175 Grams: No More Tournaments

by | May 13, 2014, 8:55am 22

Questioning Tournaments

Our high school state tournament was delayed a few weeks, and that had me spending some time thinking about tournaments in general. This will be a little more serious in message than normal, if not in tone. I hate writing introductions, so let’s dive right in.

I don’t think the standard tournament format is healthy for high school ultimate.

I’ll concede a few things first. Tournaments can be a lot of fun. I’ve heard a lot of stories about people being on the fence about ultimate, then they attend a tournament and things just click. I’ve taken my team to a few so far, one even requiring a coach bus and a hotel stay. They’ve all been fun, my kids have been exceptionally well behaved across the board, and it’s eye-opening to see so many people playing at one time. This is a huge deal for developing programs. It’s a huge demonstration of fellowship.

But I first realized that tournaments were not such a good idea at our most recent one, where we had low numbers that lead to a pile up of injuries. I was particularly struck by the fact that we weren’t alone– we didn’t play our last game that weekend because both teams were down to seven players. Sure, being able to watch and write my next column about two teams gutting out a savage game could have been glorious. But as a coach and adult responsible for the well-being of a dozen teenagers, canceling that game was an easy decision.

Here are a few major problems with tournaments at the high school level:

Tournaments are designed for large teams  

Tournaments are endurance events. There’s very little I can control when it comes to kids’ fitness, so the best ways to make sure I have enough rested, healthy bodies for the whole game is to have a lot of them.

However, I don’t have this luxury at tournaments because like many youth programs, we struggle with numbers. Getting 20 or more kids to attend games and practices regularly is really, really difficult, and that’s only a couple-hour commitment. Getting them around for an entire weekend? Even harder, with the attending players left to play twice hard to make up for the absentees.

Tournaments take up a lot of time

At the beginning of our season, team captains from about a dozen local schools in the area got together to discuss the season. Everyone single one voted to have consistently-scheduled single games each weekend instead of inconsistent double-headers.

Tournaments are not consistent and, like I said above, they take up entire weekends.  Kids have lives – they wake up at the same time every day, go to school, have the same classes, have after-school events, and have predictable time commitments for homework. If they start something new, like piano lessons or boy scouts, it’s usually a consistently recurring event in a 1-3 hour block of time. On top of that, because it’s still rare to see ultimate programs for kids younger than high school, the sport often attracts kids who like to dabble in new things and see what sticks. Yes, sports in high school ask for intense time commitments. Hell, my high school marching band’s band camp (bring on the jokes) was two weeks of 9 am – 9 pm days. But I had been playing an instrument for five years prior to joining just like most of the Varsity athletes had been playing their sports for years. They already knew they loved the sport, so asking for the commitment wasn’t crazy.

The bottom line is that whether it’s for familial, social, or academic reasons, it’s difficult to commit 48 hours to ultimate at a non-regular interval. And scheduling conflicts mean fewer players.

Having small teams play a lot of games in a short time period is not healthy

I think this is pretty easy to understand. Ultimate involves a lot of repetitive motion on some sensitive joints (shoulders, knees, elbows). With a large team, you can spread playing time out so no one gets too worn out. A small team still has to account for the same amount of running and throwing, but they have fewer bodies to disperse the wear and tear.

But! But! Tournaments are how it’s always been done!

Tournaments make sense for clubs and colleges, where frequent travel just isn’t affordable. Those teams need to get the most game for their travel/time buck. But for high school teams, where you’re often only playing schools within a half hour drive, the travel cost is no longer an issue. Every other high school sport has regularly scheduled games and events – why not ultimate?  (Yes, this involves a lot more bureaucracy. It’s a hazard of being an established, recognized sport.)

Weekly games have the benefit of consistency. If they happen often, it means they get talked about often in school. If the time commitment is only a few hours once a week, then maybe fans/friends/family will come out and watch. No one is going to come spend a day at a tournament. Look at the professional leagues – they’re not doing tournaments because they need fans. It’s so much easier to get people to commit to a couple hours once a week than to set aside an entire day to watch four.

My high school team is an upstart squad, and my kids have even managed to get some friends and family at games. This might seem fairly trivial to adults, but it’s a big deal to them. Parents want to support their kids and kids want to support their friends, and if you give them the opportunity they will take advantage. More fans means more support in the form of orange slices on the sidelines, ultimate allies at PTA meetings, and peer acceptance of ultimate (which matters when you’re 15). And all o that means more ultimate.

Tournaments are a venue to binge on ultimate for a weekend, but this isn’t what the community needs or wants, especially on the youth level. We can do better, and we owe it to the players to do so. Moving towards a single game format is the right thing to do


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  • Slick

    I'll admit, I was skeptical when I saw the title of this article. But you have convinced me that for the most part high school games should be like other sports.
    I think the exception is of course for teams that are isolated and do not have any other high school teams nearby. So I guess, maybe get rid of tournaments in areas where it is feasible to travel, but keep them in areas where there aren't enough teams to make that possible

  • Alex

    What about smaller teams from schools that are already a couple of hours away from other ultimate playing schools, what's the solution for them? I may start a high school team in central Illinois but it would only work out if we can go to tournaments.

    • Lz viper

      Does your team want to play my team? Where in central Illinois?

      • Trent

        no… we are nowhere close to central Illinois we are in the northern part in case you didn't know lol

  • USA Ultimate has guidelines set up just for youth events regarding number of hours played, and time between games.

    -Maximum amount of time that players are at the fields is 9 hours per day.
    -Maximum amount of actual game time is 6 hours per day.
    -For standard 2 hour rounds (games to 15),there is a max of 3 games a day (6 per weekend)
    -Minimum of 30 minutes from hard cap to beginning of the next round.
    -If teams have more than 2 games per day, an 1-hour break between games is recommended.

    I'm also fairly certain (at least some of) USAU staff attends conferences focused on safety at youth events (based on the out of office replies I've received in the past).

  • I captain the Spearfish High School team, and without tournaments we would get almost no playing opportunities. We are based out of South Dakota, with the nearest high school teams being the Colorado youth scene (6 hours away), and the Minnesota youth scene (9 hours away). Without tournament opportunities in those areas we would be reduced to scrimmaging among ourselves, and playing college and club teams that we play very often already. We are also a smaller team, we usually bring about 12-14 people to tournaments with around 40% of them having no prior experience with Ultimate. I would agree that single game formats are better for injuries and avoiding conflicts, but I don't believe there is enough youth teams nationwide at this moment to completely switch to that format. Personally though tournament weekends are my favorite weekends in the year, and there's something beautiful about the Ultimate community that is only seen at tournaments. We can't let Ultimate lose that beauty, especially at the youth level.

    • Rob

      I don't think Jackson is saying abolish tournaments completely. I think he is pointing out that if you have the opportunity to do single games, that teams should try out that format.

      • Makes sense, we would definitely play single games if we had the opportunity. While we travel to Minnesota and Colorado to play; both of their scenes have organized regular seasons with single game formats in place. I think it's interesting to see how teams fare in the regular season compared to how well they play in tournaments. Usually teams may play better in the regular season, managing to beat some storied programs, but then when tournament time comes they lose handily to the same team. Single game formats definitely supply a twist to the competition. But I really like how both MNYU and Colorado youth scene have combined a single game formatted regular season with a tournament style post season. Both leagues have the regular season lead to the seeding of their state tournament. Other states and youth scenes should definitely consider following their example. Seems like a fun and competitive style that keeps kids safe and uninjured, but keeps the competition high.

  • Reid

    While a good idea, these ideas have been around a while. Here's something from the Huddle written a while back:

  • Matt

    I remember when I was in high school, telling our classmates and teachers that we had to travel for our sport made it even more intriguing to them. So when we did have our weekly games we got more support because people wanted to know what all the hype was about.

  • Eric

    As I see it you present two reasons there should not be tournaments for youth ultimate: 1) some teams have insufficient players to safely finish a tournament, and 2) it's harder to convince spectators to show up for a full day/weekend.

    1) I agree this is a problem. This isn't a problem with tournaments, but with teams bringing too few kids to tournaments. A youth team should not play a tournament with only 10 kids. If there isn't enough commitment, don't go to the tournament. Every youth ultimate community I know of with multiple high school teams has a non-tournament format league.

    2) This is difficult, but parents and fans are not required to show up the whole day or weekend. It's probably more likely parents (or fans) show up to part of a day of ultimate at a local tournament than drive an hour to play a team for 70 minutes on a weeknight.

    To me, there is really only one outstanding negative of tournaments (less likely for spectators), while there are multiple benefits.

    TL;DR: don't attend youth tournaments without sufficient numbers of players.

  • As a high school organizer in Vermont, we are dealing with these same issues as we transition over the next couple years to a Varsity sport. This season we have been splitting between individual games and tournaments, but as we grow (we are currently at 16 open teams, 4 girls teams, and 5 "futures" teams in the state) we see that there is a real possibility that we move away from the tournament format. My personal leaning is towards a regular season that includes single games leading to a Championship Saturday with Quarterfinals, Semifinals, and Finals. If teams want to travel to or host a tournament to get more games, that is a team/school choice that does not impact the regular season, effectively making them into exhibition games. I view this as solely for high school Ultimate and not at any other level and I think teams should try to make time for at least one tournament as it is so relevant to the Ultimate culture. But to account for health/safety concerns and lower numbers than might be available at higher levels, single games is the direction that I would trend towards.

  • Dallas

    Interesting Solution: Why not both?
    As a high school player myself from Dallas, I'm just as busy as any other kid, but also love the experience of tournaments. How the Dallas high school league is run is we meet in a centralized location with LOTS of fields and play 3 games a week. These games are consistent times and only take up our Saturday mornings and a little of the afternoons (which would be used for sleeping anyway). Having these games at a consistent time is noce because it lets me plan my life. But then comes the State Championships. Ours just so happened to be this past weekend, and it was a tournament. Having it this way means there is more concrete times but at the same time we are able to still enjoy the experience of the tournament. There's no need to throw away tournaments all together, but just have a different format for the regular season and the championships.

  • Twilley

    I can't believe this article was written.

    The answer is to have Both Leagues and Tournaments, not abolishing literally the most fun thing about playing on an Ultimate team.

    • Tournaments are amazingly fun, yes. But when you start a day with 10-12 guys and end it struggling to put out a full line, the enjoyment goes down pretty quick. Especially when you're responsible for a bunch of minors and are legitimately be legally liable for their well-being. Having them in conjunction with single games is great, but they shouldn't be part of a team's regular schedule at the high school level.

      • Eric

        Simple: don't go to a tournament with 10 kids.

        • Stewart

          I think for a lot of organizers (and for a lot of players) you sort of just have to work with what you have. If you have 8 kids that are really focused on going then how can you even stop them? I played on one of the teams that played against the author at the tournament he's talking about, and while we were tired, we really wanted to keep going in spite of fatigue, injuries, and dropping games we should have won. So in a perfect world you sort of hope that you wont have just 10 members, but sometimes you do and you just have to keep those ten as well rested and healthy as you can.

    • dusty rhodes

      if "literally the most fun thing about playing on an Ultimate team" is anything other than "playing ultimate" either find a new team or a new sport.

  • Larry

    has anyone ever considered a hybrid model where 4 teams get together and play a "mini" tournament? Just semifinals, with the winners playing each other and the losers playing a consolation. It's only two games and can be played with a small break, making it doable during after school hours in the evenings.

    You could even extend this model across a few weeks and make it a tournament that spans two weeks or longer if you wanted to increase the number of teams.

    I'd think keeping it at a maximum of 2 games a day would reduce both the burden on time as well as the injury factors mentioned, but still maintain a bit of the feel of a tournament.

  • Evan

    For the top tier of high school teams, tournaments are normally the only way for them to challenge themselves with competitive games.

    I think that there should be more single game opportunities, and maybe teams can choose mostly one or the other depending on their resources and needs. However, if you want to compete for a state or regional title, it should still be done in a tournament format. No offense, but if these obstacles are too much to overcome, then it sounds like the team is best not competing for a title at that level.

    It is very bold to blindly make the assumption that the youth level as a whole would prefer single games over tournaments. Until the semi pro leagues, ultimate has always been played in a tournament format. It is a staple for the sport, and I bet you most youth find it to be a critical reason for joining and continuing to enjoy ultimate.

  • J.R.

    USAU encourages league play. YCC eligibility is tied to having an establish league development program. Both should be utilized as situations vary from team to team and area to area.

  • just wow

    This is so poorly argued and explained that I'm actually at a loss with how to respond.

    Why doesn't ultimate work like every other sport? Because it's not every other sport. It's developing, and asking the lone team in central Illinois to drive 4 hours for one game is idiotic and counter-productive.

    All I'm reading are complaints and problems about a system that does work, much of the time.