Play, small-sided games, and talent development

Nearly every child starts basketball in a 5v5 league, and nearly every week, I watch or referee varsity high-school teams with players who lack basic skills. If insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, why are parents and coaches so opposed to starting youth basketball players in small-sided games rather than 5v5 leagues? Baseball players start with tee-ball, and soccer players start with 4v4, 5v5, or 7v7. Why are there so many objections to modifying basketball?

I read Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the world’s best academies by Mark Nesti and Chris Sulley over the last week. Nesti and Sulley visited several of the top soccer academies in the world over a period of years to conduct research and publish this book. It is a comprehensive look at the methods used in academies such as Bayern Leverkusen, Barcelona, Feyenoord, Ajax, AJ Auxerre, Bayern Munich, and Middlesborough.

The below are passages that I picked out related to small-sided games and play.

“They [the top academies] also attempt to instill a culture of play. This informs all that they do and is part of the underlying performance philosophy. Play here does not mean non-serious, easy, or comfortable activity. Neither is it seen as being about uncommitted behavior or lacking in drive and motivation. Instead, this key word, play, was used to explain the importance of small-sided games, individual learning, intrinsic motivation and creativity. A psychology of play could clearly be detected through practice and theory governing young players’ development in the sport. This was being used to help players acquire greater levels of resilience, inventiveness, courage, spontaneity, and spirit.” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

“All [the academies] were united in their belief that serious play was the best way to develop players for the future” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

Over the last decade, and even longer in places such as Ajax, there has been an attempt to re-create street soccer within the academy structure. In basketball, when I talk to coaches over 40 years old, they reminisce about the pick-up games of their youth and playing all of the time, but then advocate for replacing AAU games with more individualized training sessions. I can support a reduction in the number of AAU Tournaments for each player and team, but I don’t understand the desire to replace the play of yesteryear with individualized and specialized training. Why not replace the AAU tournaments with free play and small-sided games? If previous generations were more skilled, why not re-create the learning experiences of these players?

“It is clear that the best academies use small-sided games as a the main way to grow skills.” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015)

“A lot of evidence suggests that a greater percentage of time should be devoted to skill-based activities that relate to the game, i.e. small-sided games from 1v1 up to 5v5.” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015)

“Looking at the structure of the coaching sessions, generally we recorded that they had a 25%-75% emphasis on opposed practices to develop game craft and skills realistic to the game and its environment.” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015)

“Clubs expressed that they delivered unopposed technical sessions for individuals and small groups as part of individual development plans, but these were for short periods of time (15-30 minutes perhaps twice a week), and tended to be bolted onto sessions either prior or post the squad session.” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

The best soccer players in the world – Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Sneijder – developed through these academies, and these academies rely heavily on small-sided games. Every basketball coach uses small-sided or modified games in practice to some extent. However, are they used enough? Are they used with the correct purpose?

I am admittedly biased. I believe that children should begin their youth participation through small-sided leagues, not 5v5, and I created the Playmakers Basketball Development League as an alternative to the typical recreation league or AAU experience. I believe that small-sided games provide the best teaching tool in practice for older players, and The 21st Century Basketball Practice: Modernizing the basketball practice to develop the global player. is largely based on this idea.

Despite my bias, I did not make up these ideas. My beliefs are based on my experience in coaching and training players, and my research, which includes my personal research into 3v3 basketball and my reading of development in other parts of the world and other sports.

If these ideas – play and small-sided games – are good enough for some of the best athletes in the world, why aren’t they good enough for little Johnny and Susie at the local recreation center?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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