Dr. Dina Gentile on the field coaching her team
Small-Sided Games: The Key to Player Development
People often ask me why bordering towns have different set-ups for their youth programs. Some play 5 v 5 at the U-6 level while some play 4 v 4 with a goal keeper at the U8 level. The variation from town association to town association has parents confused and left wondering which format is the best for player development.
When in doubt we need to do the research and check in on US Youth Soccer recommendations that indicate that the best formats are:
U-6: 3 against 3 no goal keepers
U-8: 4 against 4 no goal keepers
U-10: 6 against 6 with goal keepers
U-12: 8 against 8 with goal keepers
U-13+: 11 against 11 with goal keepers
I have had many debates right on the soccer field about the benefits of small-sided games. Many parents want to see what they experienced as youth players or what they see on television, which often times is full-field play with 11 on a side. We know more now about player development than ever before, and we need to make that commitment to development in order to give our youth players the best chances to succeed in learning skills and tactics in this great game.
US Youth Soccer has a number of reasons why small-sided games work in the youth game. I have watched my own children play 5 v 5 at age 4 because those were the rules of the association. My experience is that the number of times a player actually handles (touches) the ball with their feet is less than if they played with 3 on a side. There are fewer opportunities for our players to dribble into space or to dribble around another player.
When I do have control over the formats at my own camps or teams, I can show these U-6 players what they can do in groups of three on the field. I can explain by using a triangle shape how they should spread out (sometimes they do and sometimes the do not!), and how they always have someone close by to pass to (even if they do not pass).
The goal for me is to just explain by using “fun” teaching games what can happen on the field with dribbling and sometimes a pass or two at the U-6 level. Then, when they are in the game situation, the can feel more comfortable with playing the sport.
Simple reasons why small-sided games work:
- Players build confidence with the ball at their feet. How? They have the ball more at their feet than when we play on a larger field with more players.
- From a coaching perspective, we can spend more time helping players develop. We can spend more quality time with coaching points that will stick because the words and terms we used can be directed at the players on the field. It is easier to coach 4 players at one time than 8 players at one time
- Confidence, did I mention that already? Players who can learn how to play offensive-minded soccer and then quickly switch into defensive mode will develop a complete soccer skill set. When we play small-sided our players need to react and respond quickly because of the number of transition opportunities presented with the format.
- Touches on the ball. With fewer players on the field at one time, no player can hide! All players on that field have a role. They will be more involved in the game of play, which will make each player more invested in that outcome. Players will feel more of a sense of responsibility of working with their teammates in order to be successful.
- At the highest level of play, we use small-sided games to teach concepts of attack and defense. As a college coach, I would spend 90% of game-related/match-related play using small sided games versus playing 11 v 11. I reserved 11 v 11 for working out some formation or spacing issues but spent most of my “teaching time” with 3 v 3, 4 v 4, or 5 v 5 situational games to instruct my players.
So, if the experienced college level players can learn and develop with small-sided games, why shouldn’t our youngest players do the same? The answer is so simple; there should be no hesitation that small-sided games work in teaching the techniques and tactics of the sport.
Of course, there are always challenges with creating teams and finding volunteer coaches at the youth levels to handle the smaller numbers on the field or on a team. When we have fewer players on a team, we require more coaches, so that may be one major hesitation to adopt the US Youth Soccer model. Solutions are out there to resolve those issues.
It needs to be clear to the soccer community, small-sided games means a better soccer experience for our youth players from skill development, to self-esteem building, to a better grasp on attacking and defending principles.
Related Article: Learning Valuable Lessons in Soccer from Other Sports, Preparation for Youth Soccer Tryouts and Dr. Dina Gentile's Column
SoccerNation News is proud to welcome Dr. Dina Gentile as our newest contributing writer. Dr. Gentile is a Professor of Sport Management at Endicott College. A volunteer youth coach herself, Dr. Gentile understands from both practical and theorectical experience what happens on the soccer field.
Gentile has also coached the Endicott College Soccer Team for 11 years. Gentile is the owner/director of Precision Soccer, LLC, which operates camps, clinics, and coach education training throughout the year. She is a former All-American and Academic All-American at Adelphi University. Gentile has been inducted into the Adelphi University and Endicott College Halls of Fame. She is the Pre Kindergarten and Kindergarten Coordinator for Beverly Youth Soccer Association. This season she is the proud coach of her daughters 1st Grade team in the Wilmington Youth Soccer Association. Gentile is also a Soccer Ambassador for Korrio.