning to end of season. Each team should play better soccer at the end than it did at the start. To that effect each coach, or an independent knowledgeable observer if available, should rate each player on the four pillars of soccer: skill, tactics, fitness, mental. Each team should be rated on team play. A report should be issued after observing practice and game #1, at mid-season, and after the last game. Players should be given feedback on where they improved and the areas needing development.
The sport is on the right track, it is now a matter of striking the right balance.