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