Home General Let’s Play a Game! Coaching Using Small Sided Games!

Let’s Play a Game! Coaching Using Small Sided Games!

by Coach Kurtis

Not too long ago, I was coaching an under 8s side when the manager asked for my group of players to join the other under 8s side and play a big game to finish the session. There were 7 players in my group and about 13 in his group, he also encouraged other adults to join in.

As it was my first time coaching the side I allowed them to carry on with what they normally do, only mentioning that the players would benefit a lot more from having smaller numbers but he was still eager to go ahead with his first plan. He then mentioned that “the players probably won’t learn much from it but at least they are having fun”. As both teams prepare to play, an assistant throws the ball into the air to start the game. The young players battle to win the ball in very limited space, providing rare opportunities to use what they have learnt before. The rest of the game continues in this format with no coaching being implemented throughout.

Now I am all for the players to have fun and enjoy the game, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of their learning. If your session is well planned then the players should not only be engaged but also learning how to play the game properly. The game should be used as an evaluation of what was taught before, a chance for the coach to see if their teaching has been understood and transfers to the real game. Every time I see a game being used as ‘treat’ I feel it’s a wasted opportunity to really refine some of the earlier teaching points a coach has made.

       “Competitive games throughout the whole of the development period should be an Examination of practices completed or underway, not a mathematical exercise in the gathering or losing of points”

John Cartwright.

The Final Test!

A well structured training session will have a continuing theme throughout. It is important to have consistency in our football training sessions to give the players every opportunity to learn the skills/tactics we set out to do. Continually changing topics throughout, will not help the players learn what you want them to do and this will show when they play a real game.

In the early stages of a players development, the focus shouldn’t be on getting the ball up field by any means necessary. A coaches session should be catered to develop the important skills that players need to play the game effectively, and this includes the small sided game. This should be done progressively right up until the last part of the session to further embed the coaches idea’s.

The real test for the players is when they play against opposition in a game situation. For the coach to really see if the players have taken on board everything, they need to be  challenged to perform with reduced time and space which the game will do. The best coach I had ever worked with always told me “great players can play in tight areas” and he wasn’t wrong. It is important that right up until the game, the selected skill/tactic should be worked on and be at the forefront of the coaches mind.

Conditioning The Game!

There can also be a situation which occurs often at grassroots level, which is over coaching the players. What I mean by this is when a coach decides to dictate what the players do throughout the last game. Often you hear coaches instruct their players to ‘pass the ball’ at any given moment of the game, mostly when it’s not necessary to do so.

I personally take a different approach, I don’t expect to see immediate results in the last phase of the session and I don’t try to force my idea’s on the players. Instead I try to stimulate the players by creating environment’s which will bring out the learning goal for the session. This can be done in a number of way’s and largely depends on the goal of the session. For example, if the main goal of the session was switching play, to bring out the aims you could include two safe areas along the side lines to encourage the players to use the wings. The rest of the rules stay the same, keeping the game as realistic as possible but still achieving the aims of session.

Prepare to make changes!

All your sessions should be built around solving problems within realistic situations. What you will find is that sometimes the task you started with isn’t working with the group of players you have at your disposal. Don’t be afraid to make changes to the game, sometimes all it requires is simple adjustments such as reducing or increasing the space or adding extra players to one side to create a numerical advantage. Just small changes like this can dramatically change the outcome of the session and will be the difference between achieving your aims or not.

Once you are able to create the problem you need to make sure the players are confronted by it a lot. These are the occasions we have to look for, because if our players are not confronting the problem often enough then the session will become pointless. These ‘moments’ are the opportunities coaches look for, to see if their players are capable of solving them. It is true when they say people learn best from their mistakes, because when a player is faced with a problem they have to find the answer to solve it and we are there to help guide them to that answer.

Step in, Step Out, Play!

The idea behind conditioning a game is to show the players a football problem that they have to solve. When using this method of teaching, the coach will have to look for those special ‘moments’ of when  they need to stop play and coach. This shouldn’t be you stepping in and giving the players a solution, if we want the players to become good decision makers they need to see the answer themselves.

I feel the best coaches, come to life when they see these special football ‘moments’. It is not an easy skill to develop for a coach, many coaches find it difficult to coach players in real football situations. Reasons for this could be, the session doesn’t allow enough opportunities for the players to solve problems or the coach prefers to use a ‘command’ style of coaching which can stifle creativity.

To effectively use this method, the coach must guide the players to the solution by stepping in when the players are confronted by the problem and asking questions. Once the player has come to the solution, play should resume from the same situation where the problem first occurred. The coach should try to let the game play for a while before stepping in again, to give the players the opportunity to take in the earlier coaching point and show evidence they understood what you showed them. Gradually drip feed your coaching points only stepping in, when the players are confronted by the football problem you created. Try to make your coaching points in sequence so the players can clearly understand what you want from them.


Being able to coach in the game, is a powerful tool for the trainer. The coach must learn to spot the important football ‘moments’ that rapidly increase the learning process.  The best coaches never waste an opportunity to asses what players have learnt in the session and there is no better environment then the real game to do this.

The last game shouldn’t be used as a form  of ‘treat’ for the players. If the session is well planned, then the players will be engaged throughout and there will be no need to feel like you have to please them at the end. The last phase of the session is like an exam for the players, and your chance to see who can come up with answers to the questions you present.

Let’s Play the Game Ltd is a provider of excellent 1 to 1 and team football coaching in Birmingham, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell. For those who would like to try our services don’t hesitate to contact us. Don’t forget to subscribe below to never miss any of our posts. You can also like our Facebook page or subscribe to our You Tube channel for more football coaching tips.

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Dave Smith September 12, 2016 - 5:05 pm

I don’t entirely agree, Sometimes players gain more from just playing the game together especially after a structured session. Junior football can be too structured now a days and players having time to just play and laugh is the best thing for them. This gives social interaction and helps a teams moral …. Let’s not forget The jumpers for goalposts initiative. #letthem play

Kurtis Pottinger September 15, 2016 - 6:19 am

Hi Dave thanks for your message.

I’m all for the kids playing the game, I like them to play as much as possible but you still can teach whilst they playing the game. I believe this is one of the most important moments to coach as we always say ‘the game is the best teacher’ but if no one is there to show how they can do things differently in certain situations how can they improve. Free play can teach the players a lot, but if you let game and the COACH be the teacher you get better results.


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