Small-sided games, injuries, and too many games

After reading the above on Twitter, I knew that 140 characters would be insufficient. However, to answer the question accurately requires two additional questions:

  1. Who are U.S. athletes? Are we referring to NBA players and their injuries? Overuse injuries with high-school players?
  2. How are the small-sided games (SSGs) used? Are these replacing other training-form practice activities? Replacing other game forms? Added to traditional practices and games? Used as free play?

Injuries are a multi-factorial problem, especially overuse injuries such as patellar tendonitis, a frequent injury among basketball players. Often, there is not a single answer; a recent article about injuries in the NBA identified four potential causes: Lack of sleep, low calcium intake, overtraining/overplaying, and lack of basic strength. These four issues, which cover four very broad categories (sleep, nutrition, training, and strength), likely fail to capture all the potential issues related to injuries: What about the type of shoe or amount of cushioning? Does ankle bracing increase risk of knee injuries/patellar tendonitis? With the amount of travel and activity, does dehydration play a role?

How do SSGs fit?

Small-sided games can be used in four basic ways:

  1. Replace full-sided games
  2. Replace training-form activities
  3. Added to the traditional practice
  4. Added to the normal game schedule

Each of these uses present different answers to the original question of wear and tear.

I advocate for small-sided games primarily as a replacement for other activities. With young children, I believe small-sided games should replace full-sided games, which is why I developed the Playmakers Basketball Development League. Why are 7-year-olds playing 5v5 basketball on a regulation court with 10′ hoops? This, to me, is the most important change that we can make. Would replacing full-sided games with small-sided games increase wear and tear? When I studied 3v3 vs. 5v5 games, I found the physical activity demands to be similar. However, there are reasons to suggest that small-sided games would reduce wear and tear. When Canada Basketball conducted a pilot study, it found that parents were less involved when the players played 3v3 compared to 5v5. Therefore, moving to SSGs could reduce the overall time on the court and the length of the seasons because it is not real basketball. The change could push the start of the competitive stage of basketball to later in a child’s development, much as t-ball tends to delay the start of competitive baseball (all-star teams, traveling teams, private coaches, etc).

For older players, I argue to replace training-form activities with small-sided games. Could these activities lead to more wear and tear? Yes and no. The SSGs likely are more intense than standard drills. However, SSGs likely cause more variable movements than a standard drill. If I play 1v1 for 5 minutes, I may not make the same move twice. However, if I do a standard drill for 5 minutes, I am likely trying to make the moves as similar to each other as possible on each repetition. Therefore, the physical demands may be higher in the SSGs, but specific and repetitive demands may be greater in a drill. Is the problem general or specific fatigue? Is the problem general or specific overuse? These are interesting questions.

I do not advocate for adding SSGs to a traditional practice. In my experience, practices are a zero sum: The coach and team is allotted a certain amount of time. To add something new means eliminating or shortening something else. I also find that by adding SSGs, I can eliminate more things, including conditioning, because the practices are intense, and there is less down time. Therefore, total time on court is reduced. If you shorten a practice from 2 hours to 90 minutes because of SSGs, maybe players get 30 minutes of additional sleep, or they have more time to seek out a healthier dinner, or you have time to lift weights prior to practice to increase strength. My intention has never been to suggest that you take your normal 2 hour practice and add 30 minutes of SSGs to create a 2.5 hour practice.

As for adding games to the normal game schedule, I do believe that children should play more in unstructured activities as opposed to additional, specialized training. Which increases wear and tear more, a player going to a private coach for 2 hours per week in addition to his or her normal team practices, or a player playing 2 hour of pickup games? Again, an interesting question. I do not, however, believe that players should play all of the games currently on their schedule and add more SSGs. Personally, I think high school players would benefit from a longer break in the spring and ease into spring/summer basketball with pickup games or a SSG league rather than additional 5v5 leagues and tournaments. Several high school coaches have used the Playmakers League as their spring league, which would reduce the wear and tear compared to the typical practices and games of a normal spring schedule.

I am biased, as I see SSGs as solutions to problems, not the cause of the problems. There are, of course, unanswered questions. However, with a multi-factorial problem such as overuse injuries, it is hard for me to see the SSGs at practice or instead of more typical leagues and tournaments as the cause of the injuries. Instead, the biggest cause, to me, is the lack of an appropriate offseason, as players never stop playing formal, organized basketball. There needs to be a time in the year when players do not play organized basketball or train for basketball. This time could be spent playing other sports, lifting weights, playing pickup games, and/or other similar activities, but should not involve league play, tournaments, or private on-court training. Give the body and mind a break.

Rather than add SSGs to the current practices and game schedule, replace current practices with SSGs. This could mean replacing fake fundamentals with SSGs in practices or replacing 5v5 leagues with 3v3 leagues for young children. These changes should not increase the wear and tear, but could lead to a decrease in varying ways.

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

4 thoughts on “Small-sided games, injuries, and too many games

  • Glad I could inspire this post. Guess this is my 15 minutes of fame, haha. When I refer to US athletes, I refer to kids who have been or are going to be in the basketball pipeline for several years. As far as the second question, I realized this is addressed to different people with different perspectives, but only speaking for myself I was refering to SSGs replacing other training-form practice activities, whether that’s breakdown drills, mass ballhandling, offensive and defensive footwork drills, etc.

    A couple of years ago, after reading Developing Basketball Intelligence, I asked what you’d think of an entire practice of DBI drills, or similar competitive drills/SSGs, for the entire season. You said at the time you weren’t sure, but you’d be interested to see the results. After posing that question, I’ve tried out that method and committed to it. An entire season of SSGs. In the meantime since then, I’ve seen other coaches adopt the same approach. This IMO is a product of more coaches becoming aware of the games approach due to social media and internet blogs that have cited research papers and scientific concepts in support of the idea.

    I also believe I might have been the person who jokingly said you should name a book ‘Fake Fundamentals’, in a twitter convo with Sefu Bernard. I say all this not to take credit, but to establish the fact that I’ve long been a supporter of the SSGs and the games approach.

    So when I ask these questions, it’s not because I’m looking to attack the approach. Therefore, I find it surprising that some people get so defensive when confronted with these questions. This goes for both sides. It’s like a current drills vs. games argument in which both sides are protecting the training form they most believe in. On a similar note, I’ve posed the ‘too many games’ concern with other aau coaches. They also get very protective of what they know and love, and dismissive of the idea that kids are playing too many games.

    I’m an AAU coach, and I use the games approach. Rather than protect AAU and the games approach at all costs, I think it’s important to be our biggest critic. It’s important to be most skeptical of the very things you most believe in. That kind of examination is how we grow and make what we love even better.

    I appreciate that this blog post asked questions, instead of being adamant that it had all the answers. These are the kind of questions that we need to ask ourselves constantly, and the conversation never really ends. There is no end-all, be-all final answer. It should always be about the players, with the goal of making them better.

    I support the games approach, and I’ll also continue to question it and challenge it every day. That’s the best way we can support what we care about. All in all, we have to have an open mind no matter what side of the argument we find ourselves on.

  • Paul:
    Well, thank you for the suggestions! I actually started the book that became Fake Fundamentals directly after finishing Developing Basketball Intelligence (originally titled Basketball Myths when I started in 2009). When I started The 21st Century Basketball Practice, it was some of the original content. As I edited, more and more of the FF content was deleted. By the end, I deleted all of it and decided to add a couple chapters and make it a separate book.

    As for the wear and tear, too many games, etc., I would be surprised if children spent more time involved in game-form activities (practice, unstructured pickup games, + organized games) than I did as a child. However, I imagine that many children/adolescents spent much more time in specialized training, and play far more organized games.

    What does that mean?
    First, I don’t believe that it is the total volume of games that causes the wear and tear. If games are an issue, it is the number of organized games, plus the unintended consequences of these games: At tournaments, players eat junk food, do not warm up, sit in cars/planes for hours before playing, etc. When I played pickup games all summer, I’d finish and eat a turkey sandwich w/carrots, tomatoes, onions, etc. with water to drink (or an old sports beverage called Soccoo that I loved). I walked to the court, which took about 15 mins and served as a form of warmup; I walked home for a 15 min cool down, sometimes after jumping in the pool after playing. Therefore, is it the actual time on court that causes the wear and tear, or the long car trips + poor nutrition + lack of warmup + lack of cool down that exacerbates the time on court?

    Second, because our offseason were dictated by informal play, we played other organized and unstructured sports. We never got out of shape, but we also never trained specifically for basketball. When we tired of basketball, we played soccer or baseball.

    Third, nobody had a personal trainer. Nobody did plyometrics in addition to playing basketball. We were told that plyos were bad for our knees. That’s not true. However, I met a girl several years ago who I invited to a Sunday group workout for top players. Her mother said that she could not participate because she already had a private skills coach, a private plyo coach, an AAU team, and a HS team. Let’s say she went to 2 practices each with each team and played 2 games per week with each. That’s 6 practices + skills training and 4 games. This is the offseason! With that much running and jumping, does she need plyos? I believe that plyos are a part of a player’s development, can help with quickness and jumping ability, and can prevent injuries by teaching players to absorb force better and more quickly. However, when should these be used? In conjunction with 20 hours of court time per week? Is the problem the games? Is the problem the private coaching? I would argue the problem is the combination of all four.

    Furthermore, I watched a basketball skills coach run a workout and use “plyos” as conditioning after a 2-hour workout. His stated goal was to make the players tired, as that’s what parents wanted to see. Having players jump up and down onto bleachers for 2-3 mins after a 2-hour workout is not plyos, is not going to improve VJ, and it is not going to improve quickness. It is conditioning. It is overkill. It is workouts like these that I would argue lead to the wear and tear. Poorly performed sets of jumping with no real purpose other than to look hard. Fatigued minds and bodies jumping 100x with potentially poor technique after an accumulation of 100s of jumps in a 2-hour skills workout is the definition of wear and tear!

    As I said on Twitter, there are no easy answers. It is a multifactorial issue. If I had to change anything, I would start with trainers like those in the paragraph above. That would be my first move. These trainers are motivated by money and have no idea what they are doing. They use buzzwords that make for good marketing, but they do not understand the buzzwords. Instead, they put players at risk.

    My next change would be the youngest players. Why are 5 year olds in organized leagues? Why are 7 year olds playing full court games on 10′ hoops? To me, these leagues are the biggest problem, and probably the easiest to fix.

    Next, there has to be a way for high school players to work together with high school and AAU coaches. I don’t believe that the problem is one or the other, but the combination. When I worked with a high school several years ago, the head coach did not run an extensive offseason program in the spring. However, he had a crossfit guy running his strength program and they practiced 2x per week and played 2x in a spring league. The practices were worthless. Players were in the gym, but they were not getting better; there was no game play, but no deliberate practice either. It was fake fundamentals. It was keeping them busy. Then, some of the players would spend 2 hours there and run out the gym to go to their 2 hour AAU practice. Four hours of practice, and virtually nothing worthwhile. Just more and more fatigue. Ideally, I’d like to see better practices or no practice. If you’re not going to work on anything in the offseason, let the players rest or play another sport or work with another team/private coach. However, more realistically, there has to be a way for a player to accommodate both coaches without wearing himself out racing across a city from practice to practice. That is one of the main advantages of the European system – my players played for multiple teams, but they were within the same club, and I oversaw all of them. When my guys had an u20 practice and a 1st Team practice on the same day, I could shorten the u20 practice and reduce the intensity. I was able to manage their schedules to prevent wear and tear. The only time that they played outside of my purview was with the national team, and when they were with the national team, they were excused from all club activities. They did not have a situation like the girl above who basically had four coaches (AAU, HS, skills coach, & plyo coach) working independently without any knowledge of or communication with the others. I oversaw all of my players strength work, skills training, and team practices and managed fatigue, injuries, etc. I would say that my young guys improved as much as you could expect them to improve in 8 months with less volume and fewer games than a typical HS player would play in a year.

    The problem is that people (players, coaches, parents) believe that if you are not doing something, everything, than you are falling behind and will not be able to catch up, and those who profit from the system fuel this belief. Just because you’re not playing AAU at 7 years old or specializing at 10 years old or traveling the world by 14 does not mean that you can’t play in college or the pros. But, that’s what people sell, and their message is powerful, and people believe it and buy it.

  • You raise a lot of good points. To address one of them, a former player of mine was talking about being unhappy with his current AAU team. He said all they do is run in practice, either due to coaches wanting to increase conditioning, or players goofing off during drills and running as punishment. When it comes to conditioning, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best way to get in shape to play is to actually play. When it comes to punishment, that speaks to a lack of engagement with the players either due ineffective practice activities or coaches that are ineffective at applying what they want to apply. If the practice activity is an effective activity and the coaches are implementing them in a effective manner, and a player is still causing trouble, then he needs to be confronted and challenged to do better, and if he still gives trouble he needs to be dismissed from practice or the team. But when the entire team is goofing off and running heavy every practice as a result, or even worse running every practice even when not being punished, but simply as a means of conditioning, that to me is wasted practice time.

    The player is fed up because he does a lot of conditioning outside of practice. He is in great shape and when he goes to practice he actually wants to improve his basketball skills. Instead, he feels he hasn’t learned a thing. His AAU team used to beat everybody because they were more athletic and their press and run and gun style worked. Now, the same teams are beating them because they figured out how to break the press, which leads to more baskets given up, which leads to less fastbreak points off turnovers and more possession in the halfcourt against a set defense, which they are unequipped to break apart. He feels he hasn’t gotten better, and yet the solution every practice is to run more.

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky. The basketball teams I’ve been exposed to as a coach don’t operate that way Both the high schools I’ve been JV coach at and the AAU program I’ve worked at emphasize skill development, whether that’s in a drill or game-based form (depending on the coach), but I haven’t worked for or with coaches that just make their players run all practice. How prevalent is the approach? How much wear and tear does it lead to? Even when not running, just constantly demanding that they players sprint hard, cut hard, slide hard in a repetitive manner all practice long, whether that’s conditioning or technical drills. Your point about repetitive movements is a great one. The same joints taking a pounding in the same way for endless reps.

  • In my experience over the years, your former player’s experience is not unique. However, Malcolm Gladwell found it to be so unique that he wrote a book about it. Gladwell practically suggested that Vivek Randive invented this style of practice/strategy, and he celebrated it:

    This, of course, is why I don’t take anything written by Gladwell seriously. But, I digress.

    The wear and tear of conditioning depends largely on the changes of direction. When I do conditioning for college teams, I start on the track or on grass fields, and we start with primarily straight ahead running or one change of direction. This is less specific for basketball, but it is to build the base. Many people think of running miles and miles as the base, but I never run more than 400m at a time. Running on the grass or the track, and avoiding the changes of directions, is to reduce the wear and tear early in the preseason training when the players are unprepared to handle these stresses. As we get toward the season, and the conditioning becomes more specific, we run shorter sprints on the court. During the season, I do not do conditioning for healthy players because I believe that practice should take care of the conditioning (a player returning from injury is different and needs to recover his or her lost conditioning due to the injury). My token punishments (losing a drill) tend to be short sprints with multiple direction changes because my goal is to teach the technique of changing directions to avoid injury. On a day before a game, however, I might do pushups or something that is less taxing physically.

    As to the larger point, this is a class Peak by Friday approach to coaching, and it is more prevalent than we would like to believe. Even college coaches will say things like, “we may not be the best team, but we’ll be the best conditioned team.” I think even John Wooden said that. Now, saying that is partly mental. My crew coach in college told us every week that nobody would finish races like us because of our conditioning and preparation. I only rowed for one coach, so I have no idea if my experience was the same or different. However, we went into the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships and told our coxswain that if she kept us within a boat length with 500m to go (2000m race), we would win. We were 5th of 6 boats with 500m to go and finished 2nd. We caught every boat within a boat length’s; we did what we said we would do. There was just one boat who was way out in front. Were we better conditioned? I have no idea. Were we stronger? more technical? No idea. I don’t believe in the trite “we wanted it more” either because I don’t think anyone is in that race who doesn’t want to win. I just think that he convinced us that we were better in the last 500m. It was mental.

    I think many coaches do the same thing with conditioning and basketball. They convince players that they are in better shape than their opponents and their opponents will wilt under their pressure. However, this is a strategy based on swimming the next game, not long term skill development.

    It’s one thing to tell the players that they’re in better condition than their opponents and to do some training to make them believe it (which is the primary reason that coaches do things like SEAL workouts and Crossfit workouts now, I believe – to convince players). It’s another thing entirely to ignore everything else in favor of running. Generally, these are coaches who don’t know what else to do, like Randive in Gladwell’s story. He even says it is a short-term strategy. He says that they do not have time to develop skills, so they’re going to run and be in better shape than their opponents. Yes, it works against other players who are relatively unskilled, but, as you wrote, it eventually stops working as players improve and can pass through a simple press.

    When I was coaching girls AAU, one team dominated in 10 and 11s, were okay in 12s, and were barely there as 13s. Every year. Why? They used this strategy. All they did was practice layups and their press. They won, so good players joined their club, which sustained them from 11s to 12s. But, by 13s, their press didn’t work, their original players hadn’t improved, and the new recruits attracted to winning had left to get better coaching elsewhere after seeing that the winning was basically a mirage.

    I agree that if you have to punish players every practice, you’re not coaching very well. When I have to punish a team or a player, I get mad at myself, because I know that I am not doing something correctly. I am talking too long or did not create the right environment or am missing other signs from the players. I may punish briefly to try and return focus, primarily because it is easier to send them on a sprint than to try and yell over them, but my frustration is really directed toward me.

    In defense of coaches, I believe that we live in an environment where players favor their trainers to their coaches because trainers can focus on individuals, whereas coaches have to focus on groups. Trainers do no sit players on the bench or punish players for lazy defending. Training tends to be offensive focused, individually focused, and positive. When a player improves, he credits his or her trainer because that’s who he or she is paying to improve his or her skills. When the player does not improve in games, he or she blames the coach. I saw this when I was a trainer, and it’s one reason that I quit training players individually. When a player performed poorly in a game, it was never my fault; when he played well, he got pats on the back and thank you’s. It felt like cheating.

    Funny story, I talked to an NBA assistant who got credit for a player’s development this season. He told me that he had nothing to do with it. The player had played with his national team all summer rather than working out with the NBA assistant/player development coach. Nobody credited the national team coach for his improved play this season; everyone pointed to the player development coach, who admitted that he did not work with player. Too often, we look for easy connections between things when the reality is far more complex.

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