True Development Leagues: Small-Sided Games

Here is one of my favorite advertisements:

Basketball Training and Development

The sessions are for advanced players with a commitment to getting better.

Why only develop advanced players? Teams often use the same advertisement, advertising as a “development program,” but only accepting a 6’0+ 6th grader. It is easy to be a great coach or trainer when you cherry-pick advanced players and then take credit for their development, but is that training or coaching? These coaches and trainers are maintainers, not trainers.

What is a development-oriented training program, league or organization? I believe that a development-oriented organization or league:

  • maximizes the number of skill chances for all players, not just the top player
  • creates an environment of learning (mistakes are okay) rather than punishing mistakes
  • uses the game to teach the game
  • uses a decision-training coaching style with reduced feedback and variable, random drills rather than a coach-centered, behavioral style
  • focuses more on skill development, improvement and learning than winning games or game preparation
  • engages all players in the activity as much as possible rather than standing in lines or sitting on the bench

In a blog titled “Little Wars,” Paul Cooper writes extensively about the use of small-sided games in soccer from South America to English Premiere League academies. Legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michaels reasoned:

“In simplified, modified games, players learn to be aware and to improvise, to concentrate, and to recognize the situation. Skills are important, of course, but the value of skills is to be able to use them efficiently in a fraction of a second. Our practices should be one quarter skill training and three quarters applying those skills in endless situations.”

To use terms from recent newsletters, one-quarter of practice should be block practice or low contextual interference and three-quarters of practice should be high CI, random, variable practice.

Even beyond practice settings, soccer academies use small-sided games as the actual games for young children because the SSGs produce more opportunities to practice skills in real situations.

Rick Fenoglio…a senior lecturer in exercise and sport science at Manchester Metropolitan University..found the following for 4v4 games when compared to 8v8:
– 135% – more passes
– 260% – more attempts on goal
– 225% – more 1 on 1 encounters
– 280% – more ‘tricks’ attempted

Some other work done by development coach Martin Diggle, while at Bolton Wanderers Academy, based on decision making while on the ball showed that in a ten minute game of line soccer there was an average of 23.5 decisions in a 4v4 game, compared with just 13.4 in a game of 6v6.

These studies show that there are more opportunities for skill practice and decision-making practice in 4v4 games as opposed to 6v6 or 8v8 games. If we assume that more practice, especially in game situations, leads to more improvement, players in the 4v4 leagues have a greater opportunity to improve.

These differences are not just for soccer. A Playmakers Basketball Development League coach studied the differences between a PBDL and a full-sided recreational league and compared meaningful touches and engaged defensive plays in each.

Meaningful touches were defined as “the opportunity to execute a practiced skill in a game situation: a pass vs. a defender, a triple-threat move, a dribble move vs. a defender, any shot attempt.”

An engaged defensive play was defined as “any time the player actively plays defense: guarding the ball, defending a cutter or actively helping and recovering; and any defensive rebound; standing in the key in help defense or protecting the weak side would not count.”

The coach found:

Offensive Meaningful Touches
3v3 both teams total touches 101
5v5 both teams total touches 80

Engaged Defensive Plays
3v3 both teams total touches 104
5v5 both teams total touches 84

While not scientific, if those total plays are divided evenly amongst all players – which we know won’t happen – 3v3 players average 37 meaningful touches and 38 engaged defensive plays during a game, while 5v5 players average 16 meaningful touches and 17 engaged defensive plays.

The average 3v3 player gets twice as many opportunities to make a play with the ball against a defender and twice as many opportunities to defend an opponent than a 5v5 player. Multiply that over the course of a recreational season (let’s assume 8 games), the average player gets over 160 more offensive and defensive opportunities in which to execute skills, read opponents and make plays.

If the goal with young players is to develop skills, 3v3 leagues create more developmental and learning situations than 5v5 leagues and feature the same competitive situations.

If these 3v3 leagues create an environment of learning and development, not a Peak by Friday environment, the players learning will be enhanced even further as players play through mistakes, rather than coming out of the game.

Cooper concludes with some of the benefits of small-sided games (based on soccer/football, but applicable to basketball):

  • Small sided games are fun and foster a lifelong passion for the beautiful game
  • Because it is so much fun, kids practise with a ball much more away from coaching and club sessions
  • Play football to learn football
  • Learn by doing
  • Technique, football insight and communication are most effectively developed in game related situations
  • Children naturally learn match situations by constant repetition and frequent ball contact.
  • A small sided game maximises involvement in real football situations
  • Freedom to fail
  • Creativity & spontaneity
  • More touches
  • More involvement in the game
  • Easy for the coach to set up
  • The coach can easily observe where the players are in terms of their development
  • A format that is age appropriate

From a parent or coach perspective, these should be the things that we hope to derive from a youth basketball league.

If players enjoy the league and develop a passion for the game, they will practice more on their own, meaning more skill-specific (shooting, dribbling), block practice on one’s own and more time for applying these skills during team practice and games.

Players learn by doing. How many coaches walk through plays 5v0 and then the players fail to execute the play in the game? The walk-through and the game are different environments.

Giving players the freedom to fail is a key to development. Nobody picks up a ball and shoots like an expert. Development is a process, and part of the process is making and learning from mistakes. When competition is emphasized, one feels pressure not to make mistakes.

Small-sided games provide more repetitions in game situations, and these repetitions lead to improved learning and adaptability to similar situations in subsequent games, whether 3v3 or 5v5.

The small-sided games lead to more fun, more involvement, more activity and more learning. If so many coaches, leagues and organizations advertise using these key words, why do so many of them follow a traditional approach with traditional block practice schedules and 5v5 competitive games with Peak by Friday coaches? Why is it so hard to change to a new dynamic when research and practical experience shows that the new approach (small-sided games) is better from a developmental perspective?

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