Small Sided Games 101: Where Coaching Meets Conditioning

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

When I thought about writing a blog post on Small Sided Games for team sports, I found it hard to compare the concept to an every day scenario. That is until I was stuck at home in quarantine on a Saturday night...


When was the last time you went to the movie theatre?


As a secret Rom-Com enthusiast, I love to head out to the movies and watch the newest Matthew McConaughey flick. I buy my ticket, apply for a $5,000 personal loan to pay for the popcorn and head to my seat. I'm all set to be hypnotised by the southern charm of Matty M.

But what happens? Instead of the movie starting on its scheduled time, I'm subject to 15 minutes of previews. In essence, I'm subject to 15 minutes of pain before the excitement for the real show is about to begin.


Does that sound familiar? No? Maybe Die Hard or Rambo then?


Well why don't we relay this back to your training sessions.


You roll up to to training and all you want to do is play a match. All you want to do is get the competitive juices flowing instead of the same old technique drills. BUT you have to endure the first 30-minutes of training doing some lane work in third gear (despite RAMPing up your warm up). Essentially, you're stuck watching the previews when you want to draw back the curtains and get the real stuff happening.


But never fear, there is hope and it comes in the form of the small-sided game (SSG). The small-sided game in team sports is a staple in the sport science toolkit. By strict definition, SSGs are modified versions of team sports where the rules, field dimensions, task constraints and number of athletes are all manipulated to produce a desired physiological effect (1, 3).


"Small sided games provide a blend of game-based movements with athlete conditioning. It's like running laps or 2km time trials had a baby with a practice match"

Really in layman's terms...


Small sided games provide a blend of game-based movements with athlete conditioning. It's like running laps or 2km time trials had a baby with a practice match.


Small sided games in soccer are hugely popular (as well as other team sports) and you most likely would have participated in some at training or coached your athletes through them.


I love SSGs. They're not perfect (nothing is), but boy they provide bang for your buck. In this post we will be covering the basics of small-sided games and how we can use them to our advantage.

 

SSG BASICS — THE LOWDOWN


At the junior level, SSGs are used to simulate game movements in a smaller environment that serves to educate younger players on the fundamentals of the sport. You've probably heard the term 'Game Sense' thrown around. At this level, game rules, field sizes, equipment and the number of athletes participating are all modified to maximise the cognitive (thinking) and physical development of younger athletes.


A good example of this would be AFL AusKick games or Tennis Australia Hot Shots. For Australian Rules, the drill below may be appropriate.


Australian Rules Game Sense Drill

Game Sense drill for Australian Rules: Handball Keepings Off


At the senior level, SSGs are used in a greater capacity. The coaching focus is still on tactical development, but there is a larger emphasis on athlete conditioning. The really switched on coaches can hit two birds with one stone by programming games that incorporate both the tactical and conditioning requirements that improves the team fitness (1).


Just like in the junior training sessions, senior SSGs are also manipulated based on their goals, field sizes, rules and athlete numbers to achieve the desired result (3).


Whilst I'd like to think of myself as an expert tactician on team sports, unfortunately I can't claim to be. But listen to David Moyes below if you want to see the tactical side of SSGs.

So for this blog, I'll mainly deposit my two cents on the athlete conditioning side of this equation.

 

WHY DO WE USE SSGs?


ADVANTAGES OF SSGs


For a strength and conditioning coach or a sports scientist, SSGs are a great tool to help simulate competition movement patterns and achieve intensity/volume benchmarks.


The main advantages of implementing SSGs are the following:


1. Perform competition specific movements

The ability to replicate competitive movements with structured conditioning drills is complex and likely sacrifices quality conditioning effects (3). Additionally, it is beneficial to simulate competition movement patterns. Greater time spent replicating competition demands during training is always of benefit. Well-designed SSGs allow you to do that in spades.


How many times have you witnessed a person on your team complain about running intervals, shuttles or suicides? Watch what happens when you tell them they're going to be playing a modified match instead. Note the spike in interest.


2. Allow athletes to perform skills under fatigue

Performing skills under fatigue is a quality that often gets minimal attention during programming. SSGs allow athletes to practice their sports-related skills whilst they are absolutely knackered (3).

For example, previous research has encouraged the use of wrestling/tackling during Rugby League SSGs to increase the demand on repeat efforts and executing skills under fatigue (2-3)


Can you think of a time in competition when athletes have to execute skills when they are cooked? Let's see, probably the 4th Quarter, the 2nd Half, golden point? You can't kick a football during MAS or interval running...



3. Accumulate intensity and volume without programming specific running drills

All periodised training programs plan to achieve a certain amount of weekly volume (distances) and high speed running. All coaches want to spend as much time as possible on skill-based drills and there's only a certain amount of time per session to achieve the workload targets.


If you're a strength and conditioning coach, structuring well-designed SSGs in the training session allows you to obtain the distances and intensities you need whilst still incorporating tactical elements. SSGs have also been shown to provide similar physiological benefits as interval training (1,3,5).


4. Maintain athlete engagement during the session by promoting competition (enhanced engagement compare to running intervals)

Athletes love to compete. If you can turn a task into a competition, you'll have an athlete's attention. Interval running doesn't necessarily promote competition. When you continue to accumulate interval reps session after session it becomes stale. Athlete engagement drops and so will your quality of work. Variety is an essence part of any training program.


Enter SSGs (again). In your drill plans, emphasise the competition in the SSGs and watch the intensity and athlete engagement grow.


5. Combine the workload goals of the session with the coach's tactical goals

If you can design SSGs that satisfy the athlete workload requirements and incorporate the tactical elements of the team game plan, then you've maximised the efficiency of the training session (5).


Take it from me, any coach would love to maximise the time spent practicing skills and executing the fundamentals of the game plan. You will not hear them complain for allowing too much time for ball work.


Disadvantages of SSGs


SSGs for conditioning purposes are not perfect (sadly), however, and do have disadvantages we need to discuss.


1. Difficult to obtain consistent volume/intensity for each individual athlete with SSGs

When you program interval or shuttle running you have a discrete range in intensity and volume where athletes will be expected to reach. As SSGs are essentially modified games, it is difficult to anticipate the distance and intensity outputs for each athlete for every game. Due to the competitive nature of SSGs, each game is different to the last and as such, it is difficult to program specific workloads.


In saying that, if you have the ability to collect athlete GPS data you can develop an average set of norms for your SSG battery once you perform them continually over time.


2. Hard to overload volume/intensity for each individual athlete with SSGs

Similar to the first point, SSGs are difficult to overload for each individual athlete. With set conditioning running it is a lot easier to overload the volume or intensity per athlete, but the variability in SSGs makes this task a lot harder.


Again, collecting data on your SSG drills can help you calculate upper and lower limits to work out your expected workloads for your athletes.


3. Training adaption gained from SSGs influenced by athlete work rate

"Like that one person at the bar who always disappears when it's their shout, SSGs can provide camouflage for those who want to fade into the background and not pull their weight"

The effectiveness of the training adaptation gained from SSGs can be influenced by how hard the athlete is willing to work. As SSGs are mimicking competition movements, this can allow for some athletes to take it easier than they should. With structured interval or shuttle running the athlete is under greater scrutiny to complete the efforts as it's obvious to all what they should be attaining.


However, like that one person at the bar who always disappears when it's their shout, SSGs can provide camouflage for those who want to fade into the background and not pull their weight. On the flip side, the most talented players in the team may also have a lower work rate due to enhanced tactical and skill ability which coaches should account for.


Be aware of those athletes who might be prone to taking their foot off the pedal. Consistent coach encouragement has been suggested to help maintain the intensity in SSGs (3).


Small-sided games: Pros and Cons
 

How do I CREATE Ssgs?


One of the advantages of SSGs is that they are extremely versatile. SSGs can be programmed for a range of conditioning objectives.


Usually when creating Small Sided Games we create games based on two areas:


Volume (Distances – general athlete conditioning): These types of games typically have larger field sizes with low athlete numbers (e.g. 6v6 on a full pitch in soccer) to promote greater volume.


Change of Directions (think accelerations, decelerations, high-speed efforts): These types of games are in smaller field sizes with increased athlete numbers or full field match simulations.


See in the video below with the Sydney Swans. The video shows small field sizes and increased athlete numbers. Notice how many changes of direction the players make to get into space to receive the ball.



Ideally, when devising a SSG drill battery for your team, you want to create a range of games that incorporate one or both of the areas above (volume and change of direction), and are also across three different intensity thresholds.


Firstly, note the terms in brackets. I find it's helpful to sort the intensity of SSGs into easy-to- understand categories. We will go with wind here (run like the wind basically).


1. At Match Intensity (Chicago - Windy City): @70-80% of athlete's capacity (90 - 120 m/min)

This group of games should closely replicate the movement demands of intensity of competition. In terms of game design, think extended, match simulation SSGs. As these games target competition movements, a blend of volume and opportunity for high-speed running is appropriate.


If you wanted to target the sharp movements and changes of direction, this intensity range is appropriate with a smaller field size and increased player numbers.


2. Above Match Intensity (Gale Force): @80-90% of athlete's capacity (120 - 150 m/min)


Gale force represents faster games that are performed above match intensity. These types of games are typically performed on modified field sizes with smaller athlete participation. Depending on the layout of the SSG, you can develop the opportunity for changes of direction, but this intensity range will mostly focus on volume.


E.g. Soccer: 4v4 or 5v5 on a half-pitch


3. Well Above Match Intensity (Category 5 Cyclone): @90+% of athlete's capacity (>150 m/min)


Cyclone means fast. These games are the quickest (high m/min) in your drill arsenal. Category 5 games will mainly be involved in preseason where we are trying to accumulate volume. To gain an intensity of 150 m/min we need big fields and small athlete numbers.


E.g. Soccer: 6v6 on a full-field, 3v3 on a half-pitch

Australian Rules: 10v10 to 12v12 on three quarters of the field

Rugby League: 5v5 to 7v7 on a half pitch


Small-sided games variables
 

When do I program Ssgs?


The use of SSGs in the preseason phase is almost a given for most team sports. But knowing when to program SSGs into the athlete training plan can be tricky. Choosing the right type of game for the corresponding preseason period is key to maximise the effectiveness of the SSG.


The length of your preseason can also be a major factor in deciding when to program SSGs. A typical preseason for an Australian Rules or Rugby League team will usually kick off in November with a solid lead into the Christmas and New Year's break before hitting the ground running in January. 8 weeks usually follow before the opening rounds of the season. Depending on your club and level of play (e.g. semi-professional or local) that may be slightly different but we will follow this schedule for the below examples.


Early in Preseason

Weeks 1-4: Before Christmas – The initial return


SSGs early in preseason (basically when you've initially come back to training) should be focused on accumulating volume (distances) rather than high-speed and change of direction movements (Burgess: Chapter 22, 4).


The focus for SSGs during this period should be to limit interactions and contests with opposing team members, particularly in the way of contacts (i.e. tackles/bumps) and change of direction events (accelerations/decelerations) (Burgess: Chapter 22, 4). The idea behind this is to limit the exposure of high speed events to athletes during the initial preseason phase as muscles and tendons have not been exposed to high intensities and may be at risk of soft-tissue injuries (Burgess: Chapter 22, 4).


The key is to allow athletes to accumulate volume and resilience through the preseason program before introducing higher intensity SSG work.


Here's how we do that:


SSG Design: Increased field size – close to a full field or the equivalent size depending on athlete

numbers


Athlete Numbers: Decreased athlete numbers. For example in Soccer, it might be 6v6-7v7 on a full pitch or 3v3-4v4 on a half pitch. This is also similar for Australian Rules and Rugby League


Time: At least 2-3-minutes per SSG and 2-3 games per set


The real key here is the work to rest ratio (W:R): We want to overload the athletes with volume. We don't want to promote a full recovery between SSGs. Therefore a W:R ratio of between 4:1 and 2:1 may be appropriate. For example, a 3 minute SSG would have a 45-90s break (60s probably most practical)


Mid Preseason

Weeks 5-10: After Christmas – Incorporating Change of Direction


After we've built a solid foundation of volume, it's important to gradually implement SSGs with greater high speed efforts and changes of direction (acceleration and deceleration events included).


Volume is still important as this stage in the preseason so it's important to have a blend in the type of SSGs your athletes are exposed to.


Greater change of direction and increased emphasis on acceleration/deceleration events is achieved through a combination of reducing the SSG field size, and/or increasing the number of athletes in the SSG (Burgess: Chapter 22, 4). Either combination brings players closer together which in turn raises the need to evade through sharper movements.


SSG Design:

Volume: Maintain an increased field size – close to a full pitch or the equivalent size depending on athlete numbers.

Intensity: High speed/accelerations/decelerations – maintain or reduce field size. Close to a full pitch or the equivalent size depending on athlete numbers.


Athlete Numbers:

Volume: Decreased athlete numbers. For example in Soccer, it might be 6v6-7v7 on a full pitch or 3v3-4v4 on a half pitch. This is also similar for Australian Rules and Rugby League.

Intensity: Increased athlete numbers. This could be 8v8-9v9 for Soccer on a full pitch or 5v5-6v6 on a half pitch. Similar for Australian Rules and Rugby League.


Time: At least 2-3-minutes per SSG and 2-3 games per set. Again W:R ratio is important in achieving your desired stimulus.


Volume: Similar to start of preseason block. W:R of 2:1. Depending on your focus you may want to adjust the rest period to compliment the inclusion of change of direction work and the conditioning levels of your athletes.

Intensity: Still maintain a greater work to rest ratio. W:R between 1.5:1 and 2:1. This rest period will ensure that players can perform sharper movements but will reduce the intensity over time. This can actually protect players from continually reaching high speeds through fatigue and incomplete recovery which improve their soft-tissue injury risk.


End of Preseason

Weeks 10-14: Before Season – Reduce conditioning and simulate competition


The end block of preseason should switch the focus from athlete conditioning to preparation for competition. This means a reduction in athlete volume and a focus on simulating the movement patterns and intensities seen in competition (Burgess: Chapter 22, 4).


For SSGs, this means we want to closely replicate match movement patterns and intensities.


SSG Design: Replicate competition field size where possible or the equivalent field size with less athletes.


Athlete Numbers: Increased athlete numbers. Almost at the point of match simulations. 11v11 for Soccer on a full pitch or 6v6 on a half pitch. For Rugby League this may be 13v13 situations, for AFL it may be 15v15 to 18v8 depending on athlete numbers.


Time: At least 4 minutes per SSG and 2-3 games per set or session.


The work portion of these SSGs should be longer in duration in keeping with match situations. At least 4 minutes per game, but really this should be between 5-10 minutes. Rest times after these games should be approximately 3 minutes for a drinks break (almost complete recovery) and may be slightly longer as the duration of the game increases.


Small-sided games planning

IN-SEASON


The use of SSGs in-season are nowhere near as frequent as the preseason blocks. When you progress to the in-season mode of competition, the technical phase of the training session will take priority.


The vast majority of your conditioning work is done and as such SSGs will serve as "top-up" conditioning for those who have not played regular matches or return to play athletes in the final stages of the rehab journey.


For the team as a whole, SSGs may be used during team bye weeks as a way to simulate and accumulate match workloads in the bye week. Depending on the team schedule, extended breaks between matches may also be an appropriate time to program SSGs for athletes.

 

There you have it. That's TRIAX's intro to small-sided games.


How did we go? Are there any glaring omissions from our squad of games? Let us know via our social links below!

To keep up to date with TRIAX Performance, please subscribe to our mailing list and follow our social media accounts.

If we can be of further help to you and/or your team in any way, please reach out and contact us!


Otherwise, get the cones out and start marking the field!

 

about the author

Rob Delves

Sports Scientist

B. Ex&SpSc (Hons)

PhD Candidate

Available for Sport Science Consulting

Twitter | Linkedin

 

References


1. Dellal A, Varliette C, Owen A, Chirico EN, and Pialoux V. Small-sided games versus interval training in amateur soccer players: Effects on the aerobic capacity and the ability to perform intermittent exercises with changes of direction. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26: 2712-2720, 2012.


2. Gabbett TJ, Jenkins DG, and Abernethy B. Influence of wrestling on the physiological and skill demands of small-sided games. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26: 113-120, 2012.


3. Halouani J, Chtourou H, Gabbett T, Chaouachi A, and Chamari K. Small-sided games in team sports training: a brief review. Journal of strength and conditioning research 28: 3594-3618, 2014.


4. Joyce D and Lewindon D. High-Performance Training for Sports. [electronic resource]. Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc., 2014.


5. Owen AL, Newton M, Shovlin A, Malone S. The Use of Small-Sided Games as an Aerobic Fitness Assessment Supplement within Elite Level Professional Soccer. Journal of Human Kinetics [Internet]. 2020

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