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Spacing in small-sided games for entry-level players

This past weekend was my last game session with the local club’s recreational academy. In this format, we have 1-hour slots for each age group based on grade levels. Teams are assembled in a “street soccer” method – players show up in one of two colored jerseys (green or black). The coaches determine teams based on an understanding of relative ability with the intent of creating evenly competitive teams. If there is a mismatch in a game, coaches are instructed to swap players at a break to even things out.

With the younger ages (1st grade and below), we size the games to 3v3 or 4v4 and use small Bownet goals. We generally have one adult coach per field and use a “new ball” format for restarts. We do not line the fields (paint or cones) in order to limit the amount of time restarting the games – the fields are far enough apart physically that the games rarely overlap. If the ball (or group of players) gets too far away from the goals, the coach will put a new ball into play. The format is typically 4×10 or so minutes, but may be shorter depending on the stamina of the players and the weather conditions.

One of the common issues is arranging the field sizes – how long and wide should the fields be for a particular age group? And, once the game has started, how would we decide whether the field size is appropriate or needs to be changed?

US Soccer provides a general guideline for U8: 25-35 yds long and 15-25 yds wide. And, this is fine as a general guideline. But, what makes a “good” game? And, does this change during the 1-hour slot?

The objective in the game sessions is to provide the players with problems to solve that are age and developmentally appropriate. Recognizing that at the U8 age players are typically focused mostly on their relationship with the ball – and beginning to develop relationships with teammates – the field sizing should encourage interactions that promote the individual technical and tactical skills that will allow advancement in the game. Renshaw, Davids, Newcombe, and Roberts (2019) referred to this as affordances. Given objectives for the session, the constraints provided by the environment (in this case, the field size) should provide the opportunity to develop the desired attributes.

To restate the question that motivates this train of thought: “how do I know if the field size is providing the desired affordances?”

I believe that there is a path in which the details of the players’s movements, interventions and successes with the ball, actions off the ball, and internal workload could be used as input to a data analysis process.

I think, however, that this path is a dead-end. Data analysis fails to take into account the level of joy that the players have in their involvement in the game. If the field is too large, the more athletic and fit players can dominate. Other players lose heart and the game becomes one-sided runs to goal.

If the field is too small, the game becomes one of “pack soccer” – there are lessons-to-learned about the use of ball manipulation to avoid sitting in a pack but the game can quickly devolve to mindless kicking.

Somewhere in the middle is a place where stronger and weaker players have an opportunity to take part with challenges and opportunities for success. The “new ball” format allows coaches to dicate restarts – positioning of the ball on the field relative to the players and, with some selection, the player mostly likely to get the initial touches on the ball. The coach may choose to restart the game in a location more distant from the players in order to increase workload or create defensive recovery decisions, or may restart close to the players in an effort to continue an attack which may have been lost due to an error or mindless defensive clearance.

Rather than a formulaic process, I think that field sizing in the younger age groups becomes part of a larger “smell test” – is the game providing the expected affordances to players of various abilities? Adjusting the makeup of the players (swapping between teams) can be one solution, resizing the field can be another.

As coaches working with younger age groups, I think we need to be flexible in our approach to the structure of the game. I’ve become a fan over the last several years of maximizing the quality time spent in field sessions (game or practice) with younger players by trying to avoid the pitfalls of rigidly dictating the environment. Players in these age groups have limited attention spans. Providing new challenges through adjustments – particularly when an activity is stale – creates new learning opportunities for our players.


Renshaw, I., Davids, K., Newcombe, D., & Roberts, W. (2019). The Constraints-Led Approach: Principles for Sports Coaching and Practice Design. Routledge.