The summer tournament season is nearly over, and I, as usual, am grateful. The summer grinds on players, coaches, refs, parents, and organizers. There is a lot of travel, it’s freaking hot, and the days are long. With team fees, tournament fees, travel fees, hotel fees, and buying yet another tournament t-shirt the adults at tournaments easily throw down a few thousand dollars by the end of the summer. All of that money generates momentum to crushing less-skilled opponents by obscene scores. The more summer tournaments I officiate the more I see the pressure to win games by large margins, and it is because of a very adult idea: investing.
A few thousand dollars represents a decent investment for pretty much every working adult, and we have the adult idea that putting money down will result in a reward later on. Kids do not understand this no matter how often they are told. I didn’t fully understand the importance of money until I got my first utility bill – that brought a lesson my middle school history teacher Mrs. Woods expounded on in almost every class: “there is no such thing as a free lunch in this world.” The players want to play, and the fact that you put down money for them to play does not factor into their experience or drive their on-field performance. The monetary investment parents make in summer tournaments creates an incentive to reduce the risk of losing as much as possible by the adult coaches.
As an official, I experience my fair share of running time games during the regular season, and in nearly all of them by the time the goal differential is ten or twelve goals most of the starters are sitting on the bench. Typically the final score ends up something like 13-4, 12-5, or 15-10. The winning team is never in any real danger of losing the game. Contrast that to the common final scores I run into during the summer like 22-0, 18-1, and 17-2. Those are scores played with the mercy rule in effect where the losing team was at least six goals behind and got the ball in lieu of a face off. To hammer this point home consider these two situations I ran into this summer at the U11 age level:
- Final Score 18-3: The winning team kept all the starters in (roughly 22 players on the team), and doubled the ball at the midfield when the losing team was given the ball at Center X. Most of the players on the losing team didn’t have a solid skill foundation, and each time I blew the ball in the losing team midfielder got stripped and watched his counterpart on the other team waltz past stationary defenders for a point-blank shot.
- Final Score 17-2: I purposefully did not call a technical foul against the losing team. Their player released early from their penalty early in the 4th quarter and the winning team coach was beside himself that I would permit such a travesty. I had heard enough and told him I saw the early release, but was not going to make the call. To which he replied – “Goal differential is important in this tournament sir.” Now he had a legitimate point, but goal differential happened to be the third tiebreaker behind head-to-head and goals against. Sometimes it is the job of a youth official to save an adult coach from himself. Also, the ball had crossed to the other side of the field all of five times by the end of the game, and I was tired of watching the losing team goalkeeper getting shelled. I didn’t feel bad about ignoring that technical, and I still don’t.
Teams are silently, and not-so-silently, encouraged to run up the score whenever they can just so they don’t risk being on the losing end of a tiebreaker by the end of pool play. I see this consistently from U11 all the way to U19A division games over the summer. Every time I look over at the winning coaches and want to say – “Really? Does #12 really need to score seven goals? Is there no one else who can shoot on the bench?” It is possible to sub players out when the game is well in hand, or at the very least switch up the lefty attacker to the other side of the cage so he can practice shooting with his right hand.
I also get confused by the parents cheering for their team’s eighteenth goal just as hard as they did for the first goal – “Congratulations, your team can score against zero defensive pressure! This is a marvel to be celebrated!” To these parents I ask what is the greater accomplishment – scoring two natural hat tricks against a defense that cannot talk or move and a goalkeeper that is facing the wrong direction, or scoring two goals against a defense that slides well and a goalkeeper who tracks the ball?
When I played my coach had a rule for the starters and second stringers every game – do your job. Against lesser-skilled teams we had to go to work. Once we put up eight goals and shut down the opposing offense our job was done, and he subbed us out for the sophomores and freshman. We were never worried that we’d lose the game, but we also weren’t going to go out of our way to show our superiority. Beating a team by such wide margins is not a demonstration of skill – that was demonstrated when the winning team scored six goals in the first four minutes. Put in players that need more experience, slow down the offense a bit, and don’t do a ten man ride because it might be a good idea for your defense to see at least one settled possession before going up against a better team in bracket play.
If you don’t recognize the featured image check out my favorite Mayhem commercial: