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Small Sided Games?

Small Sided Games?

I received this letter from one of my coaching colleagues, Ashley in New Jersey, and thought it was thought-provoking! While watching the Sky Blue team play the LA Sol this weekend an internal fight between me and my coaches reared its ugly head as I found myself arguing the “touch” versus “keep away” argument as we were watching both teams warm up!

“Small sided keep away and the value in training and pre-game.”

If we can agree that the players with the best touch tend to win more than they lose then all of the rest of this is relevant. (I understand that players also need speed and toughness) if not then don’t read any further.

If we listed in rank order every player in the world starting with the player with the best touch going to the worst we would all fit somewhere on that continuum. I estimate that I am around the 100 million mark world-wide beating out my mother and sisters for sure but past that I am not sure anymore.We can also make that same ranking within ANY team that we see after a very short observation. We can easily see the player with the best touch and the player with the worst touch. Most of us simply say she is better or worse, we rarely say better touch or worse touch we simply grimace when the poor players lose the ball. Most good coaches measure speed endurance passing ability etc… when we see issues we prescribe… more gym work, more sprinting etc… when it comes to touch however we rarely “prescribe” the right medicine for the most afflicted!

Instead we play small sided keep away games ad-infinitum!

Approximately 10 years ago the coming of the small “keep away game” descended upon us. It hit me squarely between the eyes as some of my players at MKA High school declared “enough” with the technical work we want to do what the “pros” do” Which it turns out is lots of small keep away games in small areas for long periods of time. I faced a rebellion where my intense individual ball skills sessions were no longer “vogue” Certainly for the “better” players it was much more fun to play keep away as they were always winning! My lesser players however saw significantly fewer touches of the ball (even though the small area and fewer numbers were designed to increase touches!) they did however become very good at chasing but technically they started to decline.

To feed the “needs” of the better players I started to break my session down even further. Instead of one lesson plan I had three or four and ran them simultaneously to ensure that every player was getting what THEY needed. This “lack of control” of a training session is very hard for some coaches and with one coach can be a stretch but with many coaches multiple sessions within a session are ideal and much more productive. Even with one coach it is still better, it is simply requires more organization, energy and a booming voice.

Throughout this time I have fought with many coaches within my own organization about the need for this activity (small sided keep away) and its value. I do think it serves a purpose but if we go back to the fundamental issues that all teams (at ALL levels) face then it is not clear cut that this type of activity serves the purpose that many think it does. Today we are in danger of falling foul of the oft told biblical story of the King without his clothes on, because everyone says it is a beautiful gown (great activity) we tend to copy and say same. I am the little boy that sees the naked King and in this case the failings of the small sided keep away game so lauded buy the powers that be!

Because someone in a high place “plays” small sided games and says small sided keep away is great we all agree and follow thoughtlessly. Before making a new prescription however let’s look at the good and bad with a small sided keep away game in practice and before a game.

In all sessions players with good touch gravitate towards the ball and are very happy to get involved as they have no fear of receiving the ball… why? Because they also have no fear of being able to deal with it. The exception to this is the “brainless player who has no idea that they are not very good with the ball and care less what everyone else thinks! All other players are what we refer to as “peripheral” they work their way out of the middle and try NOT to touch the ball for fear of making a mistake. In England this commonly referred to (you know this term well) as HIDING. The problem is that we can remonstrate with the player that is hiding all we like but their touch precludes them from full involvement.

Yesterday’s game was such a stark demonstration of the differences between a player with exceptional touch “Marta” and a player with “awful” touch and the worst on the field, (a striker that shall remain nameless). Every other player on the field fell somewhere between those two players on the continuum. Today at practice “Marta” will continue to dominate any small sided game if she chooses to do so as she is already with great touch therefore she will get the required number of touches to “top up” her skill. It was not however the game of small sided keep away that gave her a great touch. I would argue that touching the ball more than anyone in her childhood combined with natural flair, passion and aggression sees her able to deal with most any situation. If all else is equal meaning that all players bring passion and flair then surely “she who has the best touch will ultimately win”I would guess in Sky Blues case that “striker” has no ego issues and cares less what people think yet she clearly has no touch. Therefore the question of how this type of training serves her best must be examined.

Small sided keep away is by definition a game to be played by players with superior touch and passing ability. All other players will see the game breakdown on their possession or they will spend MUCH more time chasing. These players who “break up the game or spend much more time chasing are clearly not being served by this game therefore as they clearly need to be in a different place working on touch with many more touches of a ball than a game of keep away offers… in order to become good enough to avoid chasing or having the game break down on them.This does not mean that the player does not belong and that they cannot play for the team as they may bring other assets such as speed and toughness or passion, without touch however we must rely solely on this and a half decent defender with some speed will easily corral the touch-less attacker because of predictability.What is the solution… one training session clearly does not fit all. The time for the team to come together is when the “tactical” element or game plan for the weekend is put together and shared. Other time on the practice field should be considered almost on a case by case basis or small group by small group basis. This is particularly important for girls and women who deal with success and failure much differently than men, who tend to be able to shrug off failure and always think that they succeed anyway!

A tough question that also needs to be answered is whether or not it is too late for a player to undo the damage caused by neglect of technical ability and reliance on speed?

“ Stop whining, the answer is always in the dirt” (Ben Hogan in response to Nick Faldo whining about his swing) ALL athletes that train more with the “right” type of training will always get better as they have already overcome the major obstacles of “getting there” the question is always, does the coach know how to write the appropriate prescription for EVERYONE on the team not just those that long to play small sided keep away games.

What is the solution… one training session clearly does not fit all. The time for the team to come together is when the “tactical” element or game plan for the weekend is put together and shared. Other time on the practice field should be considered almost on a case by case basis or small group by small group basis. This is particularly important for girls and women who deal with success and failure much differently than men, who tend to be able to shrug off failure and always think that they succeed anyway!

A tough question that also needs to be answered is whether or not it is too late for a player to undo the damage caused by neglect of technical ability and reliance on speed?

“ Stop whining, the answer is always in the dirt” (Ben Hogan in response to Nick Faldo whining about his swing) ALL athletes that train more with the “right” type of training will always get better as they have already overcome the major obstacles of “getting there” the question is always, does the coach know how to write the appropriate prescription for EVERYONE on the team not just those that long to play small sided keep away games.

In our company we have our 70 coaches broken into three training groups 1, 2, 3. The new coaches almost always start in group 1 but get moved quickly if they prove otherwise. Based loosely on Anson’s doctrine this promotion and relegation issue does motivate and clearly works for my coaches. In pre-game warm ups we now see a relatively new approach with the “starting 11” training alone and the subs warming up in a different place. I don’t have a problem with this but once again at all levels pre-game should in theory be a “free training session” therefore a player must prepare for the game but each player should also have a personal prescription such as a number of touches or shots. The strikers do go off and take shots but the shots are all the same. The player hits the ball to the coach on top of the box who lays it off left and right and the player runs in un-opposed and hits the GK squarely in the chest!!! This scene is played out over thousands of fields in the US every weekend and baffles me as to its value or productiveness.

Suffice it to say that my teams do not do this as for the past 22 years I have seen 5 opportunities to execute the one on one with the GK from 18 yards unopposed with as much time as needed. Bottom line is that it does not replicate the real game. The real game is what we saw yesterday, half chances, headers, angled shots, shots under pressure, three players tackling as you slide in and the list goes on…

It is tough to replicate this as you don’t want injuries in the pre game but we also don’t need to spend 20 minutes stinging our goal keeper’s hands.
So what is the solution? Each player needs along with their fitness evaluation a “touch” evaluation and for strikers a “shot” evaluation. From this a very particular individual or small group session must be added to every practice session AND PRE-GAME warm up with extra work taken for players with the worst touch and poor finishing. We all hear the stories of how great players like Beckham stay behind after practice and take 20 more free kicks. This true and it is why he is able to deliver more often than not on the big stage.

I think the message is clear we will always be better at what we train at as long as it is the right prescription! I will continue my fight with my coaches as I question EVERY activity to see if it truly serves the purpose that it was meant to serve and if not I will rethink it!

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