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Small-Sided Games: 5 Reasons to Make Them a Staple of Your Sessions

“Before kids can play like a pro, they must enjoy playing the game like a kid.” – Steve Locker

Grassroots Football is scheduled to return in the UK and the first order of business for the teams that I coach will be 3 weeks of small-sided games.

Children have had enough going on for the past year without having to consider how a practice runs, on top of all of the decision-making that comes in a game of Football. While we will return to more deliberate practice after this period, small-sided games will remain a key part of my session planning.

Many coaches use small-sided games at the end of their sessions as the benefits are huge. Despite the overwhelming evidence in support of the use of SSG’s, some coaches still insist on sticking as many players onto one pitch as possible.

If you’re taking a development first approach, small-sided games are the way to go…and here’s why:

Increased Skill Development Opportunities

In 2003, Man Utd ran a study to see how beneficial small-sided games were to players’ individual development as opposed to large-sided. They compared data across 4v4 and 8v8 games with U9’s. The results per game across fifteen games were as follows:

  • 585 more passes
  • 481 more scoring attempts
  • 301 more goals
  • 525 more 1 v 1 encounters (attacking and defending skills)
  • 436 more dribbling skills (turns/feints)

Man Utd are not alone in this discovery.

study with youth Korean players showed a significantly higher amount of technical skills on display compared to a larger sided game. A significant investment into their youth development has seen South Korea represent Asia at every World Cup since 1986. Not a bad supporting argument.

Taking the “10,000” rule into account (even in lieu of evidence to suggest that it is a myth), small-sided games offer the opportunity for players to receive more game-specific touches. Performing 10,000 toe taps is not going to turn a child into a master footballer. 10,000 opportunities to pass, dribble, shoot, twist, turn, feint and fake just might.

They Paint Clearer Pictures

Stick 22 U8 players into a game and what are you likely to see?

That’s right, 22 players hovering around the ball desperate to get a touch of it. This is most likely aided by adults shouting “spread out!”

It’s not Football.

Take those same 22 players and have them play 3 games of 3 v 3 and a game of 2 v 2, it’s a different story. Players give each other space and have the opportunities to be effective. The reason for this is that the pictures are clearer for them to see.

Players fall in love with the ball. As a result, when they play games they want it. Put too many players on the pitch and the fear of not touching the ball becomes real. They get closer, and closer and closer. Before you know it, that “SPREAD OUT!” shout echoes on the side-line.

Small-sided games help reduce that fear. If little Johnny passes to his teammate, there’s a good chance he might get the ball back. Even if he doesn’t immediately, he knows he’ll touch it again.

Small-sided games also offer increased space. Coupled with the lack of fear when it comes to touching the ball, the pictures of the game become a lot clearer for players. Awareness of space, supporting angles, attacking and defensive responsibilities, when to pass, when to dribble, width and countless other factors become easier for players to understand.

Condition Games to Develop a Particular Situation

Something I was guilty of in the past was talking too much during games. This lead to me trying to come up with a solution to keep games running at the end of practice, while still giving the opportunities for players to learn. Conditioning my games at the end of practice has allowed that to happen.

Take the Diagonal Killer Pass game as an example. The conditions in play mean that players will be required to make the relevant runs, observe the opportunities to play the ball through, develop their weight of pass and provide adequate support should they break the line of defence.

Even if I make no interventions, the conditions will get the required actions. Coupled with more skill-developing opportunities and the chance for clearer pictures in the players’ minds, this single game can be used for an entire practice full of self-learning opportunities.

This practice by Fulham Academy Head of Coaching Ben Bartlett is another wonderful example of a Small Sided Game being conditioned to bring out particular skills. While the players try to force the conditions early on, their decision-making progresses throughout the game.

More Opportunities to Grow Soccer-Specific Speed

When it comes to youth development, AFC Ajax are seen as one the elite. The likes of Cruyff, van Basten, Bergkamp, Sneijder and more back this notion up.

They have followed a simple acronym for many years – TIPS. Technique, Intelligence, Insight and Speed. Speed of thought and speed of action.

A trip to view their academy in action highlighted this. Even in the foundation phase, they had 30 minutes at the start of each practice set aside for speed practice with their designated coach. These were tag games, requiring consistent moments of acceleration.

Of course, we can’t play tag for our entire session, as fun as that would be. That is where small-sided games assist us and our players in helping develop their speed. Specifically, their acceleration.

Multiple studies have shown that players will make 3 times as many accelerations in a small-sided game than in the larger format (studystudy study). Consider the enthusiasm of players doing this kind of “speed training” (and I use that term loosely) in comparison to performing shuttle runs…

…I know what I’d be putting more effort into as a 10-year-old.

With increased acceleration moments comes the need to decelerate. Learning to decelerate properly and early on gives those that we work with , especially female players, the chance to minimise the risk of injury as they enter the youth development phase.

Players Must Get Involved

“Behind every kick there must be a thought” – Dennis Bergkamp

I was never the greatest player growing up. I’m still not. Despite this, I always tried to make an impact in a game, whether with a slide tackle, a save when in goal or being in a position to score.

I’ve also seen players shy away and leave everything to their teammates, happy to go unnoticed and not take responsibility. In a larger sided game, players can do this quite easily. No pressure on opponents, no touches on the ball, no problems.

In small-sided games, players can’t hide. They must get involved.

With my U7’s, who are currently in their first year of structured football practice, we finish with a 2v2. This means they cannot just kick the ball away for fear of making a mistake. The chance of a teammate collecting that loose ball is slim.

Instead, they have to control the ball and make a decision on what to do with it. I’m pleased to say that the quality of play and confidence from all of them has been admirable.

Similarly, my U9’s have played a combination of 5v5 and 7v7 this year. The 7v7 games, especially on the defensive side, have seen players stand still and watch the others try to cope with the opponent’s attack. In 5v5, they know that they cannot do that.


There are many other reasons why small-sided games should form a staple of your practice sessions, if not your games programme as well.

More chances to score, more time & space to think, improved endurance, physical advantages becoming less influential…the list goes on and on.

Above all else, they’re fun…and everybody has enthusiasm and excitement towards things that are fun.

Written by: Dave Francis – member of the e-CAN coaching team

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