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The importance of SSG for technical and mental development

“We won, but so what? When there were players who touched the ball three times today. Our responsibility is DEVELOPMENT. So we must play 4 v 4 and 7 v 7 with plenty of time and space to learn combinations. skills, awareness and smartness” – Rinus Michels [1]

In our obsessive desire to win, many times we forget to enjoy the success of progress and the long-term development.

The purpose of this text is to view small sided and proportionately scaled games as a way of developing the proper technical ability and mental skills that will allow them to compete and succeed in the adult game.

What is a Small Sided Games?

The following is a very simple explanation of what is a Small Sided Game: Small Sided Games are practices that generally involve two or more teams playing one of the following formats: 3v3 up to 5v5 for younger players. 6vs6 up to 9vs9 for advanced players in a suitable sized pitch. Through that games, the coaches aim to train a specific individual or sub-group objective either technical or tactical.

We need to immediately change the way we perceive football. The technique, for example, is often thought of as the manner of how we handle the ball, isolated from many of the important concepts of football, such as the insight in the game and the decision making.

Nonetheless, the technique cannot be considered as a separate part in such a way; without the game insight, a player with good technique may not be as effective in a match situation.

In football, the main criteria for a good pass, cross, or shot is measured by the outcome. Johan Cruyff said “Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then go and work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right time, to the correct foot of your teammate.”

The technique that a pass need is less about developing the “ideal technique” but the “functional technique”. Through small sided games there is little doubt that the elements that make up the functional technique are exist and constantly developed.

The gain from forcing young players into a full pitch game before they are physiological, bio-mechanically, and cognitively ready will not contribute to his long-term development. One of the fundamental goals of teaching is to ensure that every player will have al the necessary supplies to succeed and overcome his own limits. Therefore we need to assess the development of readiness of the players in each age group.

Below is content from Almeida et al (2013) [2], who wanted to see the effects of SSG formats.

The study targeted to analyze the interaction and primary effects of deliberate practice experience and SSG format (3 vs. 3 up to 6 vs. 6 plus goalkeepers) on the offensive performance of young football players. Twenty-eight male players aged U-15 players were divided into 2 groups according to their deliberate practice experience. While experienced players produced longer offensive sequences with greater ball circulation between them, the non-experienced players performed faster offensive sequences with a predominance of individual actions. Additionally, significant differences were identified in the development and finalization of offensive sequences within each group, when comparing SSG formats. Evidence supports that SSG can serve several purposes as specific ways of training. However, the manipulation of game format should always consider the players’ constraints.

Similarly, another study from the English F.A shows that children touch the ball up to five times more in the 4 v 4 format compare to the 11 v 11 formats.

FIFA studies

Below you can find statistics as proof for the benefits of small-sided football compared with 11-a-side football. The below statistics are a result of a comparison between 4 v 4, 7 v 7 and 11 v 11 games [3]:

  • Players touch the ball 5 times more often in 4 v 4 games and 50% more in 7 v 7.
  • Players are 3 times more often in 1 v 1 situation in 4 v 4 games and twice more often in 7 v 7.
  • Goals are scored every two minutes in 4 v 4 games on average and every four minutes in 7 v 7.
  • Goalkeepers are involved in the action two to 4 times more often in 7 v 7 game than in 11 v 11 football match.
  • The ball is out of play 8% of the time in 4 v 4 games, 14% in 7 v 7 and 34% in 11 v 11 football match.

Manchester United suggestion

A Manchester United suggestion for training and games demonstrated that players in the smaller 4 v 4 games (compared to 8 v 8) made an average of 585 more passes, 481 more scoring attempts, scored 301 more goals, encountered 525 more 1 v 1 scenarios and 436 more dribbling skills (all assuming the duration of the two games are equal). The impact was not only on outfield players, as the technical skills performed by the goalkeeper increased by 200 – 400% as well.

We can conclude that the smaller sided games offer a variety of benefits in the opportunity if improving ones functional and ideal technique.

Decision Making

The benefits of small sided games are not only beneficial for technical development but also aid the mental development for the players in preparation for the adult game through the repeated decision making experience that takes place at a rate that is comfortable for the players to maintain a high concentration level.

The decision making and mental abilities are vital in increasing the ability to visualize the options available to a player and to then make a split second decision to see the best solution to the problem he faces.

Critchell , a former secondary-school teacher, talks of the importance of the brain to “draw” maps and images. “In roughly 10 seconds, Paul Scholes will see a hundred alternatives and then make choices that will draw on his place and grid cells,” said Critchell [4].

In football, all playing actions are made up of a complex combination of perception skills, decision making, and execution of technical skills. They all contribute to the success or ball loss. Coaching, therefore, has to focus on its improvement.

The ability of children to make decisions in a difficult and ever-changing environment is influenced by their developmental age, their exposure to the situation and the complexity of the situation.

A child’s capacity to make decisions is limited at an early age, so by limiting the number of players playing in a small sided game, this enables players to feel more comfortable to make decisions and through the process of possessions play and decision making in passing options, there is an encouragement of both ideal and functional technical development.

Consequently, getting the correct size of the pitch is important. On a full sized pitch, players with a lower ability spend much of the game running without touching the ball.

Without the direct interaction with the ball or combination play of any kind, the moment of opportunity to develop as players are few and far between.

Research by Kevin McGreskin and Chris Carling [5]

This has offered evidence that a player spends 98.3% of the game in an 11 v 11 (full sized pitch) without the ball. This cannot contribute to the correct development and learning process of a young player.

Thus, it is important that the size of the field should be appropriate for both ability and age.

The increase in touches of the ball enables an increase of player creativity on the ball. The use of small sided games there can be an increase in all round technical development, decision making, concentration, creativity, tactical understanding and enjoyment. The love of the game must never be lost.

The Development of the Brain

Bulgarian scientist Lozanov made the suggestion of a super learning method in the 1970’s which candidly put, requires both hemispheres of the brain to be stimulated [6].

Players are best developed and prepared for the adult game when both sides of the brain are developed. It is only then that decision making, creativity and technique merge into one simple effortless activity.

This is the kind of action that Xavi of Barcelona demonstrates on every occasion he touches the ball.


Even though in the last few years, many countries have extracted national plans for the development of their football and their focus on young ages is the technique and mental skills, there are still academies and coaches who give priority to tactical elements instead of technique and decision making in young ages.

Only Youth coaches can change football. The youth academies are responsible for the kind of football the future generations will watch. To have a football we love, we must first imagine it and then create it. The true treasure of football lies in the academies.

[1] Thomas Turner, Ph. D. (2012). Small-sided Games. Ohio: Ohio Youth Soccer Association North 10

[2] Almeida, C.H., Ferreira, A.P., Volossovitch, A. (2013). Offensive Sequences in Youth Soccer: Effects of Experience and Small-Sided Games. Journal of Human Kinetics. Section III – Sports Training 36/2013, 97-106.

[3] FIFA grassroots,

[4] The Head Case, John Sinnott (2011)

[5] Critchell, M (2011). The Blizzard Magazine issue 3. Sunderland: A19.99

[6] Win, H (2007) Developing Youth Football Players. Human Kinetics Europe Ltd 6

[7] Coaching the TIKI-TAKA style of play, Jed C. Davies,

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