Why 99% of Soccer Coaching Sessions Suck…

You’ll see it in almost every grassroots coaching session.

Many coaches discuss every topic, every week, by using it.

But it sucks!

I’m talking about the ‘scrimmage’ or the all-in large scale match that opens or ends the vast majority of soccer coaching sessions at all levels of grassroots football. I used it mindlessly in the past and I guarantee that you can picture coaches from your league who rely on nothing else. But what function does it serve in a soccer coaching session?

Too many players, or too few.

If the purpose of a large-scale match is to create a game-realistic practice, then an all-in scrimmage fails on every account. Unless your session has 22 players involved, the dynamic of the game will inevitably be different to that of a matchday. In most cases the practice game has 7, 8 or 9-a-side and therefore the defenders, midfielders and attackers are all playing with less teammates and against less opponents in their area of the pitch.

If, instead, the purpose is to coach elements of positional play then it fails again. Jobs are replicated all over the pitch leaving players in positions where they cannot impact on the game. This negatively affects tactical understanding and motivation.

Worse still, under the pretense of match-practice, players are required to stay in allocated positions which limit their understanding of key concepts of the game. For example, in a large game the central attackers don’t need to learn about cover positions (so won’t) and right full-backs can play for hours without their left foot approaching the ball. These deficiencies persist even though we would all recognise how a centre forward or a right back would benefit (especially in their own position) from developing these skills.

Developing Creative Play

But the biggest problem with an all-in match is that the sole focus is the final scoreline. This creates a disconnect as developing soccer players cannot effectively analyse how their actions lead to the outcome they are focusing on. What is needed instead is a more direct relationship between a tactic and an outcome.

Small-sided games offer this simpler picture – our players’ task is to solve the single problem in front of them as effectively as possible – allowing players to develop ‘insight’ into which actions have which likely consequences. Insight is a concept famously espoused by Johan Cruijff. It describes a tactical understanding of the game, an appreciation of movement and space, and the opportunities that it presents.

In ;’Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’, a (highly recommended) analysis of the great Ajax and Holland sides of the 1960s and 1970s, David Winner writes,

“Opponents were not seen as foes to be fought and beaten;
rather as posing a problem which had to be solved.”
– David Winner

In small-sided games the same picture is repeated again and again in quick succession. This creates the perfect environment for experimentation, for testing new skills and for developing imaginative creative play – the hallmark of Cruijff’s much-admired teams (and of their spiritual successors Barcelona and Arsenal).

Each picture in a small-sided game reflects a ‘moment’ that will appear in a full-size match. The final score of a match is ultimately the sum of the outcomes of these moments. If your team wins the majority of the 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 battles during a game, the result will look after itself.

The major advantage of small-sided games, therefore, is in teaching our players effective strategies to ‘win’ more of the individual moments.

Technique and Touches

There are far more well-reported benefits to training with small-sided games:

Having so many touches rapidly develops strong technique and players grow quickly in confidence. In a match this presents as players asking for the ball, taking on opponents and losing possession less often.

The rapid interchange of positions forces players to incorporate new skills and to develop understanding of both attacking and defending principles. This creates well-rounded footballers who are comfortable dropping back to cover an advancing teammate or overlapping from defence to create goal-scoring chances. Further, our players will improve their attacking play by learning where defenders want to be, and perform their defensive duties better by appreciating where goals are most likely to be scored.

Small-sided games can be scaffolded so that players move from 1v1 upwards, adding more challenges and more decisions at each stage until the transition to a match is natural.

Using Scrimmages Effectively

There is one purpose that a scrimmage is ideal for; having fun. Let your players pick teams, then give them a ball and let them go at it.

But when it comes to soccer coaching – switch to small sided games.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below:

7 thoughts on “Why 99% of Soccer Coaching Sessions Suck…

  1. [...] the discussion of small-sided games and how they develop better footballers, I thought I’d post this video interview with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in which he [...]

  2. The small-sided games approach is also useful for coaches to work out their players' levels of fitness, as the youngsters are having to run and play at a constant pace – there's no scope for hiding and sloping off to the sidelines.

  3. I agree with you there David!I don't know about you, but one of the most common objections coaches raise is that they feel the need to put dedicated fitness exercises into their training sessions. In fact, simply by playing the game for extended periods of time players will develop their stamina, strength, suppleness, speed etc in a very soccer-specific way.

  4. Every week I coach my boys in a match related small-sided game with a goalkeeper to improve some situations, that often arise during a match. These situation vary from 1v1, 2v1 (att.), 3v2 (att.), 4v4, 6v4 (att.). All these situations have a greater purpose for me. I focus on both defending and attacking, but only one of them from time to time.Here the attacking team starts with the ball from the mid-line and plays in direction of the goal. The defending team (defenders + goalkeeper) defends the 11-goal.You can play scrimmage with 7v7, 8v8 or 9v9, but then I have discovered that setting some rules make it look more match related. These rules are concepts from our chosen style of play.

  5. There is place for 3v3, 5v5 and full field scrimmages.We tend to offer the full scrimmage as reward to the kids who INSIST on it.If its done at the end of the practice session, its usually 15mins, we let one of the players referee (we insist that all our kids have experience to see how hard it is and to learn the game) and we stay out of it….its THEIR time to have fun.Waaaaaaay too many coaches totally forget that part AND that's why most practices suck.We also use full field scrimmages sometimes to teach position play and situations. Midfielders position seem to be left out in the minigames setup. You cant teach spacing, collapsing on the ball handler, supporting or releasing a fullback with mini-games.I know youre talking about the old 'give them a ball and theyll learn as they play' mentality but small sided games are not better, they are DIFFERENT. Cutting out full scale scrimmages would be wrong.

  6. I completely agree with you. I think the point of the article really is to say ‘think about the reasons you are doing things’. If you’re philosophy is simply about letting kids enjoy themselves and play as much as possible then scrimmages are perfect.

    You’re also right to say there’s a role for scrimmages at the end of sessions and for occasional variety.

    I think SSGs *are* better for development – that is to say for improving technique and tactical understanding – but there does also need to be a realistic game at the end of the practice for players to test their skills in.

    Also love your line about it being “THEIR time”! I have tried to separate the ideas of ‘coaching’ and ‘playing’ in the article but you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head.

  7. I completely agree with you. I think the point of the article really is to say ‘think about the reasons you are doing things’. If you’re philosophy is simply about letting kids enjoy themselves and play as much as possible then scrimmages are perfect.

    You’re also right to say there’s a role for scrimmages at the end of sessions and for occasional variety.

    I think SSGs *are* better for development – that is to say for improving technique and tactical understanding – but there does also need to be a realistic game at the end of the practice for players to test their skills in.

    Also love your line about it being “THEIR time”! I have tried to separate the ideas of ‘coaching’ and ‘playing’ in the article but you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head.

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