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Small Sided Games and Youth Soccer – Drills Versus Letting the Kids Play

Small Sided Games and Youth Soccer – Drills Versus Letting the Kids Play

Why would a sex-specific, soccer-specific strength and fitness trainer go off the reservation, so to speak, and post a video about small sided games and training?

The answer is really very simple! Recently, I was speaking to a group of soccer coaches recently about soccer-specific strength and fitness training. The seminar went well and I thought all the questions had been answered when, from somewhere in the back, someone asked my opinion concerning the use of small sided soccer coaching techniques instead of traditional soccer drills. Well, he did it, he asked my opinion! During the next 45 minutes, we discussed all aspects of the small sided game technique, pros and cons, and I have to tell you, it was a heated discussion.

When the question is, what would I use, what did I use? The answer is complex, to say the least. Small sided games versus the traditional mode of training with its drills, drills, and more drills would seem like a no-brainer. Frankly, I believe there is room, and in fact a need for both. That being said, I weigh in heavily in favor of small sided games and, as the title suggests, letting the kids play! I used a video, not my own but made by one of the US National Team coaches, to illustrate the small sided game technique and it’s benefits. The video is a rather tame version of what I used to do as a coach. In all fairness to the coach in the aforementioned video, he was teaching them a new technique and, as such, the kids weren’t really up to speed yet. When used properly, speed of play is vastly improved through the use of the small side game coaching technique.

Speed of play and touches on the ball are crucial to the development of any soccer athlete. The main benefit to small sided games is in getting your players as many touches on the ball as possible. As the game progresses, the emphasis can change and the restrictions focused so you have to touch the ball once, twice, three times before passing and you need to complete two, three, four, even five successful passes before trying to score. You can go two versus three, you can have a neutral midfielder. In other words, mix it up depending on what your team needs, their weaknesses and their strengths.

The small sided games coaching technique is a fully adaptable model. The real benefit to the small sided game is that it is fully adaptable, quickly and, in many instances, on the fly. You can see a need during training, adjust accordingly, and proceed with training. With drills, kids stand in line, wait their turn, and have limited touches on the ball. The small sided game eliminates this draw back and keeps the kids playing. The latter is far more intense and effective in so many ways.

The small sided game was used extensively at the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA), Ohio Youth Soccer Association-North (OYSAN) D licensing clinic I attended many years ago. The licensing clinic was an excellent opportunity to learn from one of the first advocates of the small sided technique, Dr. Tom Turner. At the time, the debate about the small sided soccer technique had reached fever pitch, with Tom being one of the chief proponents, particularly in Region II, but nationally as well. The emphasis of his classes? You got it! Small sided games. Well, the crowd was about 90-10 against until the end of the clinic. By then, every coach save one was sold. There’s always one, isn’t there? And this was an intense class, every soccer coach from just about every premier club (top level club teams) in Ohio-North was in that class, and a few coaches from nationally ranked high school and college squads, like Walsh Jesuit. So, it was a tough crowd, but Tom won almost every coach over, not by instruction but by demonstration. The evidence? Overwhelming!

As small sided games gained in popularity and favor there were still a few hold outs but an overwhelming majority, at every level, now see the benefits to the small sided strategy. It’s been close to fifteen years now and the small sided game is the model, hands down. I would have said feets down but it didn’t sound right and my elementary school English teacher would roll in her grave!

The drills of the past? Some things linger and sometimes the terminology remains but the practice defined is different. Unfortunately, drills has remained firmly entrenched in our lexicon. The military connotations notwithstanding, the word drills should be put to bed once and for all. In fact, one of the coaching methods I am currently carrying is called 205 Drills! UGH! But the guy is good and he has some really helpful strategies. Do I think it could be better? Yes! Are there better programs out there? Not many! So, until we do, we read, learn, study, and share. That’s what the soccer community is all about and I am certain it will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future anyway.

The small sided game coaching technique is now the primary method for coaching our young, and not-so-young, soccer athletes. The evolution has been a quick one, all things considered, and knowing how long the old model of drill after drill was in place, I am actually kind of surprised there wasn’t a little more resistance…and there was a lot. Just ask Dr. Tom! The benefits simply overwhelmed the old strategy, making it obsolete and irrelevant. However, like most obsolete and irrelevant things, it has a way of sneaking back in. In this case, I think the small side game has forever asserted itself as the favorite; time, and results, will tell.