Moran, R. Blagrove, B. Drury, J. Fernandes, K Paxton, H. Chaabene, R. Ramirez-Campillo

The Big Idea

Every day the lonely man reads the matrimonial advertising pages, hoping to meet the girl of his dreams.  Not much luck until one day this ad appeared: “If you dream of the girl for you/Then call us and get two for the price of one/We’re the answer if you feel blue/So call us and get two for the price of one.”  The reader might recall these partial lyrics from the ABBA song, “Two for the Price of One” (from 1981 album The Visitors).

The big idea of this research paper is reminiscent of the lyrics of that song.  The suggestion in this paper is whether small-sided games can within themselves represent a marriage of conventional endurance training and technical skill development.  In other words, can we get two essential components of the sport of soccer for the price of one if we use small-sided games in our practice protocols?  (This paper was published in Sports Medicine (2019) 49:731-742).


  • Small-sided games are an effective way to develop the endurance of male youth soccer players.
  • Small-sided games can be used to achieve the same performance improvements as conventional endurance training.
  • Small-sided games mimic the intermittent activity profiles of matches, as well as requiring the players to perform relevant soccer skills while fatigued.
  • Using small-sided games in soccer could maximize skill development at an early age, helping maintain motivation in younger players, and simultaneously address the physiological demands of the sport.
  • Small-sided games should comprise two sessions per week, with four or more sets of four minutes of activity, with three minutes of recovery between sets.
  • For a refresher on small-sided football games, see the Masterclass Discussion by Dave Wright and Dan Wright

The Research

In the sport of soccer, players, coaches, and spectators alike know that the sport depends on, among other things, good legs/feet and lungs.  This research paper focuses on how to best prepare youth soccer players for both technical skills (legs/feet) and improved aerobic capacity (the lungs).

Since about 90% of a soccer player’s energy cost depends on aerobic capacity, their primary focus is looking into endurance performance.  Even narrower, they are looking at the effects of conventional endurance training (CET) compared to small-sided games (SSGs) on performance-oriented outcomes in soccer.

Instead of doing their own research study, they methodically culled through the existing research literature for answers to their basic suspicion.  Their hunch was that playing small-sided games in practices (soccer played with fewer than 11 players and on a smaller pitch) may simultaneously tackle both technical skill development and endurance development.  Let’s see how these authors approach the growing popularity of this idea.


Sometimes when there is a glut of research studies over time on a subject, it makes good sense to assess what the individual studies collectively mean.  We ask ourselves: What do these studies tell us? This technique is called meta-analysis.  It means that the bundles of research papers themselves can be a subject of a research study itself

Using several research data sites, these researchers identified certain key words.  Then they searched for these terms in relationships, such as: ‘youth’ AND ‘training’ AND ‘small-sided games’ AND ‘soccer’ OR ‘football’ OR ‘skill’ OR ‘endurance’. These searches resulted in 1,079 research studies.

The next step for sorting relevant studies was to use eligibility criteria for the meta-analysis. The criteria were: SSGs programs of 4 weeks or more; mean ages of males between 8 and 18 years; outcome measures of endurance performance; and a comparison group engaged in CET.  After these criteria were applied and the studies sorted there were seven distinct studies satisfying the criteria remaining from the original 1,079 for meta-analysis.  Next, the characteristics of the study participants were analyzed.  Finally, the research team analyzed the characteristics of the training programs.

Results discussion

The primary finding of this study is that SSGs can be used instead of CET, or in addition to reduced CET, to develop endurance performance in male youth soccer players. The upshot of these findings is that coaches might get two-for-one with SSGs: “It means that male youth soccer players can develop endurance qualities and technical skills concurrently, thus representing a time-efficient approach to training.”

What follows are the implications of this study:

  • CET is relatively one dimensional when compared to SSGs’.
  • A disadvantage of CET is the need to block additional time for that aerobic training.
  • The added time needed for CET could contribute excessive physical stress, even burn out or injury in youngsters.
  • Other research studies demonstrate that CET is not particularly pleasant, either.
  • SSGs can provide a multi-dimensional approach to addressing the diverse demands of soccer play.
  • SSGs can mimic the intermittent activity profiles of matches, as well as requiring players to perform relevant soccer skills while fatigued
  • But there is also the possibility that using SSGs could increase the likelihood of contact-based injuries.
  • CET can help soccer players return from injury by way of a concentrated volume of non-contact training time.
  • SSGs seem to provide physiological benefits with less perceived effort.
  • Yet SSGs do give players opportunity for voluntary rest periods (sneaking an unannounced time-out) that could compromise performance endurance.
  • Regarding frequency and duration, it was found that SSGs training programs need to be greater than eight weeks, and should include four or more sets per session, four minutes per set, and three minutes recovery between sets.


This meta-analysis of research studies comparing SSGs with CET on performance endurance suggests that SSGs can be used instead of or with modified CET for endurance development in male youth soccer players.

There is also good reason to believe that CET may not even be necessary when SSGs are appropriately used.

The most significant advantage of using SSGs is the quality of simultaneously targeting technical skill development and performance endurance in male youth soccer players. In other words, athlete engagement (focus) can be increased while reducing overall practice workloads as a result of enhanced training efficiency.

Addendum: ABBA

For readers not familiar with ABBA or with the full lyrics of their song, “Two for the Price of One,” here’s how the adventure of the lonely bloke turned out.

He called the number and said “I read your ad, it sounded rather thrilling/I think a meeting could be mutually fulfilling/Why don’t we meet for a chat.

To which She said: “I’m sure we must be perfect for each other/And if you doubt it, you’ll be certain when you meet my mother.”

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