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Small-Sided Games

Small-sided games are some of the most important aspects of soccer training for young players. Children learn at different ages and usually understand concepts by a building block method.

For example, for a person to learn algebra, they first need to learn addition and subtraction. With soccer,  young players will be more successful and confident with the ball playing  with a few teammates, than at 11v11. Reducing the number of players in a game simplifies the situations young players have to deal with.

With dribbling, a young player will have a much better chance of success when 20 other players are not trying to take the ball away. Trying to beat 2-3 players will still be a challenge, but more opportunities in small-sided games will give players the freedom to be creative, more gritty, decide whether to dribble or pass, and how to protect the ball.

Indoor soccer and futsal, such as played at Evolve Soccer LA, are wonderful examples of creating street-like soccer atmospheres where players can gain skill benefits from the small-sided games.


All over the world, soccer leagues have begun to realize…

  • Soccer is viewed and learned differently by young players than by adults
  • Young players cannot fully grasp the complexity of a full 11v11 (or even a 7v7) game. They learn best through a progression of developmental building blocks
  • Without the building blocks, many players are thrown into more tactical situations bypassing technical and personal growth
  • Young players will fail and get frustrated if we continue using larger numbers at the younger age groups
  • The best players in the world play small-sided games all the time

Why the demand for small-sided games?

Urbanization and Suburbanization

  • Less available playing fields
  • Less opportunities to play in an unstructured environment
  • Less free time to learn to love the sport, when results become overwhelming
  • Less time to be creative in adult-oriented training
  • Helicopter parenting
  • Competition with other sports and activities

Adult Roadblocks

  • Win at all costs puts to much pressure on younger children
  • Cut throat competition between clubs
  • Players are forced to play at levels that are not appropriate for their development
  • Players are pigeon-holed into positions they don’t want to play
  • Over-structured training kills of fun and creativity
  • Burn out by focusing on one-sport only

The uniquely American phenomenon

  • Focus is often on winning another plastic trophy, not developing players
  • There are many different activities besides soccer for children to take part in
  • Pay-to-play club system puts pressure on results instead of development
  • Many players are left our by the high costs of club soccer
  • Single-entity professional system gives few future opportunities for soccer players
  • Young players often have little knowledge with soccer.  Most 8 year olds may be able to name few Dodgers and Lakers, but very few can name some American soccer players
  • There are many exceptions throughout the country, but for the most part, soccer culture is not as passionate as it is in other countries, and we are still building soccer traditions
  • Early level coaching often taken on by the parents, not soccer-learned trainers.

A youth soccer training dilemma

The result is that many well-meaning adults, often with little knowledge of soccer, are given a whistle and some cones to develop players,  and end up over-coaching players by their lack of experience with age-appropriate training methods.

One major problem with playing full-sided games at the young age groups is that the vast majority of youth coaches do not have a soccer background, yet are faced with, arguably, the most critical period of player development.

Novice coaches try to teach latest soccer tactics they have heard about, or a midfield organization that is too complicated, and the response is to focus instruction on “structural issues” and positioning rather than individual technical and small-group tactical issues.

With larger numbers, coaches sometimes force players to play formations that do not help the players develop any soccer sense. (ex. 2 players stand at the top on the penalty box and their sole purpose is to boot the ball out, teaching no defensive positioning)

Even soccer-knowledgeable coaches tend to try to coach as adults perceive it, not as a child perceives it, which multiple studies and child psychologists have shown, is usually a very different viewpoint.

The movie “Kicking and Screaming” is one of the top soccer movies highlighting some of the over-the-top approaches some coaches have in our country.

Young Players Need Building Blocks

While at older ages the game is played 11 vs. 11, the game never truly involves all 22 players.  The large game of 11 vs. 11 is constantly broken into pieces, for example, 3v2, 2v2, 2v1, 1v1, etc

3v3 and 4v4 games are excellent way to introduce “shape” that is essential for their development in terms of how it relates to the full sized 11 vs. 11 game (without the large numbers of players involved to complicate it).

At Under-6 and Under-8, anything above 4v4 is very complicated for this age. Three players can create all the dynamics that is age can handle to actually learn from the game.

Even if at 8v8, just a few players tend to dominate, leaving the others behind.

(See US Soccer small-sided games guidelines for age-appropriate developmental levels of players).

Benefits of Small-Sided Games

Direct benefits for players

  • More touches equals improved skills…for ALL players
  • More decisions, BUT…less complicated decisions… helping the learning process
  • Difficult for players to “hide” as ALL players have to get involved
  • More chance to score goals
  • Physically more efficient on smaller field for smaller players
  • More “involved” playing time
  • More concentration and focus as the player is “forced” to be more involved
  • Ownership of responsibility grows self-confidence in players
  • More opportunities for creativity
  • Teaches players to play defense and offense
  • Less “kick it up” and more possession with purpose
  • MORE FUN! = Player Retention and Player Development

Long-Term benefits of small-sided games

  • Better skilled players at all levels
  • Faster thinking players at all levels
  • Better understanding of dynamics of soccer “Triangle, diamonds, etc”
  • More confident players and coaches
  • Simplification of early coaching
  • More knowledgeable coaches through progressive development
  • More overall interest in soccer by players, coaches and parents
  • Greater retention of players
  • Better skilled & tactical players for the competitive level
  • Stronger pool of players

How Do We Know Small-Sided Games Work?

Hundred of studies have been undertaken to prove the benefits of small-sided soccer games.  These are just a few which give you the idea why small-sided games are helpful to player development.

Study # 1

Touches per Game Study (Under-10 boys)
– Compared over 30 games


Study #2

4v4 game verses 8v8 game (U-8 girls)
– Compared over 30 games

16 players were tallied.  First, they played in a 8v8 game and then they were split in half, and played two 4v4 games. Average totals by both teams in 20 minutes.


The Individual Player Performance Analysis of these games show a much more active involved player in the 4v4 game in comparison with that same player that seemed hidden and uninvolved in the 8v8 game.

It was obvious that MORE players benefited in 4v4, whereas in 8v8 the play was dominated by just a few players.

In 4v4 game  (red in chart)
– 14 of 16 players had OVER 19 passes
– Only 1 player had less than 12 passes
– No player had less than 8 passes

In 8v8 game (orange in chart)
– Only 3 of 16 players had more than 12 passes
– No player had more than 18 passes
– 6 players had only  2-6 passes


Study #3

Manchester United study 4v4 verses 8v8: (U-9 age group)
-Compared over 15 games


Do other team sports change their rules?

Most creative basketball is played 1v1, 2v1 or 2v2 in a driveway! Kids don’t wait until they have nine friends to have a game! Many organizations are moving to 3v3 leagues with lower baskets.

Ever heard of tee ball. Players don’t fast pitch at 5 years old. Why, because technically, players are not ready for it. But some “knowledgeable” coaches still try it.

Do friends wait for 7 linesman on each team before they start playing a friendly. No they can play 3v3 , 4v4 or just throw the ball deep to each other. Less and less kids are also playing tackle football at a young age as players are physically not prepared for the impacts.

The point is for the players to enjoy and learn from the game itself,  not worry so much about competition and structure.


The good news is as soccer continues to grow exponentially, there are more and more soccer-saavy coaches who understand the development-based training methods, and there are passionate soccer fans who are creating opportunities for street-soccer type facilities for children to play their favorite sport.

We just need to remember:

  • Young players can’t understand complex scenarios of the adult game, but at 3v3, 4v4 or 5v5, they can learn all the basics while enhancing their skills and confidence.
  • It is very clear that the more chance a player “touches” the ball, the better the player develops and understands the game.
  • As long as the game eventually progresses to 11v11, small-sided games, like street soccer, indoor soccer and futsal are playing REAL soccer.
  • At the 3v3 level, we are building skills, confidence and love of the game at the same time without the pressures of the higher numbers.

Fortunately, in the last 10 years, US Soccer and many clubs around the country have embraced small-sided games.And just as  beneficial is the numbers of indoor and futsal facilities, like Evolve,  that have popped up all over the country. Many of these are replicating the “street soccer ‘where soccer stars across the world craft their skills. Our next post will focus on types of small-sided games.