We might be veering into the skills coaches territory here (they may get a bit antsy here but………. I believe we all should reside anyway, at least at club and sub-elite level) but all field and court sports are played from one end to the other. We defend the left hand side goal and attack the right hand side goal. After 30/35/40/45 minutes we switch over and go opposite ways. Seems simple right?
Then why is so much “conditioning games”, “games based approach” and “small sided games” played in 20x20/30x30/40x40 squares?
Bare with me while I explain.
Games played in squares are usually based around retaining possession. They can be very good for specific conditioning for some elements of the game and good to enhance tackling and other skills in whatever way you want to manipulate them. And I use these games. They are more than useful. They are particularly useful for deliberate practice and repeating certain skills and task sunder a repetition without repetition setting. But these skills need to be expanded out and transferred to more realistic scenarios as well. However what I have seen a lot of is an approach of “Conditioned Games” + MAS Running and hey presto we’re ready. And that might make you a very competitive team, it is unlikely to differentiate you from the other better sides.
Here is a very good simple small sided game that is about possession and using the extra man.
However if the only conditioned games you use are these then all you are doing is getting your players fit for the game in a 20x20/30x30 or whatever size area. Games like soccer have overlapping full backs, Gaelic football has players regularly running 80-120 meter to join in attacks. Then having to shoot. Having to recycle ball. Turn around on turnover. And so on.
Tackling is another area where we can over do the “squares “. Squares can be good for front on tackling and possession under pressure. But they rarely deal with near handed tackling in Gaelic Football for instance or trying to slow a player down who has been near top speed for 30 Meters. Near hand tackling is the most butchered skill in Gaelic Football and I have observed that in combination with poor conditioning literally costing teams championships. End to end scenarios and overloading attackers on defenders can work on many of these skills both technically and with a conditioning element in real game time. All sports have similar issues in athletes using the wrong side of the body. It can be trained.
Specific games where a teams attack, defend and transition the length of the field are critical to both conditioning, developing patterns of play and skill acquisition. The end zone game is a useful game for fitness and training transition and turnover awareness and strategy.
End zone games we use regularly for Gaelic Football, Hurling, Camogie and Hockey is a good example of this. Like the diagram below there is a pitch with an end zone. The
objective is to carry ball into end zone or pass to a team mate in zone. Then after securing possession and the score the player and team turn and attack the opposite end zone.
They hold onto ball for as long as possible and score as many end zones as possible.
A game like this is great for working on awareness on turnovers. It Gaelic Games it promotes off the shoulder running.
To advance it you could put a time limit on reaching each zone and failure to do so in say 6 seconds means a turnover.
Further advancement would be to use the playing area both ways. Play long and play wide. So effectively there would be endzones on all 4 sides. The coach just calls “wide game” or “long game”. What this forces is players to defend in different ways, defending wide game is much harder and will force a different type of defending both in the tackle but also in working as a unit and communication will be critical. The turn around a will be faster. This is quite advanced and players should probably be relatively fresh starting this game. Do it too late in a session and quality will drop. Huge amount of thinking involved.
So a coach can call out;
End zone tag
Another very close relation of above with the variation of facing different players on different plays and those players having a certain amount of freshness.
This is a good version with large numbers
The Tag game is gamification - it gets the players moving and thinking in patterns that will enhance mindset, movement and conditioning relative to the sport. We see a huge amount of these types of games out there and again they have value. However there is another level.
Kick Out Chaos
Here is a more game specific game I created recently for a Gaelic Football team. The purpose was to create multiple game like questions for players to answers from kickouts and chaos around quick kickouts, the press (or not to press). This game will be on the move and communication and decision making will be on the fly, not set up in a very strategic way. A strategy from kickouts is not a bad thing, but all models are flawed and as Mike Tyson beautifully put it “everyone has a plan until they get a smack in the mouth”. While we can not prepare specifically if that smack in the mouth comes from an uppercut (harassing your goal keeper), a jab (ball punched 30 metres back in on the break) or is preceded by some feint (letting your poorest ball player have it for 20 metres). But this happening continually and end to end (suggested 21 to 21 here) forces the players to think on their feet, communicate, turn around, play wide from a short ball, run through the middle from a marked kickout and all the modern fundamentals of Gaelic Football. We know turnovers are critical, we know kickouts are critical and we know the game is played end to end. So we design accordingly.
But here is the real kicker
Too many small sided games could well be the reason we have not seen too much of a change in injuries and a rise in Movement issues, ACL’s and Hip impingements.
John Goodwin of Fulham FC Youth Academy has even gone as far as saying on the Pacey Performance Podcast that SSG’s are making kids “move horribly” and that the over emphasis on them means they have to biomechanically re-train them and advised to balance SSG’s with running mechanics. Running mechanics for me is technical work (A Skips, Boom-Booms, drop steps etc) allied to straight line running, curved running, COD (change of direction) running, sprinting, sprinting from various constraints and using LSGs as well.
This is where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The vast majority of coaches are doing it as a hobby. They do not have the time or contacts or research available people like us have. So i believe it is very important to improve and broaden the knowledge out there so coaches do not just follow the next fad as what we are starting to see with SSGs is overuse injuries due to more changes of direction, more instances of high sheer force and cutting angles. Very often the amounts of these movements actually outweigh the reality of the the same volume of these movements in the game itself. So despite thinking we are better preparing our people for the games we are over preparing them and putting them at risk to serious chronic injuries which can affect them greatly in later life and affect quality of life and even mortality. Generally a “train everything all the time” approach works best in my experience. This can be slower as a development model for a team, but the long term results both collectively and physically will be higher and more sustainable. This does not mean soft or easy training, it just means balanced training. At various times of the year you will load some portions more heavily.
Building the brain is a part of conditioning for sport. The better a decision maker an athlete becomes the less wastes of energy there will be. The less wastes of energy there is the fitter you are. Long Sided Games bring us closer to being more intelligent players.