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"Tips, Themes & Things" Coaching Essays

We all know that there is more to coaching than just running great practices. So, to help you develop your own strategies for successful soccer, SoccerROM posts an in-depth essay on a new topic each month. These articles are provided by the SoccerROM staff and a number of other prominent coaches from around the US and the world, and will discuss everything from technical teaching points to team tactics.

We invite you to read this month's featured article, and then subscribe to get access to the rest of SoccerROM's "Tips, Themes & Things" archives!


Small-sided Games

by Robert Parr

Small-sided games have their origins in street soccer, where players would organize informal games with a group of friends using whatever space they may have available. Unfortunately, much of the developed world's street soccer culture has faded in recent years, which means we are gradually losing this essential incubator of future talent. Today, our clubs play a much bigger role in providing this type of learning environment for our young players.

In training, small-sided games allow us to replicate situations that occur naturally around the ball in the "real", full-sided game. For instance, when a central midfielder and right midfielder are working together to attack the other team's central midfielder and left midfielder, the game looks more like 2v2 at that moment than it does 11v11. If your players know how to isolate a few players in different areas of the field, they can create these small-sided situations that are then much easier to analyze and execute successfully.

However, small-sided games aren't just for training! In general, we now use smaller fields and smaller squad sizes for sanctioned matches until players reach age 12 or 13. Players might begin with 3v3 games at the youngest levels, then gradually advance to larger numbers and bigger fields over a period of 7-8 years before they play their first 11v11 match.

There are a lot of factors that support the use of small-sided games for younger players. First, small-sided games simplify the physical demands of the game. A full-sized field covers nearly 2 acres of land. To put that in better context, this is 50% bigger than an NFL football field, and nearly 20 times larger than an NBA basketball court. Young players simply don't have the physical capacity to cover that ground, and those players who are able to make it from one end of the field to the other have "nothing left in the tank" once they get there!

When a field is too large relative to the players on it, the technical demands become unrealistic as well. Would you expect a 5-year-old to be able to make a pass to the foot of a teammate who is 20 yards away? For that matter, would you expect an 18-year-old goalkeeper to make a high save on a shot driven just under a 12-foot high crossbar? Of course not! When faced with a huge field, players are much more likely to resort to "kickball" in an effort to get the ball somewhat closer to the goal they are attacking. On an oversized field, dribbling and passing with close control simply don't offer enough of a reward for players to see these types of techniques as useful or desirable, so they revert to less precise, brute force approaches to the game.

When it comes to tactics, the issue becomes obvious with some simple math. If a player has 10 teammates and 11 opponents on the field, the number of options available can be overwhelming. We often see that a player has not made any decision regarding whether (or where, or how) to dribble, pass, or shoot before he has been put under pressure and dispossessed by the opponent. On the other hand, if we can reduce the tactical options to just a few, then the player with the ball can evaluate and choose the best option much faster, increasing the likelihood that he is able to execute that option before losing control of the ball.

Next, we need to recognize the negative psychological impacts of placing players in game situations that far exceed their physical, technical, and tactical abilities. These players will feel overwhelmed, and they aren't likely to stay in the game long enough to overcome their initial limitations so they can develop into competent, confident soccer players.

In short, small-sided games greatly accelerate player development for young players. When there are fewer players on the field sharing the same ball, each player gets many more touches on that ball in any given amount of time. As touches increase, so too does a player's technical quality. With fewer players and less space to traverse, each player will stay more engaged with the play and have many more opportunities to make tactical choices. Again, the process of making more decisions leads to greater tactical understanding.

When clubs began to implement small-sided competitions as the standard for youth soccer several decades ago, these ideas were seen as radical. Today, we see little resistance to the idea that young children need to begin their soccer experience on small fields, with small goals, and fewer players on the field.

However, we still see too many instances of older, recreational players being expected to play in full-sided matches on full-sized fields. When we do this, we effectively raise a barrier that prevents new players from coming into soccer for the first time. These older, novice-level players are dropped into a game that is simply "too hard" given their abilities and preparation. They perceive the challenges to be insurmountable relative to their current abilities, then leave the game almost as quickly as they arrive. The result is that far too few players are willing to try soccer for the first time after they reach adolescence or adulthood, and recreational programs have nearly disappeared for older youth players in many communities because there is no one left to play.

If we want to grow the game and resurrect recreational soccer for these older players, we must make it easier for an older novice to enter the player development pyramid. Instead of obsessing over a player's chronological age, we need to align our programs with the developmental stage of our players. A beginner is a beginner, regardless of age! Beginners still need to learn the basics of how to trap, pass, dribble, and shoot. They still need to learn the principles of attack and defense and transition. They still need to develop the strength, speed, stamina, and coordination required to play this game. Only after they have learned these basics can they then enjoy meaningful success in the complex game that is 11v11 soccer. The limitations that are true for very young players remain valid for novice-level teenagers and adults, and thus support the need for small-sided soccer for beginners of all ages.

"But," we hear, "it isn't 'real' soccer!" This is true in one sense, as no one will mistake a 7v7 recreational game for the World Cup or a Champions League Final. Still, do we really think that these players care that they can't start at the national team level? Of course they don't! They just want to kick a ball around with their friends, play a game against other players of similar abilities, and maybe improve their skill and physical fitness in the process.

Almost by definition, any player who wants to play 11v11 soccer is no longer a "beginner", because full-sided soccer simply isn't fun for a novice player. If you are putting true novices in the same teams and leagues as experienced players, do you expect either group to really enjoy that experience? For some, it will be overwhelming and frustrating (because they can't perform even the most basic soccer tasks successfully). For the others, it will be boring and frustrating (because they can't perform more advanced soccer tactics when paired with a low-ability teammate). It is hard to imagine any endeavor in which "frustration" is a key ingredient for success and enjoyment.

Finally, we should consider the concept of "soccer for life". Age eventually defeats every player, no matter how much experience that player has in the game or how far up the pyramid he climbed. Should we simply tell our veteran players that they are "too old" to still play, just because they no longer have the legs to get up and down a full-sized field? Again, by simplifying the game and reducing the physical load, we allow our players the realistic option to play competitive matches long after they have become parents, and grandparents, themselves.

In and of itself, there is nothing "wrong" with playing 11v11 on full-size fields in our competitive leagues. Many players aspire to test themselves under the same conditions as their idols who play on television each weekend, and this is how we help them do so. However, we need to recognize that there are many more players (and prospective players) who can not enjoy the experience of playing full-sided soccer. Our leagues and tournaments need to offer programs that are aligned with the physical, technical, tactical, cognitive, and social attributes of these players, too.

About the Author
The co-creator of SoccerROM, Robert Parr holds a USSF 'A' license, NSCAA Premier Diploma, and a USSF National Youth Coaching license. He is currently the Technical Director for the Gulf Coast Youth Soccer Club in Southeast Texas, and an NSCAA Consultant for the Club Standards Project. Previously, he served six years as the Director of Coaching for the Arkansas State Soccer Association, and one year as the Director of Coaching and WPSL Head Coach for the Puerto Rico Capitals FC, which was the first international franchise to compete in the Women's Premier Soccer League.

From 2003-2008, he was the Head Women's Soccer Coach at Georgia College & State University and also coached for the Georgia State Soccer Association Olympic Development Program. From 1995-2002, Robert was the Director of Training for the American Soccer Club "Eagles" youth program in Austin, Texas (now known as Lonestar SC). He also served as the South Texas Men's State Team Coach from 1996-1998, and a South Texas YSA State Staff Coach for both the Olympic Development Program (1991-1999) and the Coaching Education Program (1991-2002). From 1989 until 1995, Robert was the Head Coach of the University of Texas Men's Soccer Team, where he led the program to a National Collegiate Club Championship in 1990, three other National Tournament appearances, and an overall record of 80-25-16. You can reach Robert at robert@soccerrom.com.

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More Resources in the SoccerMall

For more information related to this essay, please see the following books and videos:

Developing a Model Soccer Club
Developing a Model Soccer Club

Coaching Small-Sided Soccer
Coaching Small-Sided Soccer

Play to Learn - Learn to Play: A Fresh Approach to Coaching Young Players 5-16 Years of Age
Play to Learn - Learn to Play: A Fresh Approach to Coaching Young Players 5-16 Years of Age

Coaching 8v8 Soccer To Teach 11v11 Tactics
Coaching 8v8 Soccer To Teach 11v11 Tactics

Game Related Skills & Activities for Soccer
Game Related Skills & Activities for Soccer

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