I Walked 'The Mile' in Their Shoes

I have been coaching for over 20 years and always had mixed feelings about playing my teams in tournaments. I know for a fact that in younger groups, it is a blast staying overnight in hotels, having pizza parties, watching movies, swimming, trashing the coaches' room, or even going to the beach in close proximity. But the amount of pressure and demand on a young athlete's body is beyond imagination. Factor in that during the heat of summer, after playing the fourth game, you might still go home empty-handed.

Well, I recently experienced that first-hand. I had some friends who participated in the "Las Vegas King" tournament and I asked if I could join. There were few brackets for our club; I qualified for over-50s.

No matter how old you are, the first time you wear a uniform of a new team, you will have butterflies. I was excited to be playing in a tournament with some very good players, something that I missed during my youth growing up overseas. Here we were, arriving on a turf field and seeing players that were suited up to play. I was handed a jersey and was introduced to the team. It was 30 minutes before the game and the captain was begging people to warm up, with no effect. So I found a ball and started dribbling on my own and stretching — Step Two in our "9-Step Practice Routine."

I was surprisingly one of the starters, being new to this team, and as a left wing in the 4-4-2 system. That was my position in high school, over 34 years ago.

I played for 20 minutes and asked to be subbed. I came out and sat down, sweating, aching and drinking my water, when suddenly was called back in again within four minutes

"Go in again for your sub," they said.

Are you joking? I thought. I looked on the field and there I saw my replacement rolling on turf due to a pulled muscle. I played the rest of the first half, and the second half as well. Lesson learned — don't give 120-percent effort when you are over 50; you will not be subbed out, you will always be the superstar.

The second game was at 2 p.m. — yes, we had less than a two-hour break. By now, the roster of 22 was down to 16. Some did not even want to start — contrary to any 11-year-old, who does not want to sit on the bench. We were sitting down with ice packs over our knees, ankles, calf muscles and whatnot. Another game was about to start and, contrary to when I was younger, I was hoping not to go in.

However, my name was called against my wishes. This time, I was asked to play as their center midfielder. I was hoping for the cherry-picking position, center forward; I had the speed, the vision, the shot and the know-how, but I guess I was not the coach's favorite. I reached for a bottle of energy drink and two Advils. Down the hatch went the pill, and I went into the game for another hour of aching.

We managed to win the last game, but at the cost of another injury. We played two more games on Sunday and won both, but did not qualify to advance and returned home the following day empty-handed. It was a fantastic experience for me to play with some good players, some of whom had played internationally.

After returning home, I started to analyze the last four days. I found out that I had muscle groups in my body that I never knew existed. I was annoyed that with three wins and a loss, we could not advance; however, for my body it was a blessing because it took another week to get back to normal. I also recalled teammates being pulled out of each game due to injuries; luckily, nothing serious for us, the "weekend warriors."

Tournaments are a great moneymaker for leagues. I have been involved in quite a few and some generate tens of thousands of dollars. But, here my focus turned towards our younger players.

We all know that professional players know how to pace themselves during the game and will rest their bodies up to 72 hours before playing in another game. Given that tournament games are usually 30-minute halves, it can become a great torment for younger players to participate in four games per weekend with only a few hours of rest between each game. Young players know nothing of pacing themselves and, during the few hours between games, they can be seen running around, kicking a ball and just being kids. No matter how many times you asked them to sit under the shade and relax, it usually won't happen.

I had a player who was hospitalized due to dehydration, and I was lectured about not having them rest enough and hydrate sufficiently. I faithfully followed our suggested "half-time routine" and all my parents were given an article on nutrition and tournaments. But as a coach, I don't have a gauge to measure how much water this or any other player needed to stay hydrated.

In tournaments, we play for points, have shoot-outs, count maximum-goals to receive a medal or cup that costs $1.95. And at the same event, many players suffer injuries that cost thousands of dollars. Sadly, the majority of injuries occur on the second day, and the last game. You are guaranteed three games, and if you win, you qualify for the most important fourth game – the championship game. By this time, fatigue, exhaustion and dehydration come into play. I have read that 80 percent of all injuries occur in the second half of such tournaments, when the players are giving 120 percent of what's left in their bodies just to get that $1.95 trophy.

Sure, it is a given that younger athletes' recovery rate is quicker than a 50-year old's. But, please remember that these are not Humanoids. They are young children who aim to please us, have a good time, show their skills and have some fun. It should be their playtime and not our vicarious ego time.

We, adults and coaches, need to make every effort to assure that they will enjoy the event, remain healthy, and ensure it a safe event for the entire roster, not just the "chosen ones."