A closeup shot of a basketball tournament bracket.

Tournament Teams vs League Teams

There seems to be debate among the youth sports community on the best format of play for a team. The conventional wisdom of today is that to be a “good” team, you must focus on playing tournaments. 

The flip-side of this argument is having a team that plays in a regularly scheduled league. Using today’s conventional wisdom, league teams are considered recreational, less advanced teams.

I’m here to help you throw those preconceived notions out the window. Does the decision need to be black and white? Does the balanced coaching philosophy help us decide? Let’s examine the merits and drawbacks of both tournaments and leagues.

Advantages of Tournament Teams

The popular trend these days is to form your team as a tournament team. Tournament teams have the reputation of being a higher level team with greater skill. There is also a feeling among a lot of coaches and parents that to get better, kids need to be playing tournaments.

Why do tournament teams have this reputation? What is the draw? The biggest benefit of tournaments is that you play a larger number of games in a short period of time. More game experience is beneficial to the development of the athletes.

Tournaments also come with the possibility of winning tangible prizes. The prize is usually medals for each player but sometimes trophies are given out. Winning a trophy or a medal is cool, right? Everyone likes the validation the comes from winning an award like this.

Disadvantages of Tournament Teams

But tournaments aren’t perfect. They are expensive endeavors. A standard single-day softball tournament will cost $250-$450 per team. A two-day tournament will be more expensive. If the coach chooses to take the team to a distant tournament there are also travel costs involved. Tournament team costs are sometimes high enough exclude participation by some kids.

Earlier, I listed more games in a shorter time frame as an advantage of tournaments. The drawback to this is that not all kids can handle playing three or more games in a single day. This is highly dependent upon the age of the kids, the sport and the weather. Playing a single soccer game in the heat can be much more tiring than playing four volleyball matches in a gym.

Some kids are also better at keeping a game mentality throughout the entire day. I’ve coached teams in tournaments and had my most focused kids mentally check out by the end of the day. The point is that mental drain occurs to even the best players.

Remember the benefit of being able to win medals or trophies? An odd thing seems to happen when you put this type of recognition on the line. It seems to incentivize teams to do whatever they can to win. You’re likely to run into more coaches that are heavily win-focused or that use bush league tactics to win.

Advantages of League Teams

Thirty years ago, the standard for youth sports was to play in a league. For larger cities, the league was probably made entirely of teams in that city. Leagues in more rural areas likely incorporated several nearby towns.

In today’s world, league play has almost become synonymous with recreational teams. At least in common thinking. But, this is not actually true and there are plenty of competitive leagues available to choose from.

In fact, playing in a league is often been the best way to find competition at the right level for your team. Leagues often do a little bit better job of ensuring that teams are skill-matched. This is sometimes done through team rankings over the course of a couple seasons. Often time, its done by teams voluntarily joining or leaving the league based on skill level. It ends up keeping the league pretty well-matched.

Most leagues do charge a fee to play, but the costs are usually reasonable compared to a season of tournaments. League fees commonly range from $200-$600 for an entire season of games. Compare that with a season of $300 tournaments and you’ll find that league play is often a cheaper route to go.

Disadvantages of League Teams

The most obvious disadvantage is that playing single games means it takes more playing dates to get in the same number of games. Either that or the team plays fewer games.

A higher number of playing dates creates a different type of scheduling commitment for the players and their families. Since league games are often played in the evenings it can also conflict with available practice times. This may be outweighed by the fact that the team can have the majority of their weekends free.

Leagues are also not known as a place to win “hardware” such as medals and trophies. If this interests you, your probably lean more toward the tournament path. You’ll find many leagues also offer awards for the top teams at the end of the season. But you’ll be playing an entire season of games to walk away with one.

Which Should You Choose?

I’ve been asked this question by other coaches many times. In fact, I’ve asked this question of myself more than once. I’ve tried both approaches and at this point, I have to recommend a hybrid approach.

For several years I’ve used a league with similar skill level teams for consistent, competitive play throughout the season. In addition, I will take the team to a small number of tournaments. I usually limit this to one to three tournaments per season due to the higher commitment of time and money.

I have experienced a lot of benefit to my teams using this approach. The consistency of league play has been very good for development. It allows us to learn from the mistakes of a single game before playing the next one.

My teams have also benefited from the evenly-matched league play, but these leagues have not been simply recreational. They keep track of win-loss record and name a league champion at the end of the season. That title comes complete with medals or trophies.

Adding a couple tournaments increases the amount of game experience the players get with little change to commitment. It’s easier to find your team mismatched in skill or experience with tournaments, so keeping them to a minimum helps build confidence.

This hybrid approach fits very well with the balanced coaching philosophy. It strikes the right chord between winning, development, and having fun. It has helped me build some very successful teams and players over the years. And so far, it has kept the kids and parents returning season after season.

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