I’m sure you’ve heard this before. The “real game” can be substituted for “big game” or any other term your young players use to mean large number scrimmages, many times 8v8-11v11. Even worse, have you heard that question from an exasperated parent?
From U6 (and even younger, an extremely scary proposition) through to U10 and above in cases, the expectation from many parents and observers is that their children are playing the “real soccer game” at the end of practice in order to ensure “proper development”
In my opinion, the biggest reason this misunderstanding occurs is because of parent’s understanding of other sports. Think of baseball or American football for example, and then think of how the younger age groups play the games. In many cases, they use the same exact numbers as the professionals. There’s a catcher, center-fielder, short stop, and every other position from the U8 age group all the way to the World Series. American football is in most cases no different, with similar numbers appearing at the younger ages through to the professional games seen on TV. Parents watch soccer on the television, see 11v11, and assume that because training happens a certain way with the other sports, then it should be the same for soccer. Learning is only possible if it replicates the game on the television, some believe.
One of the biggest problems youth soccer faces in this country is a problem of parent and coach education. Misconceptions about small sided games compared to large sided games are a facet of poor education. It is not only the fault of parents, but many clubs who focus on the “bottom line” as well as their ability to get more involvement by promoting this misunderstanding.
Here’s why this happens in most cases. A club that focuses on small sided games can limit the amount of players on one team. A U7 team that focuses on 3v3 or 4v4 at the end of a session realistically only needs 12 or so kids to ensure a great coach-to-player ratio as well as a good number for 3v3 or 4v4 games. Another U7 team that wants their players to play 8v8 or 11v11 at the end of practice means a need for more players, ratios and training be damned, and more players means more money. For many clubs, it is more profitable to have 18-22 paying members on a U7 team than 12. Is this the case in every scenario? No, however in most cases clubs argue that they can’t afford to have only 12 players on a young developmental age group. Money matters in youth soccer, especially in the United States where it’s a $5 billion industry. Proper development takes a back seat to the check book and it happens all over the country. Scared yet? I’m terrified.
These clubs actively prey on misinformed parents, vindicating their lack of knowledge by promoting the idea that a six year old playing 8v8 will improve compared to the six year old playing 2v2’s. I’ve seen dozens of great sessions at the very young levels, U6 for example, where every kid has a ball and is actively engaged in the activities to promote physical literacy and technical development. And time after time, when it comes to the game at the end, there are always observers who are disgruntled over the lack of “real soccer.” It’s a concept that is so pervasive to the youth game that coaches are almost frightened to play small sided games instead of giving in to the wishes of the “paying” customer to ensure that “real soccer” occurs at practice just as it does on the television.
We as coaches have a duty to educate parents and parent coaches the benefits of small sided games, but we also have a duty to call out clubs and coaches who are using this misinformation to line their own pockets or the coffers of their club. Money is already an inhibiting factor for many trying to play the game, and it’s only going to get worse if we turn a blind eye to coaches, technical directors, DOC’s and academies that promote this naïve and incorrect belief that only harms the young players.
Aside from profit margins, here’s the second reason why clubs do this. Coaches are afraid of the transition to 11v11. Plain and simple.
One of the problems in U.S. Youth Soccer is that in most states, the size of the games per age group can change every time you cross a state line! For most if not all, U13 is the recognized age where 11v11 is mandated, however many youth organizations and associations have suggestions for different ages, in many cases leaving it up to the clubs! A lack of organization and partnership between state associations, U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Soccer, U.S. Club soccer (the list goes on) ensures that people can and will find ways to ensure their ten or eleven year old is playing 11v11.
Clubs understand this and for many, the transition from 8v8 (or 9v9) to 11v11 is a huge challenge to coaches. For them, the transition required after a couple months is too difficult, and therefore the earlier we can teach players to play 11v11, the easier it is to “train.” For some, training the 5v5to 7v7 to 9v9 to 11v11 model is strenuous and difficult, therefore it’s thought that skipping one stage can’t be that bad. Profit maximization and laziness, what a dangerous combination.
Is that an exhaustive list of why this problem is so pervasive? No, but it certainly covers some of the main reasons. Now, let’s look at the part where we have to do our job. The education aspect of why small sided games are a necessity and not a suggestion.
Here are the results:
Passing: Increased by 135% in a 4v4 game, translating into 585 more passes compared to an 8v8 match.
Shots: Increased by 260% in a 4v4 game, translating into 481 more shots compared to an 8v8 match.
Goals: Increased by 500% in a 4v4 game, translating into 301 more goals scored compared to an 8v8 match
1v1 encounters: Increased by 225% in a 4v4 game, translating into 525 more 1v1’s compared to an 8v8 match.
Dribbling: Increased by 280% in a 4v4 model.
It’s difficult to argue against those numbers, and when coupled with the following “common sense” appeal, it’s a good foundation to stake a claim on the benefits of small sided games.
The fact of the matter is, when the games get larger at the younger ages, more and more players are prone to “hiding” as I call it. From a psychological standpoint, at the very young ages, children are not used to people outside of their immediate family, and forget about the idea of sharing! When the child is not actively involved they’re prone to switch off and the amount of times they touch the ball drastically decreases. Take a U6 player and put him or her in an 8v8 match and they can hide if they want to. The game can and will pass them by. Take the same player and put them in a 2v2 game and it’s much harder to stay uninvolved in the match. It’s either them on the ball or their teammate, and chances are if they don’t have the ball they will soon enough.
The common numbers for a professional is that in a 90 minute match, the ball is actually in play for about sixty minutes, give or take 5-10 minutes. With that time, the average player is on the ball for about 2-3 minutes the entire game. That’s the professional level. I have seen, and many of you have also seen it, young players who have touched the ball less than three to five times in an entire scrimmage. We think burnout happens because of too much soccer? I think burnout happens because of long lines and time spent running around a field never touching a ball.
Aside from the fact that involvement dramatically increases as the numbers go down, for the coaches that love a good fitness session with the remaining five minutes of their sessions( please don’t), the numbers are also very promising! Average heart rate increases in small-sided games as the players are more involved and small sided games are commonly used at the highest levels for soccer-specific conditioning.
Everyone has tweaks and differences in the implementation and numbers for the small sided games, and that’s understandable. What’s most important however is that we understand that even at the highest level small sided games are extremely useful. Professional teams use small sided games constantly throughout a season, and what we see on the television is not always what is seen at practice. Here lies the big difference between our sport and others that creates understandable confusion. The game can be broken down into smaller situations that still replicate the game and its various scenarios.
Is it frustrating when parents will leave clubs because they think small sided games are ruining the game? Absolutely. But we have to constantly engage, constantly educate, and constantly talk with our players and parents about the benefits. Players love to play, and in most cases they don’t start asking for “the big game” until their parents start to complain and ask for it themselves.
Here’s the good news. Initially, when a stance is taken, there will be some people who disagree. Understand that the decision to refuse large sided games for the younger age groups, regardless of the amount of education you offer, will irk some so much that they leave. The philosophy and methodology of your club is something that should be able to last long after you’re gone and long after your players have developed. The standard of the club is more important than any of us.
Make the first step. Establish the standard, prepare for the hard work that’s to come, and reap the benefits of proper development.
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