Normally I would write about something like this in a Tales From The Pitch thread, but this was such a cool experience, I figured it was worth a blog post.

After deciding to do away with the Recreation State Cup for U9-U12, the NCYSA replaced it with regional festivals. The idea was to have events spread across the state so that teams didn’t have to travel far. The overall goal was to increase participation, thinking Rec teams were less likely to travel. So when we were asked to host one of the regional festivals, we jumped at the chance, and last Fall around 40 teams played a full day of soccer here in Mebane. It was a lot of fun, and we hoped to do it again.

This Spring, we agreed to host the festival again, and had 19 teams from our league that eagerly awaited the chance to play some teams from other leagues. But for a number of reasons, all four festival sites struggled to attract teams, so with less than two weeks to go before the festival, we saw that there were only a handful of other teams planning to attend the festival (in addition to our own teams). This wasn’t good. So to try and salvage some type of event, we decided to try something different.

We decided to breakup our teams that had planned to attend, and create new ‘festival teams’. This way if two Mebane teams played each other once or twice in the festival, it would still be ‘new’. We didn’t force players to do this – we just explained the change and polled the teams to see who was still game. We managed to keep over 100 players who wanted to play no matter what. The rest, mostly U8 age players, weren’t interested in “playing for another team” and clearly some parents were unsure about this whole idea. But we had more than enough players to do something, so with only a few days to go before the event, we scrambled to confirm players who would still play and create these ‘festival teams’. As we were doing this, it became clear that many teams from other leagues were pulling out of the Rec festival due to a severe lack of teams. Three days beforehand, the NCYSA canceled the event.

Since we had already put so much work into recruiting coaches and players for our ‘festival teams’, we decided to go for broke and still hold some sort of event for all these kids who still wanted to play. So we kept working on our festival teams, and decided to hold a mini-festival ourselves. We ended up having to combine some age groups, but we did it in a way that let kids get a taste for what play this Fall would be like when they aged up. U8 players got to play 6v6 on a bigger field with bigger goals. U9 players got a chance to be the ‘older kids’ in 6v6. U10 players got a chance to play 8v8 like they would in U12 this Fall, and the U11 players got a chance to be the ‘older kids’ in 8v8.

We managed to get 11 teams formed in two divisions, with each team getting three matches (except for one team). We put a schedule together, got officials to call the matches, and put bins of red and blue pinnies at each field. Players just showed up at their scheduled field in the morning and said what color their team was (White, Yellow, Green, Blue, Red, etc) to find their team. Then they grabbed some pinnies and played.

I honestly don’t know who had more fun – the kids, the coaches, or the parents. The coaches had a blast coaching a team of unknowns in matches that didn’t count. The kids, after a little awkwardness, just played, and not knowing how skilled their teammates were, treated them like equals for the most part. The parents just cheered, laughed, and enjoyed themselves. New friends were made and a lot of fun was had by all. I can’t recall the last time as league president that I got so much positive feedback in one day and not a single complaint.

I’m not advocating this as some type of replacement for league play, etc. Our Rec league is a very competitive league, and the vast majority of people prefer it that way. I’m not a huge fan of the U10 Academy format where players pool train and play on random teams all the time. But this was a fantastic ‘alternative event’ that was a great way to end the season AND help kids prepare for travel tryouts, which were the next week. I know as a coach I had an absolute blast.

My point in sharing this is that there are many possibilities out there to mix things up a bit with your soccer program. Not as a season/league wide change, but as an ‘event’. This was one day of soccer – that’s it. I wouldn’t advocate it be more than that. It took some administrative overhead to form the teams, but beyond that – it was worth any effort it took to organize. In the end everyone had a lot of fun and a new experience.

So the next time you’re laying out your Rec league schedule, think about some things you could do to give your players a new experience.