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Ditch the running! How to make your players fit without them realizing!

This post is one of our most popular on the site, receiving over 1000 views in it’s first week of release…
It’s that time of the year in the UK when team sports like football, rugby, hockey and others will return to pre-season training. Often this means a lot of running to get players fit for the upcoming season… not something the players themselves are always engaged in. But could there be a better way? Is it possible to get your players engaged and fitter without them realizing? The answer is yes…

Yes, I am a “Strength & Conditioning Coach” or “Athletic Development Coach” and I recognize that athletes (including youth athletes) should engage in physical training in order to be fit to play. However, I also believe that the primary aspect of youth sports should be enjoyment. After all, the kids came to play, not to run. As such, I don’t really think that it’s necessary to be making kids run as a conditioning tool until late teens…
Enter… small sided games or “SSG”. These have started to make inroads in research as an alternative method to work on fitness and conditioning in team sports. I also think this may be a useful way to get “more bang for your buck” than persuading players to run for conditioning.
To give a brief overview, small sided games have a few variables to consider:

  • teams size from 1 vs 1 up to 9 vs 9 players
  • may include a “possession” player who plays for whichever team has possession of the ball
  • pitch dimensions may vary
  • game duration may vary

Depending on how you change these variables, you can manipulate the adaptations that your athletes will incur.
For example, this study  in adult soccer reported max heart rates of 84% during a 6 aside match on a small pitch, whilst a 3 a side on a larger pitch produced a max heart rate of 91%. Blood lactate values followed this same trend. Increased blood lactate values are also seen in semi-pro rugby players in 4 vs 4 games, compared to 8 vs 8.  Another study showed that if you kept the pitch size constant, but reduced team size (6 vs 6, 4 vs 4, 2 vs 2) then the heart rate and Rate of Perceived Exertion increased. This figure taken from another study seems to agree with this trend:
This study used 13 year old soccer players and looked at using 3 vs 3 and 6 vs 6, for 10 games lasting 4 minutes, with 3 minutes recovery between matches. Again, they found higher heart rate values during the 3 vs 3 games than the 6 vs 6 games. Interestingly they also investigated what type of actions were more frequent, finding that the 3 vs 3 games had a more short passes, tackles, dribbles and goals compared to the 6 vs 6 game, which produced more long passes and headers. This suggests that the game format might also bias certain skills. This is again represented in another study. For example, see how the frequency of turns reduces as the number of players increases:
Small sided games aren’t just used in soccer. This study in basketball monitored 15 year old high school males in 3 vs 3 and 5 vs 5 games lasting 8 minutes, with 5 minutes rest between games. This study showed that the 3 vs 3 condition resulted in more “offensive played balls” than the 5 vs 5 game, but no difference in heart rate. They suggests a smaller team presented a player more opportunities to practice skills than the larger sized game. Another interesting element for technical coaches.
So in summary, here’s what we know about small sided games:

  • They present an increased intensity (Max HR/Lactate) as team sizes reduce
  • They present greater frequency of skill practice as team sizes reduce
  • Increasing pitch size can increase intensity with smaller numbers
  • Like any conditioning tool we can increase the total workload at high intensity (smaller teams) over time to increase fitness
  • Larger teams can be used for variation and more match-specificity

Yann Le Meur sums this up nicely, as ever, with an infographic:

So, let’s not make our young athletes run but keep them enthused and engaged with some small sided games! I’m sure this will satisfy the soccer coaches who never like to be without the ball!
I hope this post has been helpful! As ever, please like, share and comment as you see fit!
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Factors influencing physiological responses to small-sided soccer games
Physiological responses and time–motion characteristics of various small-sided soccer games in youth players
Effects of Small-Sided Games on Physical Conditioning and Performance in Young Soccer Players

Comparison of Physical Activity in Small-Sided Basketball Games Versus Full-Sided Games

Factors Affecting Exercise Intensity in Rugby-Specific Small-Sided Games


5 thoughts on “Ditch the running! How to make your players fit without them realizing!

  1. The notion that running should be a boring exercise only demonstrates how so many fitness and other coaches lack creativity. One can create several running games including relays, obstacle courses, cone work and several other ideas while replicating several movements used in that particular sport also include running both to raise heart rate thresholds and also to include variety in some of the training sessions.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree however I think with this young athletes in particular this is a useful tool that appeals to a primary motivation – play! Also kills 2 birds with 1 stone as shown by the studies suggesting greater technical skills emphasis in some conditions. Skill development is also key at foundation ages…

    2. Hi – i’m lead coach for u7s at & coach u13s and seniors. I am a great believer in hiding the running at all ages – after all we are a football club not a cross country club !
      However, we need to teach our children how to run correctly – any thoughts ?

      1. Hi Mike, thans for the feedback! Absolutely and it’s a really effective way to get so much more from your players! Unfortunately sprint/running technique does tend to be very poor in footballers – even up to the professional level! You may want to consider looking at some basic athletics coaching courses, or even just looking at some basic sprint drills like A/B marches and skips, and wall drills. I’ve used these with youth athletes before with good success!

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