Pitch Size, Fitness and Technical Training

Small-sided matches are often used by coaches to develop fitness of his/her team. The advantage is that fitness can be improved within the context of the game. This type of training also emphasizes both technical and tactical abilities. A number of variables can be altered when designing a small-sided game such as the number of players and rules modification. Another key component of small sided matches is the size of the playing area. A new study from researchers the University of Basque County in Spain highlights the ability of small sided matches to improve both physical and skill performance by varying the pitch size. This investigation shows that by changing the playing area, fitness or technical skills can be emphasized.

Ten 16 year-old boys played 5v5 matches (plus a goal keeper) on pitches of three different sizes. The large pitch was 62 x 44m (roughly half of a full-sized pitch), the medium pitch was 50 x 35m and the small pitch was 23 x 23m. Matches lasted 8 minutes and players were instructed to play without input from the coaches. Each player was fitted with a heart rate monitor and portable GPS to track physiological and physical profiles. Matches were also filmed to determine technical behaviors such as tackles, dribbles, passes, etc.

The physiological responses varied based on the pitch size. The large pitch elicited slightly higher heart rates and players spent 50% of the match exercising at more than 90% of their maximal heart rate. On the small pitch, only 41% of the match was spent exercising in this heart rate zone. During the large pitch matches, players covered about 1000m compared to slightly less than 700m on the small pitch. Also, the large pitch required the players to perform more high-speed sprints per match (6 versus 1). Thus, small-sided matches played on a large pitch elicit greater physiological responses. That is, they are more taxing on the cardiovascular system compared to matches played on a small pitch – a key to developing cardiovascular fitness.

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The lower physiological response to the small pitch matches may be due to the amount of time the ball was in play. Over the course of all matches, there were several stoppages for goals, fouls, throw-ins, etc. On the large pitch, the ball was in play for 82% of the 8-minute period, compared to only 68% for the small pitch. Thus, when on the large pitch, players played for over a minute more than when on the small pitch. The investigators assume that when the ball is not in play, players generally stop moving, thereby reducing the demand on the cardiovascular system.

On the other hand, matches played on the small pitch required more technical skills. During these matches, number of interceptions, ball control, clearances, restarts and shots were all greater than when playing on the large pitch. For example, on the small pitch there were about 11 interceptions per match compared to only 6 for the large pitch. Thus, small sided matches elicit a greater number of technical skills.

This study’s results suggest that coaches can the demands of training by varying the pitch size of small-sided games. Expanding the size will emphasize fitness components whereas shrinking the pitch forces players to focus on technical skills. Previous studies also emphasized that the physiological intensity of small-sided matches can also be affected by varying the recovery interval between consecutive matches and by using verbal encouragement (see previous SSO article). Technical skills and tactical awareness can be further stressed by providing constraints such as two-touch rules.

In the end, this study provides more evidence that small-sided games can be a very effective training tool. They can be used to improve fitness and technical skills and tactical knowledge. The key is for coaches to design their training session and vary the games to meet the needs of their team.


Casamichana D, Castellano J (2010) Time-motion, heart rate, perceptual and motor behavior demands in small-sided games: Effects of pitch size. Journal of Sports Sciences, DOI:10.1080/02640414.2010.521168

Posted by Jay Williams, Ph.D. Labels: Current Research, Training