Small-Sided Games & Player Development

Many sports adapt or modify rules to create more meaningful competitive environments for young participants. On the playgrounds, young children modify rules to create more equal competition, but few organizations modify the game. Most modifications have to do with the size of the ball or the height of the basket.

Small-sided games, and specifically 3v3, are a modification aimed at improving the developmental and competitive elements of the game by creating more space, more time and more ball possessions.

Parkin (1980; cited by Weidner, 1998) found that with 9-11 year-old boys, the best-qualified players obtained possession of the ball 30-160 times, while for the least qualified it ranged from 12-82 times. Engelhorn (1988) obtained similar results for girls, as did Ortega, Cárdenas, Sainz de Baranda and Palao (2006) for boys, showing the vast differences in participation by 14-15 year-old players.

This is typical in full-sided games: the best one or two players tend to dominate the action. When the top players possess the ball the most, take the most shots and make the most decisions, these players have more opportunities to improve. In essence, the players who grow early, are more coordinated or are the stronger, more aggressive players have the advantage due to more game opportunities.

A Playmakers Basketball Development League coach did an unscientific study on the differences between a PBDL and a full-sided recreational league and compared meaningful touches and engaged defensive plays in each. Meaningful touches were defined as “the opportunity to execute a practiced skill in a game situation: a pass vs. a defender, a triple-threat move, a dribble move vs. a defender, any shot attempt.” An engaged defensive play was defined as “any time the player actively plays defense: guarding the ball, defending a cutter or actively helping and recovering; and any defensive rebound; standing in the key in help defense or protecting the weak side would not count.”

The coach found:

Offensive Meaningful Touches
3v3 both teams total touches 101
5v5 both teams total touches 80

Engaged Defensive Plays
3v3 both teams total touches 104
5v5 both teams total touches 84

While not scientific, if those total plays are divided evenly amongst all players – which we know won’t happen – 3v3 players average 37 meaningful touches and 38 engaged defensive plays during a game, while 5v5 players average 16 meaningful touches and 17 engaged defensive plays.

The average 3v3 player gets twice as many opportunities to make a play with the ball against a defender and twice as many opportunities to defend an opponent than a 5v5 player. Multiply that over the course of a recreational season (let’s assume 8 games), the average player gets over 160 more offensive and defensive opportunities in which to execute skills, read opponents and make plays.

If the goal with young players is to develop skills, 3v3 leagues create more developmental and learning situations than 5v5 leagues and feature the same competitive situations.

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

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