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  • Writer's pictureRick Traugott

Organizing a Tournament? Don't make these mistakes

Occasionally, I am mystified as to how tournament and league formats are set up. In my experience there are a few cardinal rules of creating formats and rules that all competitions should follow:

  1. Make it fair for all teams.

  2. Let as many teams as possible make the playoffs. Keeping in mind that…

  3. All teams should play as much as possible within the competition schedule.

  4. Don’t make up weird rules.

Here are some tales from the trenches from the past 40 years of being involved with competitive sports:

I will start with a great tournament idea. I had a team entered in a women’s tournament in Zurich, Switzerland in 2010. There were six teams and we were to play a straight round robin format with no playoff. Entered in the tournament were three “A” teams and three “B” teams, and there was some concern that the “B” teams might not be able to compete very well against the “A” teams. So, instead of playing 45 minute tournament games, we played two 20 minute games back to back against each team. This meant that a blowout might only be 4-0 and then the score goes to 0-0 as the second 20 minute game starts. At the end of the tournament every team had played ten 20 minute games. The schedule was set up so that the top two teams played in the final 2 games (20 minutes each) for the championship. This is a great idea for a tournament that might have a varied level of teams.

The Zurich model was much better than a goofy “points for winning a period” format. It’s one thing to play a 20 minute game. It’s another to play a three period game where there are points allotted for winning a period. Awarding period points alters the way a game is played. Teams may need to start worrying about pulling a goalie to win the first period if they need the points to make the playoff round. There should be one goal for all teams: win the hockey game.

I am also a big believer in if not all, then almost all teams making the playoffs in league play. In the past, the girls’ basketball team at the high school I work at played in a league that ran from early September to the end of October. The ten teams played a single round robin and only four teams made the playoffs. This led to the team being in a situation on September 14 of having to win their third game of the season to “make the playoffs”. The coach had extrapolated out the expected outcomes and figured he had to win this game in order to be in the top four. There is great reward in developing teams as a season progresses. If teams are eliminated early, the incentive for improvement is greatly diminished. (On a personal note, the leagues that I have run in the past, both hockey and baseball, have always had all teams make the playoffs. League play is used for seeding, and often top teams get a bye through the first round, but everyone has a chance to win at the end of the season.)

Our boy’s high school hockey league didn’t have any playoffs until the late 80’s. Then, four of six teams made a final four tournament that was played on the last Saturday before March Break. If you missed the playoffs, typically your last league game was on the Wednesday before March Break. Then, the top team’s coaches felt it was unfair to have to play a sudden death single game against a lower ranked team. “There might be an upset” they claimed. So they voted to play best of three semi-finals and finals. This made a lot of sense for the playoff teams but for the teams that didn’t make the playoffs, their seasons ended almost two weeks earlier – which was the difference between an eleven week season and a nine week season. Two takeaways from this: first, the top teams will always want to have a format that puts them at the least risk of losing (see Malcomb Gladwell’s article How David Beats Goliath) and second, if one loss and you’re out is acceptable for NCAA March Madness basketball, why is it not acceptable for high school hockey?

One of my big pet peeves is tie breaking rules that don't make sense. Fewest penalty minutes? Most shutouts? in baseball, most players to third base? If score differential can't do it, flip a coin! (If we had the most players to third base does that not mean we were incapable of scoring them?)

I was involved as a coach in two provincial tournaments that had whacky formats as well.

The first was an OFSAA tournament that had all teams ranked and in four divisions of four teams for a preliminary round robin. Which all made sense until they re-seeded the eight playoff teams by tournament goal differential. This meant that the tournament organizing committee threw out all their hard work to seed the teams at playoff time and created a situation where the top two teams could (and ended up) playing in the quarter final round. As a tournament organizer, if you are seeding teams, then the ultimate is having the top two seeds playing in the final game.

The second was at the Air Canada Cup (now the Telus Cup) Ontario playdowns. We were in a round robin tournament with six teams. The top two teams made the final. The problem occurred when southwestern Ontario champions Kitchener were competing AND hosting the national championship. So, they had an automatic berth at the Air Canada Cup. This set up a situation in the last round robin game where Sault Ste. Marie needed a loss to guarantee a spot at the Air Canada Cup since they would play Kitchener in the final but winning meant that they would have to beat us in the final to go on. A tough spot to be in for any team, and the situation could have been avoided by sending the southwest runner up to the Ontario playdowns instead of the host.

If you are organizing a league or tournament for the upcoming season, make sure you follow the four cardinal rules. Competition is important. Don’t take the fun out of it before play begins.

Preparing for this season? Here is the ultimate coaches manual for developing a group of confident athletes.

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