Monday, December 3, 2007

Fitness Training With Small-Sided Games

Peak performance during a soccer match involves many different factors. The most obvious are technical skills and tactical abilities. However, the factor that influences a player’s ability to perform over the course of a 70-90 minute match is his or her fitness level. From a scientific standpoint, fitness is defined as maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and represents the maximal amount of oxygen that an athlete can breath in and convert into energy. The most common ways to increase VO2max is through either continuous running at around 50-60% of maximal heart rate or interval running using short, high-intensity bouts at about 80-90% of maximal heart rate. These types of training have been used by coaches for years to improve player’s fitness.

Coaches usually have limited practice time with their players. So, it is difficult to squeeze in a 15-20 min running session when the technical and tactical abilities of the individual players and the team need to be addressed. One strategy that coaches use is small-sided training. This involves short matches using 2-8 players per side in a small grid. Several 2-5 minute games are played with a short rest periods in between. The idea behind small sided training is to incorporate all three aspects of soccer in a single drill: technical, tactical as well as fitness.

One way to judge how well a training program improves fitness VO2max is to determine the physiological demands of the drill. Most research studies show that during small sided training, heart rates can reach as high as 85-90% of maximal. Blood lactic acid levels can also reach 4-5 mmol/l and ratings of perceived effort typically describe the games as very difficult and near maximum. The heart rate, blood lactate and perceived effort responses to small sided games are all well within the responses found for interval running and higher than continuous running. That is, small sided games can be as physically demanding as performing repeated bouts of high intensity running.

One characteristic that distinguishes small sided training from interval running is the coach’s ability to vary the intensity of the training (Rampinini et al. 2007). By changing the number of players, the size of the grid, the match length or recovery interval, intensity can be increased or decreased. A recent study examining these variables found that 3v3 matches played on a large grid (18x30m) elicited greater heart rates than those played on a small grid (12x20m). As the number of players increased from 3v3 to 6v6, the intensity of the effort tended to decrease, especially if the grid size remained small. Coaches can also elevate the overall intensity of the drill by increasing the match duration to around 4 minutes and by using an active recovery interval of 2-3 minutes. They can further change the intensity of the drill by providing verbal encouragement or by simply letting the players play. Thus, the intensity of the small sided games can be varied by changing a few variables. This allows the coach to tailor the practice to meet the needs of the team.

The effectiveness of small sided games is seen in the fitness improvements over the course of a season. Recent research shows that following an eight month season where players trained with small sided games, fitness was markedly improved (Impellizzeri et al., 2006). The distance covered during a Yo-Yo test was increased and VO2max improved. Also, a recent study out of Italy found in soccer players who trained using small sided game training had similar improvements on endurance tests and match performance as did players who trained by running. Based on this, it is clear that small sided games can improve fitness and that the changes are similar to those caused by interval and continuous running.

From a practical standpoint, the coach should vary the intensity of the games based on a session by session basis. Intensity should either be increased or decreased based on the players needs: their current level of fitness, recent training session or match intensity and overall level of fatigue / tiredness. In general, players should not be training at the highest intensity every session. This is particularly true after intense matches. Repeatedly training players at the highest intensity can lead to “burnout” and can increase the risk of injury. Rather the intensity should be tailored to the situation at hand. A few guidelines are provided in the table.


High Intensity

Low Intensity

Number of players

3 v 3

6 v 6

Grid Size

Large grid

Small grid

Number of Matches




4 minutes

3 minutes


2-3 minutes of light jogging

3-4 minutes of rest


Verbal encouragement

Let the kids play

All of the available research indicates that small sided games are very effective at improving the player’s level of fitness. The physiological improvements and match performances after this type of training are similar to those that occur with interval or distance running. The advantages of small sided training are numerous. The intensity can be easily varied by the coach to elicit an optimal training response. The technical and tactical aspects of the game are stressed. Lastly, the players seem to prefer the competitive nature of the activity as opposed run training. Thus, there is a string case for using small sided games as a way to improve player fitness.

Further Reading:

Rampinini E, Impellizzeri FM, Castagna C, Abt G, Chamari K, Sassi A, Marcora SM. (2007) Factors influencing physiological responses to small-sided soccer games. Journal of Sports Sciences. 25:659-666.

Impellizzeri FM, Marcora SM, Castagna C, Reilly T, Sassi A, Iaia FM, Rampinini E. (2006) Physiological and performance effects of generic versus specific aerobic training in soccer players. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 27: 483-492.