Posts Tagged ‘small-sided games’

Managing a practice with small-sided games

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

A coach sent me the following questions about using small-sided games during practice:

When you play small-sided games (2 on 2, 3 on 3), do you play continuously on a full court or do you play half court? (more…)

Why 2v2 is better than 1v1

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

I always have played a lot of one-on-one with my teams, as I tend to see the game as a number of one-on-one battles. However, as I re-wrote the curriculums for the Playmakers Basketball Development League and began to plan for the up-coming season, I realized two-on-two is the optimal starting point. (more…)

Time and the difference between coaching in college and coaching youth basketball

Friday, October 5th, 2012

I watched the end of a college basketball practice yesterday and spoke to a college assistant from a different program. At the practice, I saw the team play two one-minute games in the last 20 minutes of practice; the coach spent the rest of the time talking or instructing (I could not hear as I was at the opposite basket). When I spoke to the assistant coach, he emphasized the importance of repetitions and doing things (running the plays) over and over again so that the players learned. (more…)

Zones, Presses, and Youth Basketball Questions

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

One of the most asked questions that I receive is about zones and presses. Should they be allowed in youth basketball? The question is not as simplistic as many suggest. (more…)

Small-Sided Games Expand Sports Acumen

Monday, October 24th, 2011

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.  (more…)

Learning Skills & Small-Sided Games

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Here are the notes from my presentation at the Boston University Sports Psychology for Coaches Conference presented by BU’s Institute for Coach Education.


Physiological Requirements of Small-Sided Games

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Small-sided games provide more on-ball activity for players, meaning more opportunities for technical and tactical skill development. However, the perception is that small-sided games are easier than full-sided games or that they fail to reproduce the same physiological responses as a full-sided game.

In a recent study in Revista de Psicología del Deporte by Jaime Sampaio, Catarina Abrantes & Nuno Leite (2009) studied the heart rate of 15-year-old boys in 3v3 and 4v4 games. First, they used a yo-yo intermittent test to find the players’ maximum heart rates. Then, during the 3v3 and 4v4 games (25-minute games), the players’ heart rates were over 80% of HRMax with the 3v3 games posting slightly higher heart rates.

The researchers wrote that these games produce “similar cardiovascular stress as other intermittent exercises specifically designed to improve athletes’ endurance.”

Therefore, small-sided games are not easier than full-sided games and provide a comparable physiological stress for young athletes.

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

Small-Sided Games & Player Development

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

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

3v3 Leagues Offer the Best Developmental Environment

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010


When looking at the best players in middle school, high school and college, what skills separate the players? If we eliminate physical attributes like height which we cannot control, and adjust for athletic skills beyond the purview of most coaches like strength, agility and quickness, what technical and tactical skills separate the best players from the average players? If I could condense the ideas into one phrase, I would say that finishing plays separate the best from the average: the best players make better decisions and more shots inside the scoring zone than average players who miss open teammates or take more contested shots.


Ajax: A Model for Development?

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2010.

In the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, Michael Sokolove wrote “How a Soccer Star is Made” in the New York Times about Ajax, a club team in Amsterdam famous for its Total Football style of play and the development of young soccer stars, including several who played for the Netherlands in South Africa. Despite its small size and population, the soccer world looks to the Netherlands, and specifically to Ajax, for its methods of developing youth soccer talent.

Despite its international success in numerous sports, the United States lacks a definitive development system. In most team sports, players bounce from recreation leagues to club teams to school teams with little to no coordination, progression or consistency between leagues, clubs, schools, teams and coaches.

In effect, the system creates a “survival of the fittest” process, as the biggest, strongest athletes receive more playing time and are selected for teams as children get older and the competitive stream narrows.

In Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, I categorize four athlete types: Recreational, Developmental, Competitive and Elite. When I was young, children progressed through the first three types gradually and at one’s own pace.

I played on soccer and baseball teams when I was seven-years-old, but there was no performance pressure. These teams were about having fun and making new friends. Eventually I started to play basketball and quickly decided that I wanted to be a good player, so I practiced on my own and attended camps. I played on teams focused more on teaching fundamentals and preparing players to make high school teams than winning games.

When I reached high school, tryouts for teams grew very competitive, and those who made the team competed for league, area and state championships. The better players sought more developmental experiences to expand their games and their athleticism to prepare for college sports or professional careers.

Now, many children completely ignore the recreational and developmental steps, as teams quickly turn competitive. Youth teams focus on winning games and tournaments and play far more than they train. Youth teams often practice once or twice per week and play in weekend tournaments with three to five games.

The Ajax system largely skips the recreational step as well. Ajax uses scouts who scour the countryside for potential professional footballers as young as five-years-old. Those invited to the the academy enter into a prolonged developmental stage. “The boys are not overplayed…Through age 12, they train only three times per week and play one game on the weekend” (Sokolove).

The academy focuses on the process, not the results. The goal is to move players from the developmental programs quickly through a competitive period in their late teens and on to the elite (professional) level at a young age (late teens/early twenties).

Youth sport is a billion-dollar business in the United States, and the entrepreneurialism affects the environment in which youth players develop. Likewise, the Ajax academy is very much a business, and its approach to business influences its approach to youth development.

In the U.S., a youth athlete is a commodity. Coaches, instructors, facilities, leagues and clubs profit immediately from participation and increase revenue by increasing quantities. More tournaments with more teams and more players per team mean more revenue for the businessmen (coaches/tournament operators).

Ajax treats youth athletes like an investment or asset, and it profits by maximizing the asset’s talent and selling the asset to a bigger, richer club as the asset matures. Wesley Sneijder, the star of the Dutch National team and Serie A (Italy’s top league) champion Inter Milan, started with Ajax when he was seven, and Real Madrid bought his contract for 27 million euros when he was 23.

The different business approaches create different positives and negatives. For a player entering the Ajax system, he receives professional coaching throughout his childhood and every possible resource to maximize his talent. Ajax’s style of play “demands the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizard-like ability to control the ball with either foot, any part of the foot, and work it toward the goal through cramped spaces and barely perceptible lanes.”

Rather than engage in common drills, “training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line-up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range…these exercises [are] designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball.”

While teams in the U.S. compete to win games, even at the youngest ages, the Ajax academy is more concerned with developing players. Once the players develop their individual technical and tactical skills and move to higher levels of competitions, Ajax cares more about the results. However, at the young ages, the process of developing the player supersedes any result.

U.S. teams often pigeon-hole players into positions and concentrate solely on position-specific skills. Rather than concentrate on important skills like field vision and a player’s first touch, fullbacks are taught to boot the ball out of trouble and midfielders send low-percentage through balls to strikers whose role is to shoot on goal. Teams concentrate on winning the next game, not developing skills for the long term.

Most differently, a child selected to train at Ajax incurs no fees except a nominal insurance charge. The academy pays for its professional staff as an investment – the business’s research and development budget. In the U.S., players pay to play, and more competitive teams or clubs with better coaching typically cost more than local or recreational leagues.

The negative side of Ajax’s investment is that when it becomes apparent that a player lacks the requisite talent or skill to develop into a professional player, the academy dismisses him.

These players, and there are many as only so many players reach the professional side each season, suffer emotionally and socially. One unnamed youth player said, “My best friend left [was cut] two years ago…I don’t speak to him anymore. He thought that I was not in touch enough, that I was not supporting him. He was furious. I realized he was just a football friend and that you can’t have real friends at Ajax” (Sokolove).

While the U.S. system may not provide the professional coaching like a European club’s academy, many youth players develop life-long friends through youth sports. My best friends are guys who I played against in middle school who became my high school teammates.

Our coaches were parent volunteers and while they may not have been baseball, soccer or basketball experts, they insured a safe environment where we had fun and made friends (several friends did earn college scholarships or play professionally).

Beyond the social aspects are academic and other non-soccer pursuits. Another player said, “I would feel very bad if I’m not one of them [professional player]. I have tried everything I can do to make it. I haven’t done as much in school as I could. I would feel like I’ve been wasting my time all these years. I would get very depressed” (Sokolove).

Many youths in the States pursue college or professional careers and manage to excel academically and in other pursuits. When their competitive careers end, they transfer the athletic lessons like determination or work ethic to new pursuits in academia, coaching, business, parenting and other areas of their lives. When asked if he might have learned something at Ajax which would benefit him in a non-football life, this boy answered, “No. We’re training for football, not for anything else.”

Unfortunately, youth development in the U.S. appears to be adopting some of the negative consequences of the Ajax’s academy without incorporating the positives. While many coaches remain volunteers and the progression between age groups, leagues and teams remains disjointed, more and more youth athletes feel a pressure to reach a certain goal – usually a college scholarship – to feel like their athletic endeavors had a purpose. Without the scholarship, they feel they wasted their time.

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes the Sawyer Effect: practices that can either turn play into work or turn work into play. Many children no longer play sports; they train or work at sports, even from a young age. When this work fails to result in the end-goal or a pay-off for the effort, they feel like a failure. They do not remember the fun of playing a game, learning new things or challenging oneself. Instead, they view the time spent pursuing an unrealized goal as time lost.

There is a fine line between the benefits of a professional development system like Ajax and the ruination of children’s games and play for the sake of playing. While a more balanced approach to training and competition and better organized practices may enhance a child’s experience and his talent development, is it worth the possibility that he views sports as work rather than play? Is it so bad if some players squander some of their athletic talent because they pursue multiple sports or act in plays or start a band?

Should the business of youth sports cater to the development of professional athletes or promote healthy living and life-long activity? I certainly advocate for changes to the way that we develop youth athletes in the United States, but part of the change must be a return to play for the sake of playing.

“Recreational” should not be viewed as a bad word or a dumbed-down program for the uncompetitive. Young athletes need a healthy progression from recreational to developmental to competitive to elite (if good enough) based on their own interests and motivations. Playing sports should be fun, not work, and nobody should view their youth sports experience as time wasted regardless of the outcome.

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