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Benefits of Small Sided Games on Youth Players is Consequential

2012 February 14
by Aaron Frederickson

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) announced major changes to the game of football (soccer) today that has sent shock waves through all the major leagues and national federations.  Effective immediately the following changes will be made to all FIFA sanctioned matches:

•The height of the goal is now going to be 10 feet high and the 30 feet wide
•Regulation pitch dimensions will now be at a minimum of 165 yards by 124 yards
•The penalty box will be 23 yards instead of 18 yards
•All penalty kicks will now be taken from roughly 16 yards away

FIFA President Sepp Blatter would not comment on the changes. However, a high-ranking FIFA official stated off the record, “Adults expect young kids to play soccer on a large pitch to make it look like real soccer. What we have done is simply expand the pitch dimensions, so that adults can enjoy the same competitive experience.”

Clearly, an excellent player like Lionel Messi could not withstand the pressures of such a big field for 90 minutes. Goalkeepers like Iker Casillas or Petr Čech would hold their head in sorrow, as they would no longer be able to keep a clean sheet.

If you think changes like these are absurd, then think about how absurd it is for adults to demand players as young as nine or 10 to play in an 11 v. 11 environment on a regulation pitch. While soccer for adults is played in an 11 v. 11 environment, the same setting is not the best for younger soccer players. That is why small-sided soccer is being used more frequently at the younger ages, and continues to play a vital role in soccer training for all ages.

What exactly is a Small Sided Game (SSG)?

A small-sided soccer game or SSG is simply a game of soccer that takes place on a pitch that is smaller than a regulation pitch and incorporates the same features on a field, but on a smaller scale.  Matches in small-sided soccer are also played with fewer than 11 on a side.

For youth ages 6 to 8 years old, these matches are typically played on a 3 v. 3 or 4 v. 4 format and do not include goalkeepers.  Matches for players between the ages of 9 to 13 years old also train and play in a SSG environment and range from 6 v. 6 to 8 v. 8 depending on the location and governing soccer body.

According to Doug Williamson, the Assistant Director of Education and Coaching Development of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), “Small sided games are important because they allow opportunities (many repetitions) for technical development under competitive pressure, such that players are able to turn ‘technique’ into ‘skill.’  They also allow a player to experience tactical decision-making and implement the principles of attacking and defending in relatively clear situations and that learning will translate well to larger number situations in the 11 v. 11 game as players grow and develop.”

Use of SSGs in the USA

According to US Youth Soccer’s most recent survey, 27 states use some form of SSG for youth soccer players under the age of 13. Of the remaining states, three use a hybrid approach to youth soccer that includes SSGs. Sadly, about 20 states do not mandate SSG format for their youth soccer players—especially at the younger ages.

The use of SSGs has also been adopted by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) as the preferred method for training soccer players. In their most recent Best Practices for Coaching in the United States manual, the USSF has stated, “Controlling the ball is the primary skill that every other skill in soccer depends upon.” The USSF goes on to state, “At the same time, their intellectual capacity to understand spatial concepts like positions and group play is limited.” As a result, it is recommended that SSGs are used by coaches and youth soccer associations through the age of 14.

The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) has also endorsed the concept of SSG play for youth soccer players. According to the NSCAA policy, “For younger players, the 11 v. 11 soccer game can be complicated and confusing.”  Instead, a graduated playing environment starting at 3 v. 3 is recommended because it “simplifies the environment for these young players and gives them the opportunity to get plenty of touches on the ball.” According to Doug Williamson, “I do see more states heading toward mandating small sided games in the future. When used with skilled coaching, they produce more skilled, more confident players and make for happier kids than those kids stuck in playing 11 v. 11 at a young age.”

One of the primary reasons for playing SSGs is based on the levels of interactions players encounter on the soccer pitch. While it is sometimes not evident from the perspective of the casual observer, simple math can easily demonstrate the complexities 11 v. 11 soccer brings to the developing mind and body of the youth soccer player.

Levels of Interaction n(n-1)
• 2-players 2
• 3-players 6
• 4-players 12
• 5-players 20
• 6-players 30
• 7-players 42
• 8-players 56
• 9-players 72
• 10-players 90
• 11-players 110
• 12-players 132
• 13-players 156
• 14-players 182
• 16-players 240
• 18-players 306
• 20-players 380
• 22-players 462

Doug Williamson has also expressed concern regarding the use of 11 v. 11 soccer in younger players. “U-8 players do not have the cognitive skills to understand the abstract thinking that goes into playing a ‘system’ in the 11 v. 11 game, so learning principles of play and developing technical skill happens much, much faster in 3 v. 3 and 4 v. 4 than in 11 v. 11,” said Williamson.

According to Gavin Pugh, Director of the Twin Cities based Dragon Soccer, and co-founder of US Coaches Club, small-sided games are best used starting at the U8 age division along with a heavy emphasize on dribbling. According to Pugh, “The benefits of small-sided games in training are very well documented. They give players many things including positional interchange and transitional play. They also allow for greater interaction between players: the ‘x’ percent increase of passes, opportunities to take players on, opportunities to shoot, opportunities to defend.”

The recommendation for the use of SSGs is also not limited to younger recreational players. According to Pugh, who has coached high school soccer for nine years, a typical training format for his teams will include the use of for “5 v. 5 and 6 v. 6 tactical small-sided games to paint smaller clearer pictures. Then we expand it out to 9 v. 9 and then 11 v. 11 in the same 90 minute training session.”

Doug Williamson from the NSCAA has echoed similar comments about the use of small-sided soccer at the high school level. According to Williamson, the NSCAA has a diploma for high school coaches, and noted that, “In the HS Diploma course we have a field session entitled Technical and Tactical Applications of Small-Sided Games.”

Minnesota Youth Soccer Association’s John Curtis agreed with Pugh and Williamson regarding the use of small-sided games in terms of player development. According to Curtis, “Older kids can benefit just as much as younger kids from getting more touches and being engaged.” Curtis continued, “By using small-sided games, players get more touches on the ball and more decisions are being made, with less players on the field. Everyone is always involved in getting more done in terms of development in a shorter period of time.”

Implementation of SSGs in Youth Soccer

In studying the use of small-sided soccer, Paul Cooper studied the youth academy model that was once used at Manchester United. According to Cooper, the Manchester United youth players have been introduced at a young age to small-sided training as part of the curriculum in their training. This included the uses of a 4 v. 4 model with no goalkeepers and matches lasting eight minutes. The formats of the matches are also altered “to reflect upon soccer environments where the young players were free to learn, practice and develop their soccer skills without being shackled by the imposed structures, expectations, attentions and scrutiny of significant others.

Following the completion of the Manchester United study, it was determined that increases in soccer-critical situations increased exponentially.

• Increased passing by 135%
• Increased scoring attempts by 260%
• Increased the number of goals scored by 500%
• Increased the number of 1 v. 1 encounters by 225%
• Increased the number of dribbling skills (tricks) by 280%

If they can do this in Europe, can we do it in America?

As Indoor Director and President of Centennial Soccer Club, I was intrigued by the Manchester United study and wanted to see if the same results could be replicated with the club’s U8 indoor program.

For some time, Centennial Soccer Club had been using a full indoor boarded field (200 ft. X 100 ft.) for the indoor program in a 8 v. 8 or 9 v. 9 format. In watching these games, it was evident that coaches struggled getting weaker players touches on the ball during matches. While some teams were able to score, this was often done by one or two of the stronger players on the pitch. Other players with fewer years experience or lesser athletic abilities were often merely spectators on the playing surface.

After reading about the Manchester United experiment, I decided to see if we could replicate the same in a community youth program setting. After discussing the issue at length with the club’s Technical Committee and other soccer professionals, I oversaw the implementation of a small-sided game program similar to that used in the Manchester United program.

Under this program, U8 teams would play SSG matches that were 10 minutes in length—running time. All matches were played either 3 v. 3 or 4 v. 4 with “on the fly” substitutions. The indoor-boarded pitch was divided into three smaller fields that measured approximately 100 ft. X 50 ft. The goal nets measured 6 ft. X 4 ft.—no goalkeepers were allowed. During the sessions that ran just over one hour, the youngsters played six matches on three field set-ups. There was a two-minute break time in between matches, which allowed the teams to move to the next playing field. The fields were set up as follows:

• Field #1 “Traditional Soccer.” These matches were played just like any soccer match.

• Field #2 “Challenge Cup.” Nets were placed back-to-back near the center of the field and separated by about 15 feet from goal line to goal lines—multi-directional scoring was allowed with an exclusion zone in front of each net.

• Field #3 “Four Targets” A 4 ft. X 4 ft. square target area was placed in each corner of the field. The game was multi-directional and goals were scored by passing the ball to a teammate standing in the target. An exclusion zone was around each target to deter player interference inside the target area.

Like the Manchester United program, the results were impressive and exciting. The results of the Centennial Soccer Club experiment were as follows:

• Increased passing by 182%
• Increased scoring attempts by 310%
• Increased the number of goals scored by 625%
• Increased the number of 1 v. 1 encounters by 290%
• Increased the number of dribbling skills (tricks) by 190%

Other observations included the fact that all players were typically scoring at least one goal during their one-hour playing session. All players were also given more than adequate playing time, which was not seen during the prior format. Notwithstanding these positive changes, the program was not without critics—albeit those criticisms were often misguided or based in ignorance of the game or the development goals of U8 soccer.

Benefits from SSG programming

While small-sided soccer used in youth soccer and in training is not without its critics, the benefits of this form of soccer cannot be disputed. Based upon a careful review of the literature, and comments from the experts, it is clear that small-sided soccer provides the following benefits for not only children, but also players of all ages.

• Repeated contact ball-dribbling, passing, shooting and improvisation (creativity with the ball)
• Players were no longer allowed to “hide” on the field
• Reduced bunching—no “buzz ball” soccer
• Development of tactics at an earlier age
• More playing time and participation by all players
• Players learn self-guided “responsibility” on the field—when to defend, when to attack, and transition
• Reduced “levels” of interaction when compared to 11 v. 11 (or less) match play
• Increased comfort level of a young soccer player
• More touches on the ball per game for all players
• More “fun” and personal enjoyment for players
• I scored a goal today—Success!!!


In reality, any 11 v. 11 soccer match is nothing more than one small-sided game after another. Players in this environment need a strong foundation in order to succeed. While it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to become a better soccer player through hard work on and off the training grounds, coaches and club administrators need to foster the right environment for our players to grow. This proper growth starts at an early age with proper education of parents about the benefits of small-sided soccer, and effectively using them properly in a training environment. When used properly, small-sided soccer can give developing players the tools they need to become a better soccer player and reach their potential.

4 Responses
  1. Dave Lange permalink
    February 14, 2012

    Thanks for that item on small-sided games for youth players. The only thing one might add is to recommend getting kids into 4v4 on a 40×20 pitch early as possible, perhaps at U-10. 4v4 (when played with the four players in a diamond formation) provides width and depth , something not possible in 3v3. During a weeklong Dutch soccer coaching course given by the KNVB that I was fortunate to attend, the Dutch instructor spent much of the week on 4v4 and the many variations that can be used with 4v4 to stress width, depth, scoring, shape, possession, etc. In any event, it’s great to see youth soccer moving away from 11v11 for the younger ones, whether in 3v3 or 4v4.

  2. February 15, 2012

    Did I miss something? The article started out reporting on changes by FIFA that caused shock waves and then went into nice article about SSG’s. Only a couple of comments about the FIFA changes. The sudden change of subjects in the article made me think the FIFA changes were just a what if to set up the discussion on SSG’s. I had to go to the FIFA webpage to see if it was true. I found nothing by the way. The ploy got me to read the article though.

  3. February 15, 2012

    Tongue in cheek, Etch. After the paragraphs about the FIFA changes comes:

    “If you think changes like these are absurd, then think about how absurd it is for adults to demand players as young as nine or 10 to play in an 11 v. 11 environment on a regulation pitch. While soccer for adults is played in an 11 v. 11 environment, the same setting is not the best for younger soccer players. That is why small-sided soccer is being used more frequently at the younger ages, and continues to play a vital role in soccer training for all ages.”

    Personally, I always cringe when a writer starts a story with something like this. Yes, it gets your attention but it usually creates mega headaches for the editor. 🙂 In this case the confusion has been kept to a minimum.

  4. February 15, 2012

    In 1987 I wrote a book called the Teaching of Soccer which expounded the virtue of Small side games. Small sided Games are one of the Cornerstones of Coerver Coaching, and I know there have been studies that have demonstrated SSG have more touches per player, more
    1 v 1 encounters, more goalscoring opportunities, more goals, more forward passes etc…more development.

    So yes – Small sided games like they play in Holland and Brazil should replace 11 v 11 for youngsters. If you have a squad of 12 players – that equals 2 teams of 4 plus a couple of subs and then its not that tough to organise. You do not need twice as many coaches.

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