SMALL SIDED GAMES…THE GAME TO DEVELOP PLAYERS.
by Glen Buckley
By invitation I traveled recently to conduct a session for a group of U9
Boys. They were a travel group, I was told they were challenging for the
league title and would be leaving on a three day road trip this next
weekend to play in a four game mini tournament. The kids were
great…just like most kids of that age, they were definitely more
committed to having fun than learning about Soccer.
Before I had the chance to ask the Coach what he would like me to
cover with the Boys he approached me, ‘’ The Boys are having great
difficulty playing out of the back’’, he shared, ‘’ and were not holding on
to the Ball for long enough to allow our wide mids to get round the
back’’. He went on to tell me that his choice of the 3-2-2 system was not
getting the right results and so was considering a change to the 2-3-2
system. They only managed , and I quote…”To secure the points in last
weeks third game of the weekend through a rather dubious penalty that
Rocket converted in the dying seconds’’. [ All the kids had
nicknames…Speedy, Crunch, Ice , Elmer he was the GK!!! ]
Ten or so minutes into the session I determined that the Players really
struggled to pass the ball from A to B. They had limited technical ability
that certainly would not allow them to execute the tactical expectations of
the Coach. Getting them to spread out was as far tactically that I
attempted to take them.
In talking with the Coach at the end of the session he failed to see the
players limitations and their greater interest in basically running around
at the expense of learning. He still concerned himself with tactics and
He said he enjoyed the session which really became a challenge of
finding a series of fun activities to keep the players under control.
I have found myself thinking about this situation a lot. I was initially
disappointed with the Coach. Then my frustration turned toward the
Children for their lack of discipline…this then made me question myself
Did I have a bad day ?, was I not on form ?
Months down the line I have now stopped trying to blame the Coach , the
Players or myself. I have, instead come to the conclusion that we were
all so far apart in what we believed we were really there for that the
session was doomed before it ever got started. The players saw the
session as an opportunity to have some fun, interact with other players
and do what most kids love to do run around. The Coach saw it as an
opportunity to perfect a tactical game plan that I doubt the players
comprehended much less could of executed. I saw the session as an
opportunity to teach the players some tried and tested stuff, regardless
of whether they needed it or not.
The scenario I have just described is quite common place . The coach
was a highly motivated well intentioned volunteer with a sincere interest
in the children. He wanted to provide the best product and he showed
initiative in seeking my help to refine that product. The players [and
parents] participated in the process and duly traveled the required
distances to compete in and win their elite division. Unfortunately the
product had driven the process to such a degree that nothing much was
being achieved. The requirements of the play made no sense, or make
any reference to the most important component ….the Players.
These players were the “best’’ U9’s, playing in the ‘’elite ‘’ division. [
Now for the fireworks] It is my opinion that every time these players
travel longer than 45 minutes to play or practice, they are wasting time
that could have been spent with a Ball. If they are asked to win before
they are taught how to play they are not developing any Soccer ability.
In an 8v8 they are losing valuable and frequent exposure to the Ball with
opponents on the field. Every time they are advised on the tactical
implications of their 8v8 formation they are having their time wasted.
To those of you that say that U9’s can make total sense of the 8v8
competitive game and play a well executed model of the senior
game…I have two answers… Either you have a group of players that
were developed in a different environment, different State , Country or
Planet than the typical New York State West prototype !… Or We are
just fooling ourselves into thinking that we can see a ‘’method to this
madness’’ even while the players are unable to because they are simply
not equipped to deal with the demands of the product.
There is a growing number of Clubs throughout the Country that have
initiated a Small sided game program into their system 4v4 for U6
through U8. I agree that a Goalkeeper needs to be introduced at some
stage and I am happy for this to take place at U9. However I would
suggest playing 5v5 or 6v6 including the GK at U9 and U10. U11 is
where I would begin 8v8 with 11v11 beginning at U12.
In one particular State a group of Clubs got together, pulled out of their
respective leagues with U9 and U10. Then they played against an
opposing Club every other week. Boys going one way Girls the other.
Each Club hosting a different age group and gender. 3 or 4 fifteen
minute games against a different opponent each game. No more than
15 minutes of travel time, no referee’s , no scores or records kept. One
Club even changed the players on each team each week. I went to
watch , and saw just as much competitive spirit as any ‘’elite’’ league
game. I also saw less parental involvement. Developmentally I saw
better players learning how to play with lesser players, and vice versa, I
saw players learning how to lose, I saw the so called ‘’superstars’’
character get tested;. .do they still want the ball when they are losing ?
Another experiment that I actually implemented in my own Club in
Minnesota was a spreading of the talent. At U9 and U10 we would
spread the talent evenly over three teams. We would then play the
Teams in the Middle division. We found this had no adverse effect
whatsoever on the children. When we formed our Division 1 or
Premiere teams at U12 we more than competed. In actual fact we had
a Premiere team in both Boys and Girls leagues at U13 through U16
over the five year spreading of the talent experiment. The Club was also
well represented at ODP State and Regional events.
For those of you that would argue that 4v4 or 5v5 is radically different
from the 11 v 11 senior game I would urge you to watch a high level
professional game. Tape the game. When a player is in possession
freeze the play. Count how many players are in close vicinity to the
Player in possession. You will discover that the game is made up of a
connected series of 1v1, 2v1 3v2 etc duels and combinations that shift
all over the field. At this level the little combinations take place at
lightning speed. In youth Soccer very often the combinations don’t work
and are at a slower speed , but they are essentially the same
ingredients of the game. If youth players were in small sided games
they would have more opportunity to be around the Ball. They would
then have more chance to experience the problems of being in
possession. Being exposed to these situations over and over again is
how players become good ‘’problem solvers’’ which normally means
they make good decisions.
Realistically it will be a long time, and maybe never , before we can get
away from the obsession some have of winners and losers at U9 and
U10. That being the case there is always going to be the need for
different levels of play . I would still look forward to the Day when we
stop ‘’labeling’’ players by our perception of their ability until they are
U11 or U12.
The evolution of many Clubs can be traced back to a time when we had
less knowledge of how young children developed and how they learnt to
play games like Soccer. Those times are gone forever and a vast
wealth of new and enlightening ideas are being or have been used in
youth development. The results are there for all to see and are regularly
published in the Soccer media. The sad part is the people that need to
read and study it …DON’T.
The subject would be one that players, parents, coaches and officials
could benefit from discussing and considering further.