One more time: the critical importance of small-sided games

I was watching the European La Liga Promises youth tournament a couple of weeks ago and, apart from the quality soccer these U13 kids from around Europe (and especially Spain) are already displaying, what struck me the most was that these 12 and 13 year old boys were playing 7v7 (!) on small fields with small goals.

Note also the additional line running vertically across the field about five yards in front of each penalty box. Opponents are not allowed to cross this line during goal kicks to encourage playing from the back instead of punting the ball up the field.

I’ve known that youth soccer in Europe, and especially in Spain, is played on smaller fields with fewer players for longer, but seeing it in action at this elite youth tournament reminded me of how important this is for player development.

Take a look at the Spanish age chart below. The third row, Alevin, is U12, the fourth row is U13 (aka Infantil B) and the fifth/last row is U14 (aka Infantil A). U12 plays 7v7, U13 9v9, and then U14 plays 11v11. (But note that the U13s still played 7v7 at the above La Liga Promises tourney).

img_0151

Click here for an excellent presentation on the importance of small-sided games. I’m pasting a couple of quotes and key slides from that presentation here:

“Over the years, we (the U.S.) have relied on athleticism and fitness. But times are changing, and we can’t rely on that any more. In small-sided games, you can’t take plays off. The girls we saw training were all totally engaged. You can’t start to do that at age 25.”

Carli Lloyd (World Cup Champion 2015, World Female Player of the Year 2015 & 2016)

“When you play on big fields (as a young player), there is not much demand for clean technique. I developed technique later. When I went to college, I still had a very weak left foot.”

Heather O’Reilly (World Cup Champion 2015)

In 2016 U.S. Soccer introduced very important changes along these lines (click here for the full U.S. Soccer presentation on the value of small-sided games) and I very much hope that all leagues, clubs, and coaches in our country fully implement these changes.

As the below chart shows, U.S. Soccer hasn’t gone as far as Spain, unfortunately, but this is a big improvement already.

Our U12s are now supposed to continue playing 9v9 on smaller fields (this ended at U11 Spring before), and the U13s then start with 11v11 on full-sized fields. In Spain the U13s still play 9v9 for another year though and the U11s and U12s play 7v7.

small-sided-games-chart

If longer-term player development and teaching quality soccer is the goal of a club and coach then there is no question that small-sided games and focus on skills and technique is essential. Click here for a very good webpage listing the benefits of small-sided games.

We need to do much more of that in our country and I personally hope that U.S. Soccer will fully adopt the Spanish approach to even smaller-sided games for longer in the near future.

Taking this one (small) step further, I would love to see futsal as a regular year-round part of the youth soccer experience, at least until age 12, but ideally 14. For example, instead of, say, three outdoor practices per week, let’s do two outdoor sessions and one futsal session focusing on skills, technique, and ball control – all in tight spaces.

If you’re unfamiliar with futsal simply search my blog using keyword ‘futsal’. And if you’re interested in where to play futsal in NorCal click here.

Probably the biggest hurdle are the economics given that youth soccer in our country is a private market with clubs operating as businesses (which is not the case in Europe). Click here for a blog post on how much youth soccer can cost and click here for a blog post on our ‘pay-to-play’ system if you want to learn more.

The economics become more difficult as rosters are reduced for smaller-sided games. Coaching, say, 16 or 18 kids at the same time is much more profitable than, say, 10 or 12.

And there will also be resistance from parents who’s son or daughter doesn’t have the skills and ball control needed to be successful in smaller-sided games, nor the interest to work hard on skills development.

These parents will push for larger games because the lack of soccer ability is much easier masked on a big field playing 11v11, especially if he/she is good at running and physically on the larger end of the spectrum in his/her age group.

This youngster will be able to stay with a top team for longer, but will end up being a worse player over the medium- to long-term.

And coaches will have to do the hard work of teaching skills and technique in more detail for longer. Many don’t have those skills themselves, unfortunately, and it’s easier to focus on ‘bigger picture’ 11v11 coaching.

That said, we’re heading in the right direction and we are going to see the fruits of the changes U.S. Soccer has implemented in the coming years.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

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