Small-Sided Games Expand Sports Acumen

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2011.

When Massachusetts had a five-year period where 16,000 youngsters quit youth hockey before they turned 8, USA Hockey re-evaluated its programming. Roger Grillo, regional manager for USA Hockey’s developmental program and a former coach at Brown University said in a Boston Magazine interview that “The research shows that it’s burnout. It’s too serious too soon.’’ USA Hockey adopted the American Development Model to guide the development of its young players through a long term athlete development plan. 

For its youngest participants, the change meant cross-ice matches rather than full-ice matches that were no different than NHL games and multiple teams on the ice at practice. These changes prompted USA Hockey to create a document justifying the changes and dispelling 10 myths about the change away from real hockey. Some of the myths included:

  1. It isn’t real hockey.
  2. The kids won’t learn teamwork.
  3. The kids won’t learn about positioning.
  4. The ADM is only for the average player.
  5. Too much fun is a bad thing.
  6. The kids won’t have as much fun.

These excuses are used any time a league changes away from the adult-form of the game. Parents and coaches view sports from an adult mindset, rather than from the perspective of the child participating in the sport. However, when you factor skill, speed, size, strength and cognitive development, the small-sided games create more similar task constraints for youth players than the full-sided games.

In most youth sports, the majority of the players chase after the ball. Is that an adult form of the sport? Children do this because they lack higher order cognitive skills and the strength and skill to use the whole field or court. In basketball, presses work because young players cannot make a good 30-40-foot pass. This same defense would not work against stronger, more skilled adult players because the players understand spacing and can exploit the openings by making a strong pass over a large distance much faster than a defender can recover.

As a child, I started 11v11 soccer at seven years of age. We did not learn about teamwork or positioning – we learned to kick the ball as far as possible and hope that our fastest player could get to the ball and score. We never learned how to play the ball out of the back, how to interchange positions and more. We never had a left fullback sprinting the wing for a cross into the middle. We never played with the quick, short, one-touch passes popularized by F.C. Barcelona.

Consequently, nobody really developed the requisite skills to be a great player. We had fast players and some toughness, but not much skill (and we often won our league!). Our parent-coaches had never played soccer and did their best based on what made sense: we dribbled through cones, shot on goal and ran laps. When I drive by soccer fields today, I see the same practices.

JP Soccer, a youth league in Massachusetts, tired of the unskilled and tactically unaware players graduating from its league and blew up this model. Like a typical league, players practice one day per week and play a game on a second day. The league hires professional soccer trainers to work solely on technical skills with the players during the practice. On game day, the players join teams and play games without adult interference: no parent-coaches, no officials.

The league sets up fields of different sizes. One field might be long and narrow, while another field would be short and wide. The director assigns teams based on the order in which players arrive on a particular day. The first four players who arrive form one team and play the second four players to arrive. All games are played 4v4. After 15-20 minutes, the director switches the teams to different fields to play different opponents with different field constraints.

JP Soccer solved many problems plaguing most youth leagues: unequal teams, blowouts, playing time, individual involvement, inexperienced coaches, and more. Teams switch weekly so nobody loses or wins all of his games. Fifteen-minute games mean few blowouts. The limited number of players and space means everyone touches the ball and plenty of goals are scored. Professional coaches eliminate the need for inexperienced coaches – the league pays professional coaches to run skill sessions rather than paying officials to officiate 11v11 games.

Somehow, despite alleviating many problems associated with youth sports, many criticize the league because 4v4 soccer is not a real sport!

When I played, we arrived one hour before the game to ensure that nobody was late. We sat around, watched another game, stretched, ran some laps and listened to some pre-game talk. Finally, we took the field, kicked the ball around and eventually the game started. One game was drawn out to a three-hour event. JP Soccer eliminates the pretenses and gets straight to the playing. Do children enjoy the warm-ups and pre-game talks or the actual playing? What helps a player improve: running laps or playing with the ball?

Bert van Lingen in Coaching Soccer: The Official Coaching Book of the Dutch Soccer Association describes 4v4 as the optimal game for youth players, an assertion supported by a recent study commissioned by Manchester United and published by Rick Fenoglio from the Department of Exercise and Sport Science, Manchester Metropolitan University. 4v4 is the smallest possible game that maintains the integrity of the game.

Similarly, FIBA sponsored 3v3 basketball at the 2010 Youth Olympics, while 2v2 beach volleyball is an Olympic sport, yet many resist small-sided basketball and volleyball leagues.  I learned volleyball by playing 2v2 on the beach and never took to 6v6 volleyball because of the reduced action and touches on the ball. Those touches in 2v2 or 3v3 are the reason why the games are better for developmental athletes.

Young players need the opportunity to use in games the skills that they practice. If a volleyball coach practices setting with his players because he feels that all players need to develop all skills, but the middle blocker never sets in games, will he focus in practice on the setting drills? Will he retain and transfer the skill? Worse, if the coach only teaches his setters how to set, what happens when the 10-year-old middle blocker is only six-feet tall as a high school junior and unable to play in the middle because of his 6’5 teammates?

If the player never learned the skill as a youth, he is unlikely to transfer to a new position. By concentrating on position-specific skills at a young age, the coach narrows the player’s development. By playing 2v2, where the player has to perform all the skills in every game, the player has a broad foundation of skills and can transfer the skills to different environments and tasks.

In the Boston Magazine article, Boston University head coach Jack Parker lamented that only three of his players were from Massachusetts compared to 15 a decade ago. “There are more recruitable players from the state of Texas and the state of California than from the state of Massachusetts,’’ Parker said. “That is unbelievable.’’ USA Hockey made a decision to focus on age-appropriate leagues that create task constraints more similar to those imposed on adult players despite the smaller playing surface and provide all players with more opportunities to perform the skills that separate the good players. JP Soccer, PBDL and USYVL made the same decision in soccer, basketball and volleyball.

Rather than concentrate on what is or is not real, parents should find leagues that give players more opportunities to perform with the ball and have fun. These will be the developmental experiences that lead to better skill levels and better performance when the players’ maturation level moves the players to the real game.

By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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