Small Sided Games: The Heart of the Practice

By Dean Conway, MYSA Director of Coaching

Thoughts on the Practice Environment from the MYSA Instructional Staff

"In simplified, modified games, players learn to be aware and to improvise, to concentrate, and to recognize the situation. Skills are important, of course, but the value of skills is to be able to use them efficiently in a fraction of a second. Our practices should be one quarter skill training and three quarters applying those skills in endless situations."

Rinus Muchels, former coach of Holland s national men s team: Technical Advisor to the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB)

The Instructional Staff of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association believes that small-sided games, in many configurations, should be the heart of soccer practices. We offer this brief overview of small-sided games to clarify the intentions and methods of utilizing small-game forms. Almost all of this material is contained in one or another of the MYSA coaching manuals which accompany the G, F, or E Courses. We present it here in condensed form.

We confine our attention here to practice environments, but we also support the use of small-sided forms on weekend game days. There are many game day possibilities, to be discussed and determined by towns and leagues. There are local issues to consider, even within our small state. For example: U-9 s could play 4 v 4, U-10 6 v 6, and U-12 7 v 7 or 8 v 8.

The essence is that the longer the players are engaged in small-sided game day forms, the better. We wholeheartedly support the principle, which is followed in most of the "advanced" soccer nations: "Eleven after eleven". That is, eleven players on a team after eleven years of age.

Our ideas about the value of small-sided games are based on several observations and convictions:

  • Our most important aim is to develop, patiently and with a view to the long-term future, each child in our care - both as a soccer player and as a human being.
  • Children do not have the same capacities as adults. This would seem to be self-evident, yet many coaches treat their players as if they were small adults. Most children from five to eleven years of age:
    • Have shorter attention spans than adults.
    • Lack the fine motor control of adolescents or adults.
    • Gravitate to small, short lasting social groups.
    • Can not judge distances and speeds as well as adults. They are sill developing their visual skills.
    • Are concrete and immediate thinkers who pay attention to one primary task at a time.
    • Have a great need for and desire for physical movement.
    • Want to participate more than anything else.

The average U-10 player weighs less than half as much as a full-grown player and has only a fraction of their strength.

"Kids get tied up in the emotional level of the game. A little one playing 11-a-side says, "We won!", but he touched the ball three times today. Our responsibility is DEVELOPMENT! So we must play 4 v 4 and 7 v 7 with plenty of time and space - to learn combinations, skills, awareness, "smartness". Rinus Michels

"The game is the greatest teacher." Children learn to play soccer most enjoyably and effectively and well by PLAYING freely (as they do when young in virtually every other country in the world), by encountering the game s many situations in real contexts, and by being free to make mistakes.

"As adult coaches we sometimes want the smallest players to be busy learning something every minute. We should just let them play. The only duty that you have is to ensure that they enjoy themselves as much as possible. This means that you have to be able to empathize with them, to join in their play and fun, and to create soccer situations without their noticing it, so that they all have a good time, no matter what their level of ability."

Henny Kormelink and Tjeu Seeverens Developing Soccer the Dutch Way

For the sake of perspective, here are some ideas from other associations or countries:

The Scottish Football Association:

  • Ages 6 to 9: The Fun Stage
  • Ages 10 to 12: Individual Skill Stage
  • Ages 12 to 14: Small Group Play Stage

The Association of Football Coaches and Teachers (based in Leeds, England):

  • Ages 5 to 10: Falling in love with the game, plenty of the ball, plenty of fun.
  • Ages 10 to 15: Developing talent and technique.
  • Ages 16 to 19: Decision time - continued development; making a team player.
  • Ages 20+: Open competition; improving team play and tactical awareness.

"We could drastically improve the standards of English football immediately if we made small children play on small pitches with small goals, so that they can be in the vicinity of each other and learn to pass the ball to each other instead of having to hoof it. They should ban playing on big pitches until children get to 13 or 14."

Gary Linker, Former player on England s national men s team.

The Royal Dutch Football Association:

In the early 80 s, the staff of the KNVB (The Royal Dutch Football Association) studied how children learn to play soccer and how coaches should teach soccer. As their point of departure, they took street soccer - not the abstract "street soccer" term which is used widely here now to denote a vague sense of pickup soccer - but the literal reality of soccer played in the streets of Holland s cities and villages. Kids a ball a space a GAME! From observations of kids playing freely and eagerly in the street (which they acknowledged was rapidly becoming a thing of the past) and from reflections on the realities of life in modern Holland, the KNVB formulated ideas about modern youth training.

The KNVB has this idea about youth and soccer:

  • Ages 5 to 6: Master the ball with games of direction and precision.
  • Ages 6 to 11: Basic game maturity - technical skills and game insight.
  • Ages 12 to 16: Game maturity - team functions in zones and positions.

In 1986 the Dutch introduced a program of 4 v 4 play as part of their comprehensive youth training play, which is widely recognized as "The Dutch Vision". Here are some elements of that vision:

  • Kids learn best by doing something a lot and enjoying it. Good learning relies on many repetitions.
  • Soccer is most enjoyable when there are lots of chances to score; on a full size field, kids don t have enough chances, nor are they often enough in "soccer situations".
  • Play involves trial and error, seeking personal solutions, and experimenting.
  • Kids at different ages experience soccer differently - and kids soccer should not necessarily be compared to the look of an adult soccer game.
  • For kids, we must SIMPLIFY the game.
  • Soccer techniques (dribbling, shooting, etc.) are not ends in themselves - and therefore should not be taught "in isolation".
  • Techniques are tools that serve the intentions of the game.
  • Soccer has to do with the brain and with perceptions. So: soccer with the brain - not just the feet!
  • "Techniques have an aim: they are the means to an end. We must bring controlling the ball into a context. When you bring in defenders, players show another technique. Soccer should not be simplified into movements, but into intentions." Bert van Lingen, director of youth soccer development and coach training, KNVB)

A note of gratitude: For all the ideas and guidance about 4 v 4, we are profoundly grateful to our friends and colleagues at the KNVB. The Dutch have gained a worldwide reputation for their excellence of their youth training program. We have been honored in the last several years to have welcomed several of the KNVB coaches to our Symposiums (Hans Mewiss, Jan van Loon, Bep Timmer, Aart Korenhoff, Vera Pauw, and Bert van Lingen). For their inspiration and for generously sharing their ideas - particularly about 4 v 4 - with us, we offer them our thanks.