Written By Jeremy Williams
Part I of this series showed that small-sided games can be used as an effective training tool to improve and maintain fitness. They can be as effective and perhaps more effective that traditional modes of training (e.g. endurance or high-intensity running). However, implementing small-sided games into a training session can be difficult due to the many possible configurations and the number of variables and factors that must be accounted for. The number of players per side, dimensions of the field, number of games, duration of the games, and if goalkeepers are used can all influence the amount and intensity of work that is required of the players. Several recent research studies have looked at how the variables mentioned above affect the workload experienced by the players. In Part II, we take a look at the question, what is the best configuration to improve player fitness and performance?
Knowing the advantages that small-sided game training provide, coaches are trying to find the most effective configuration of small-sided games to maximize fitness and training. Common variables that are typically manipulated are size of teams (2v2, 3v3, etc.), playing field dimensions, restrictions and inclusion of goalkeepers. Whether teams are in preseason training or having reserve players train at a higher intensity on post-match recovery days, the number of players available will influence the size of the small-sided games used. For example, if 12 players are available, a coach has options of playing four 2v2, two 3v3 or one 6v6 game. If only 6 players are available, a coach might be limited to a single 3v3 game. He or she may also set the size of the playing field to varying dimensions, altering the area per player in order to increase or decrease the distance players must cover. Given this, researchers have begun to investigate the physiological demands required for each type of configuration. Studies have focused on how manipulating these variables will provide a training effect by increasing heart rate, reported perceived exertion (RPE), and blood lactatic acid levels (BLa). Knowing the physiological demands of the various configurations can give coaches a guideline as to how long and what limitations to put on the small sided games in order to achieve their training goals for the players.
Studies have generally focused on comparing player numbers ranging from 2v2 to 6v6 while adjusting the field dimensions to hold the area per player constant. As the number of players increases, heart rates decrease as do RPE values while Bla levels increase (Delall et al., 2011; Owen et al., 2011; Rampinini et al., 2007). For example, players in a 4v4 game spend more time exercising at a heart rate of less than 85 percent of their maximal while players in a 3v3 format spend more time at greater than 90 percent (Abrantes et al., 2012). Games using larger teams such as 7v7 seem to further blunt the HR responses because of less ball activity (Castellano et al., 2012). Increasing the field size (so that the area per player is increased) while holding the number of players constant also increases the workload but to a lesser extent (Rampinini et al., 2007). Based on these studies, it seems that player number is the most important variable determining the physiological response. At a constant area per player, the 3v3 format provides a greater physiological overload and could be a more efficient training strategy to improve fitness than the 6v6 format. For example, a 3v3 match players on a 20m x 25m pitch (83 square meters per player) seems to be an optimal format.
Putting a touch-limit on the players during the small-sided game can also increase the workload (Delall et al., 2011). Compared to 2-touch and unlimited touch games, a 1-touch restriction result in higher heart rate, BLa, and total distance covered in high-intensity efforts. Limiting the number of touches forces players to constantly move off the ball to position themselves to receive a pass or defend, thereby increasing the physiological demand.
Some coaches utilize goalkeepers in their small-sided games. However, including goalkeepers reduces heart rates when compared to the games in which players were trying to score on small goals (no goalkeeper).
Unfortunately, there is very little research on how the duration of the games and recovery interval between games affects heart rate, RPE and BLa. However, based on what is known about intermittent, high-intensity exercise, longer games with shorter recovery should elicit a greater physiological demand. Also, the training studies showed that 5-10, 3-min games with a 2-min recovery are quite effective in improving fitness.
Based on the available research, it appears that the most important factor influencing the physiological load of small-sided training is the number of players per team. Smaller games using a 3v3 format elicit a greater training load than larger formats. Increasing field dimensions (area per player) also increases the load but to a lesser extent. Imposing restrictions such as limiting the number of touches (e.g. 1-touch) also increases demand whereas utilizing goals and goalkeepers reduces the workload. This seems logical, as fewer players on a larger field require involvement by individual players. Movement off the ball, readying oneself to receive or defend a pass is extremely important in the game of soccer. With reduced numbers of players in the small-sided games, it becomes even more imperative that all players are constantly moving. On the other hand, larger games with goalkeepers can result in less individual involvement during the game and consequently, less physiological demand.
From a research standpoint, it appears the small-sided game training can improve and maintain fitness. The improvements seem to be greater in tests designed to measure “soccer fitness” such as repeated sprint or intermittent running tests. Also, by adjusting variables such as player number, field size and restrictions on play, the physiological workload can be adjusted. For example, a “light” training session may use 6v6 games that include a goalkeeper whereas a “hard” session might use 3v3 and 1-touch, possession-type games. A second advantage of small-sided games compared to other fitness activities is their ability to train players in technical (i.e. soccer specific skills) and tactical aspects of the game. Touch, passing accuracy and moving to open space are all stressed in the small-sided format. Lastly, coaches can also build in incentives to increase player effort and motivation such as moving players between teams, making the games competitive and providing rewards for the players who win the most games or score the most goals.
Thus, coaches can design small-sided games to accommodate a variety of training goals. Given the multiple benefits of small-sided games for training, it makes sense for coaches to implement this style of training when trying to increase or maintain fitness. As an added bonus, technical and tactical dimensions of the game may also be improved. On balance, small-sided games should improve the overall performance of the players as they move into competitive, full-sided matches.
Jeremy Williams is currently the Volunteer Assistant with the Florida State Women’s team. He is also a graduate student in the FSU sport science program.
Abrantes, C, Nunes, M, Macas, V, Leite, N, Sampaio, J. Effects of the number of players and game type constraints on heart rate, rating of perceived exertion, and technical actions of small-sided soccer games. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012, 26: 976-981.
Castellano, J, Casamichana, D, Dellal, A. Influence of game format and number of players on heart rate responses and physical demands in small-sided soccer games. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012, published ahead of print, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825d99dc.
Dellal, A, Hill-Haas, S, Lago-Penas, C, Chamari, K. Small-sided games in soccer: Amateur vs. professional players’ physiological responses, physical, and technical activities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011, 25: 2371-2381.
Owen, A, Wong, D, McKenna, M, Dellal, A. Heart rate responses and technical comparison between small- vs. large-sided games in elite professional soccer. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011, 25: 2104-2110.
Rampinini, E, Impellizzeri, FM, Castagna, C, Abt, G, Chamari, K, Sassi, A, Marcora, SM, Factors influencing physiological responses to small-sided soccer games. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25: 659-666, 2007.