Effects of small-sided games on physical conditioning and

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Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2009) 8, 374-380

  Research article

Effects of small-sided games on physical conditioning and performance in
young soccer players

Athanasios Katis and Eleftherios Kellis 
Laboratory of Neuromuscular Control and Therapeutic Exercise, Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences
of Serres, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

                                                                         Rampinini et al. (2007) underlined the importance of
Abstract                                                                 using different small-sided games by changing each time
The purpose of this study was to examine, first, the movement            the number of participants. From a practical point of
actions performed during two different small-sided games and,            view, games with a larger number of players seem to be
second, their effects on a series of field endurance and technical       used for tactical and technical improvement, whereas
tests. Thirty-four young soccer players (age: 13  0.9 yrs; body         games with a smaller number of players are mainly used
mass: 62.3  15.1 kg; height: 1.65  0.06 m) participated in the
study. Small-sided games included three-a-side (3 versus 3
                                                                         for endurance and physical conditioning improvement. In
players) and six-a-side (6 versus 6 players) games consisting of         order to support this hypothesis, an examination of the
10 bouts of 4 min duration with 3 min active recovery between            instant effects of games with a different number of play-
bouts. Soccer player performance was evaluated using five field          ers on endurance performance and on technical character-
tests: a) 30m sprint, b) throw-in for distance, c) Illinois Agility      istics is needed.
Test, d) dribbling the ball and e) horizontal jump before, in the                 Small-sided games are very popular not only in
middle and after the implementation of both game situations.             adult soccer players but also in young players and their
Heart rate was monitored during the entire testing session. Each         use begins from an early age. Due to the smaller pitch and
game was also filmed to measure soccer movements within the              the less number of participants during small-sided games,
game. The ANOVA analysis indicated that the three-a-side
games displayed significantly higher heart rate values compared
                                                                         each player comes into contact with the ball and deals
with the six-a-side games (p < 0.05). The number of short                with common game situations more often (Capranica et
passes, kicks, tackles, dribbles and scoring goals were signifi-         al., 2001). These situations require good technical skills
cantly higher during the three-a-side compared with the six-a-           such as passing, dribbling and kicking, as well as tactical
side game condition (p < 0.05) while players performed more              skills such as running without the ball, unmarking and
long passes and headed the ball more often during the six-a-side         cooperation with other players.
(p < 0.05). After the three-a-side games, there was a significant                 A variety of field tests and technical skills is com-
decline in sprint and agility performance (p < 0.05), while after        monly used to examine the endurance capacity and the
both game conditions significant alterations in the throw-in and         technical ability of a soccer player (Bangsbo and
the horizontal jump performance were observed (p < 0.05). The
results of the present study indicated that three-a-side games
                                                                         Lindquist, 1992; Rosch et al., 2000; Scott and Doherty,
provide higher stimulus for physical conditioning and technical          2004; Vesconi and McGuigan, 2007; Kelly and Drust,
improvement than six-a-side games and their use for training             2008). However, endurance and technique performance
young soccer players is recommended.                                     impairments are evident as the game progresses. This
                                                                         underlines the important role of fatigue for game per-
Key words: Soccer, small-sided games, field tests, technical             formance (Mohr et al., 2003; Kelly and Drust, 2008).
actions, intermittent exercise.                                                   Talent identification aims to increase the probabil-
                                                                         ity of selecting a future elite player at an early age (Franks
                                                                         et al., 2002). This process often involves the examination
                                                                         of performance of the young player in a series of field
Introduction                                                             tests as well as his/her behavior during game situations
                                                                         (Williams and Franks, 1998). Small-sided games may be
Soccer match analysis shows that players are in posses-                  useful tools for the identification of talented young play-
sion of the ball for only 2% of the game duration (Dufour,               ers. Although the effects of small-sided games on aerobic
1993). In the remaining part, players run without the ball,              fitness and physical match performance in adult players
based on the team tactical strategy. The success of team                 have been examined (Impellizzeri et al., 2006), similar
strategy depends on the players' ability to co-operate in a              data for younger players have not been reported. Only one
certain area of the pitch with their team-mates. Therefore,              study (Platt et al. 2001) examined the type and the fre-
soccer specific training exercises usually include game                  quency of various skills during small-sided games in
conditions played with less number of players in smaller                 young players. It was reported that when young players
field dimensions. These particular exercises are known as                participated in three-a-side games they had more opportu-
small-sided games (Rampinini et al., 2007).                              nities to perform skills such as dribbling, passing and
        Small-sided games are often used from adults as                  shooting compared with participation in five-a-side
part of their regular training programs in various forms,                games. This suggests that different small-sided game
depending on the aim and the philosophy of the coach.                    conditions may show different responses and, therefore,

Received: 18 February 2009 / Accepted: 20 May 2009 / Published (online): 01 September 2009
Katis and Kellis                                                                                                         375

they may be used for a different purpose as part of soccer      values observed during each small-sided game.
training. This is important for youth soccer, where the aim             The three-a-side and six-a-side games were con-
of training is not always to enhance team strategy but also     ducted with two goalkeepers and free touches. A neces-
to allow young players to enhance their technical skills        sary requirement for scoring goals was that all players
and to develop team cohesion. The aim of the present            should be in the opponent's half. Coach encouragement
study was to examine, first, the movement actions per-          using standardized instructions was allowed (Rampinini et
formed during two different small-sided games and, sec-         al., 2007). Water ingestion was allowed after the 5th and
ond, their effect on a series of field endurance and techni-    the 10th bout of the game protocol. During the entire test-
cal tests.                                                      ing session air temperature ranged from 23 to 26 oC and
                                                                humidity from 55 to 65%.
                                                                Video analysis
Participants                                                    Each game was also filmed using a camcorder (Sony
Thirty-four amateur young soccer players (age: 13  0.9         Handycam DCR-SR35E, SONY Corporation, China) to
yrs; body mass: 62.3  15.1 kg; height: 1.65  0.06 m)          evaluate the technical actions taking place during each
participated in the study. A minimum of five years of           game condition. Technical actions were categorized into
training experience, a training status of at least two train-   six discrete categories: short passing (distance less than
ing sessions plus a game per week and no history of in-         10 m), long passing (distance more than 10 m), dribbling,
jury in the last six months were the main criteria for par-     shooting, heading and tackling (Kelly and Drust, 2008).
ticipating in the study. Subject and parental informed          To determine pass length, external markers were located
written consent was received and the University Ethics          in various field positions and their location relative to the
Committee approved the protocol.                                camera was recorded. The pass length was then obtained
                                                                from the video footages, by scaling the distance of the
Study design                                                    pass relative to known distances (defined by the external
The subjects were randomly assigned to three groups.            markers). The number of goals scored during each game
Group 1 (n = 12) performed only the three-a-side game           was also calculated.
situation. Group 2 (n = 12) performed only the six-a-side
game situation while Group 3 (n = 10) served as controls.       Field tests
Testing of each group was performed on separate occa-           The field tests performed in the present study are fre-
sions. The number of technical actions during the game          quently applied to evaluate players' physical ability
was examined using video recordings. Field tests were           (Bangsbo and Lindquist, 1992; McGregor et al., 1999;
performed in a random order before (pre) the games, in          Rosch et al., 2000; Scott and Doherty, 2004; Vesconi and
the middle (after the 5th bout) and after (post) the games.     McGuigan, 2007). After a brief warm-up, the participants
The control group performed only the field tests without a      performed five field tests: 1) horizontal jump test, 2)
game intervention.                                              dribbling test, 3) throw-in test, 4) agility test and 5)
                                                                sprinting test. The tests were performed in random order
Three-a-side and six-a-side games                               for each subject on each testing occasion. All the tests
Two days before the main measurements, the participants         were performed outdoors, on a natural grass soccer pitch
were asked to refrain from any vigorous exercise. The           with players wearing soccer bouts. All the players were
protocols were performed during the mid-season, in an           accustomed to the field tests, as they were part of their
outdoor field with natural grass and at the same time of        regular training programme. Each player had several
the day in order to avoid circadian effects. The size of the    familiarization efforts and then performed three maximum
pitch was 15 m wide and 25 m in length for the three-a-         trials. The best performance on each field test was used
side game situation and 30 m wide and 40 m in length for        for further analysis.
the six-a-side game situation (Rampinini et al., 2007).                 1. Horizontal jump test: Each participant was in-
        Each game had an overall duration of 70 min and it      structed to perform a maximum horizontal jump (Scott
consisted of 10 bouts of 4 min duration with 3 min active       and Doherty, 2004). The participant started from a stand-
recovery between exercise bouts. The duration was se-           ing position placing both feet just behind the starting line.
lected in order to simulate a U-14 soccer game. The re-         After several preparatory standing movements, a horizon-
covery between the 5th and the 6th bout was 15 min. Heart       tal jump with free hand contribution was performed. The
rate (HR) values were recorded every 15-sec during the          distance from the starting line to the heel of the rear foot
entire testing session using sort-range radio telemetry         (to the nearest 0.5 cm) was recorded.
(Polar Sport tester, Polar Electro Oy, Kempele, Finland).               2. Dribbling test: The speed dribbling test was
The mean heart rate collected throughout the ten bouts of       used to assess the ability to dribble under time pressure
small-sided games was calculated to provide an indication       (McGregor et al., 1999). Six cones were placed in a line
of the intensity of the small-sided games.                      with 3 m distance between them. The participant was
        Two-weeks prior to testing, the maximum heart           instructed to dribble a match ball of standard size and
rate (HRmax) of each player was determined using the Yo-        standard inflation (Mitre Ultimatch, size 4, FIFA ap-
Yo endurance test (Rampinini et al., 2007). The Yo-Yo           proved), forward around the cones in slalom and then
test consisted of 20 m shuttle runs performed at continu-       return at the initial position. The objective was to com-
ously increased speeds until exhaustion. HRmax values           plete the test as fast as possible without knocking down
were used as reference values for the quantification of HR      the cones. If a cone was knocked down, the trial was
376                                                                                         Soccer games and field test performance

                   Figure 1. A schematic presentation of the Illinois Agility Test.

cancelled. The time from the start of the test until the         was conducted in order to examine the reliability of the
player returned to the initial position was recorded by two      field tests. The intraclass correlation coefficient was high
experienced coaches using a stopwatch. The mean value            (0.96 for the horizontal jump test, 0.88 for the dribbling
from the two coaches was used for further analysis.              test, 0.94 for the agility test, 0.85 for the throw-in test and
        3. Agility test: The Illinois test was used to evalu-    0.90 for the sprint test). The coefficient of variance was
ate agility (Vesconi and McGuigan, 2007). A schematic            6.11% for the sprint test, 4.15% for the agility test, 4.61%
presentation of the test is shown in Figure 1. Two lines         for the dribbling test, 9.10% for the horizontal jump test
were drawn on the pitch at a distance of 10 m from each          and 15.65% for the throw-in test.
other. The first line served as the starting and end-point               The reliability of the technical action measure-
line, while the other served as the touch line. The player       ments made using the recorded video tapes of each small
started off by lying down with the hands next to the              sided game was also examined (Kelly and Drust, 2008).
shoulders (start). After a verbal signal, the players got up     Particularly, each recorded game was re-analysed by the
and sprint until the touch line (point A). They then sprint      same investigator. Subsequently, the number of exact
back to the starting line (point B) and immediately per-         agreements between the test (first video analysis) and re-
formed a sprint around the cones. After sprinting around         test (second video analysis) were used to compute the
the cones they sprint back to the touch line (point C) and       kappa coefficient (Kelly and Drust, 2008). The results
finally returned to the finish line (finish). The subjects       showed a kappa coefficient of 0.85 which indicates a high
were instructed to run as fast as possible without falling       level of agreement between the two measurements.
and knocking down the cones. If a cone was knocked
down or the participant did not follow the prescribed path,      Statistical analysis
the trial was cancelled. Two stopwatches were activated          Differences between the three-a-side and the six-a-side
at the verbal signal and were stopped when the participant       games in passing, dribbling, heading, shooting, tackling
crossed the finish line. The average time of the two stop-       and goal scoring values were examined using independent
watches was used for further analysis.                           two-tailed Student's t-tests.
        4. Soccer throw-in test: The participant started                 A two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) with
from a standing position placing the feet just behind the        repeated measures was applied to examine the differences
starting line holding a ball in the hands. The subjects          in HR values between the ten bouts of each game proto-
throw the ball as far as possible without jumping or mov-        col.
ing their feet (Rosch et al., 2000). If a player jumped,                 A two-way mixed-model ANOVA design (Time x
moved his feet or threw the ball with an inappropriate           Group) was applied to examine the differences in each
way the trial was cancelled. The throwing distance was           field test score between the three groups of subjects
further analysed.                                                (three-a-side group, six-a-side group, controls) performed
        5. Sprint test: The participant performed three          before, in the middle and after each small sided game.
maximum 30 m sprints. Sprint times were recorded using           When required, comparisons of group means were per-
infrared photoelectric cells interfaced to a timing system       formed using a Tukey's post hoc test. The level of statis-
(Saint Wien Digital Timer Press H5K, Lu-Chou City,               tical significance was set at p < 0.05.
Taipei Hsien, Taiwan) with a time resolution of 0.01 s and
a measurement error of  0.01 s.                                 Results

Reliability                                                      Heart rate (HR) characteristics
Two weeks before the final measurements a pilot study            Heart rate (HR) values during the ten bouts of both
Katis and Kellis                                                                                                               377


                      60                                                                                           3vs3
                           REST      1        2        3         4   5       6      7      8       9     10

  Figure 2. Mean (  SD) percentage of maximum heart rate (HRmax) during the fatigue protocol for three-a-side and six-
  a-side game situation.

fatigue protocols are presented in Figure 2. The ANOVA                   1, p < 0.05). Post hoc analysis indicated significant dif-
results indicated a non-significant (Time x Group) inter-                ferences between the groups in the three time sessions (p
action effect. In contrast, a main effect for "Group" was                < 0.05). Particularly, compared to pre-game scores, sprint
observed (p < 0.05). Post hoc analysis indicated that that               scores increased significantly in the middle and after the
the group who played three-a-side games displayed higher                 implementation of the three-a-side and the six-a-side
HR values compared with those who played six-a-side                      game, but remain unaltered for the control group (p <
games (87.6  4.77% of HRmax versus 82.8%  3.22% of                     0.05).
HRmax, respectively) (p < 0.05).                                                There was a non significant interaction or main
                                                                         time or group effect on dribbling performance (Table 1, p
Field tests                                                              > 0.05).
The mean values of all tests are presented in Table 1. The
ANOVA results indicated a significant interaction effect                 Technique actions
(Time x Group) on agility performance (Table 1, p <                      The number of short passes, long passes, dribbles, head-
0.05). Post hoc analysis indicated significant differences               ers, tackles, kicks and goals scores for each game condi-
between the groups in the three time sessions ( < 0.05).                 tion are presented in Figure 3. The t-tests indicated that
Compared to pre-game test scores, agility decreased sig-                 the number of short passes, kicks, tackles, dribbles and
nificantly after the three-a-side and the six-a-side game                scoring goals was significantly higher during the three-a-
groups, but remain unaltered for the control group (p <                  side game compared with those observed during the six-a-
0.05).                                                                   side game (p < 0.05). The opposite was observed for the
       The ANOVA results indicated a non-significant in-                 number of long passes and headers (p < 0.05).
teraction effect (Time x Group) on jumping performance
(Table 1, p > 0.05). However, a main effect for "Time"                   Discussion
was observed (p < 0.05). Post hoc analysis showed that
for both groups post exercise values were significantly                  The main findings of this study were that both small-sided
lower than the pre-exercise values (p < 0.05).                           games resulted in a significant decline in throw-in and
       There was a non-significant interaction effect on                 horizontal jump performance. Sprint and agility perform-
throw-in performance (Table 1, p > 0.05). However, a                     ance were altered only after the three-a-side games.
main effect for "Time" was observed (p < 0.05). Post hoc                 Moreover, technique actions and scoring goals were game
analysis indicated that post-game scores were signifi-                   dependent.
cantly lower compared with pre-exercise and mid-
exercise values (p < 0.05).                                              Three-a-side versus six-a-side HR responses
       The ANOVA also indicated a significant interac-                   The exercise protocols used in the present study displayed
tion effect (Time x Group) on sprint performance (Table                  similar HR responses to those previously reported for

Table 1. Mean (  SD) field test scores between the three groups (three-a-side, six-a-side, controls) through the time (pre,
middle, post).
                               3-a-side                              6-a-side                             Controls
                    Pre       Middle        Post          Pre       Middle         Post         Pre       Middle        Post
Sprint (sec)     4.98 (.24) 5.17 (.28)* 5.40 (.33)* 5.13 (.45) 5.30 (.48)* 5.45 (.43)* 5.09 (.35) 5.12 (.43) 5.15 (.46)
Agility (sec)   17.64 (.90) 17.81 (.95) 18.21 (1.15)* 17.92 (1.53)18.00 (1.34) 18.19 (1.38)* 18.06 (.90) 18.13 (.86) 18.12 (.81)
Dribbling (sec) 13.35 (.65) 13.44 (.89) 13.82 (.94) 13.33 (.94) 13.20 (1.37) 13.47 (1.21) 13.24 (.57) 13.21 (.50) 13.24 (.50)
Throw-in (m) 12.0 (2.2) 11.4 (2.2)* 10.6 (2.2)* 12.1 (3.2) 12.1 (2.9) 11.9 (3.0)* 11.3 (1.4) 11.4 (1.5) 11.3 (1.5)
Jump (m)         1.92 (.13) 1.89 (.15) 1.86 (.10)* 1.85 (.26) 1.85 (.25) 1.82 (.27)* 1.78 (.06) 1.77 (.07) 1.78 (.07)
* Significantly different compared with pre values (p < 0.05).
378                                                                                      Soccer games and field test performance

  Figure 3. Mean (  SD) number of technical actions and scoring goals during the three-a-side and the six-a-side game
  situation (error bars indicate SD). * significantly different, p < 0.05.

soccer players during small-sided games (Rampinini et          of headers observed during the six-a-side game compared
al., 2007) for pre-pubescent players during eleven-a-side      with three-a-side ones (Figure 3). In contrast, a higher
games (Capranica et al. 2001). It has been suggested that      number of short passes was found during the three-a-side
HR values exceeding 170 beatsmin-1 represent high in-         games (Figure 3). This suggests that when the pitch di-
tensity work activities (Capranica et al., 2001). If this is   mension is small the players cooperate with their team-
the case, then our HR results suggest that the young play-     mates via short and quick passes, rather than headers.
ers participating in both small-sided games worked at                  The players performed more shots during the three-
high levels of intensity.                                      a-side compared with the six-a-side game condition (Fig-
        The three-a-side game displayed higher exercise        ure 3). This increases the opportunity for scoring a goal
intensity compared with the six-a-side game situation          and it can explain the higher number of goals scored dur-
(Figure 2) which is in agreement with Rampinini et al.         ing the three-a-side games (Figure 3). Kelly and Drust
(2007). Capranica et al. (2001) compared the physiologi-       (2008) found in adults that the smaller the pitch dimen-
cal responses of eleven-a-side versus seven-a-side small       sions, the more kicks are performed by adult players.
games and they suggested that the less number of players,      Similarly, Platt et al. (2001) observed more goal attempts
the more ball contacts from all players. This appears to       when small-sided games were performed with less num-
support the present results as players touched and dribbled    ber of players.
the ball more often during the three-a-side game com-                  The number of dribbles and tackles performed dur-
pared with the six-a-side game (Figure 3). Reilly and Ball     ing the three-a-side games was higher compared to those
(1984) reported an increase in rate of perceived exertion      performed during the six-a-side games (Figure 3). Similar
and blood lactate when dribbling a ball for several min-       results were reported by Platt et al. (2001) comparing
utes, probably due to the extra muscular activity required     three-a-side with five-a-side games. The smaller pitch
to control the ball and to propel it forward. Although         results in increased pressure from the opponents and this
continuous dribbling applied by Reilly and Ball (1984) is      situation requires from the players to dribble the ball more
not the same as the total number of dribbles and ball con-     often in order to avoid the opponent's pressure (Kelly and
tacts recorded in this study, the higher number of dribbles    Drust, 2008).
and ball contacts could have partly contributed to a higher
exercise intensity observed in three-a-side games com-         Three-a-side versus six-a-side game effects on field test
pared with six-a-side ones. In addition, since three-a-side    scores
games involve less number of players, it may also be           The present study showed that jumping scores declined
hypothesized that players have to work harder off the ball     similarly after both small-sided game conditions (Table
to create space which might result in a greater physiologi-    1). Horizontal jumping skill is characterised by a short
cal impact than that observed during six-a-side games.         and a quick production of force and power, especially by
                                                               the hip extensors. The reduction of jump scores following
Three-a-side versus six-a-side game differences in             our protocols agrees with previous findings which showed
movement actions                                               reduced performance and neuromuscular activity after a
The results of this study indicated that more long passes      soccer game on multi-articular movements such as the
were performed during the six-a-side games as opposed to       horizontal jump (Mohr et al., 2004).
the three-a-side condition (Figure 3). Similar results were           The throw-in test scores also declined in the middle
reported when comparing three-a-side versus five-a-side        and after both small-sided game conditions (Table 1).
soccer games in players aged under 12 (Platt et al., 2001).    Better throw-in performance is achieved by increasing
This could be attributed to the greater pitch dimensions       release speed and optimum release angle (Linthorne and
during the six-a-side game which allows players to per-        Everett, 2006). This skill requires explosiveness rather
form longer passes. In turn, longer passes often require       than endurance. Therefore, the exact reason for our obser-
from the players to receive and pass the ball to each other    vation is not clear. It could be hypothesised that the high
by performing a header. This explains the higher number        level of intensity observed during both game conditions
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