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How Small-Sided and Conditioned Games Enhance Acquisition of Movement and Decision-Making Skills

Keith Davids, Duarte Araújo, Vanda Correia, and Luis Vilar

The Big Idea 

For this research reviewer, who is also an ex-youth soccer coach, occasionally there are uncomfortable moments arising from summarizing research papers for our PDP coaches and readers.  This is one of those moments.  You see, this paper essentially points out to modern youth football coaches the crucial differences between coaching the practice and coaching the game.

We confess to this:  Our personal coaching history is testimony to the weaknesses of traditional coaching practices.  They were something to see, these practices were.  Stations galore.  Colorful cones.  Instructions to the team hurled by the dozens.  Imaginative drills.  Drills to get better at other drills.  Passing in straight lines.  Passing in circles.  Shooting stationary balls on an empty goal.  Dribbling around stationary objects, including from time-to-time parent volunteers.  And walk-through play-strategies without even a ball.

If we ever had had the chance to compete for the best organized and delivered practices, our team would have been tough to beat.  As it was, however, we learned the hard way that coaching the practice has little to do with coaching the game—in soccer or any other invasion game.

The body of work of Keith Davids and Duarte Araújo (with others) is the primary foundation for this review paper.  Consider their article a summary itself of mostly their research from an ecological dynamics perspective on improved ways to design training environments to learn skills and decision-making abilities in team sports, especially in football.  Near as we can tell, the major message in the article is that our habits—whether of coaching or playing—can result in either our downfall or our success.

Takeaways 

  • Most traditional coaching practices emphasize physiological fitness measures, perceptual skills, and technical or tactical actions.
  • These programs often rely on practicing drills frequently isolated from the actual context of the competitive performance itself.
  • The more modern and research-supported approach to designing training programs for competitive team sports is to use organism-centered methods of design since competitive team sports are essentially self-organizing systems.
  • This means for a variety of reasons in designing training, it is best to use simulations of the actual competitive context where the active role of the performance environment shapes the movement behavior and decision-making.
  • This is the case because the actual performance environment is resistant to learning-by-static drills given how unpredictable, dynamic, unstable, and chaotic team sports are.
  • Research shows that simulating the competitive environment can be accomplished using small-sided and conditioned games (SSCG).
  • These games have the virtue of focusing on sub-phases of the game itself, can include actual skill learning and decision-making, will employ the entire team in separate simulations, and has unlimited ability to include constraints and affordances essential to competitive play.

The Research

Traditional training methods revisited

The starting point of this literature review paper is to revisit traditional training methods.  What traditional training methods do not consider is the nature of the competitive environment itself as a dynamic process of stability-instability flow, and its largely unpredictable yet continuous interpersonal and task constraint information exchanges and affordances-there-for-the-picking.

Traditional team sport training methods usually start with the bias that the training goal is to improve the individual players’ conditioning, psychological motivation, and technical/tactical skills.  As mentioned above, traditional training practices include primary tasks that while aimed at performance improvement, usually do not include opponents, or if opponents, they offer only passive opposition.  The overarching approach in traditional coaching is to reduce uncertainty by coaching the practice.    

For the early learning years, these researches admit that learning to control the ball in soccer is the first step in controlling the ball in traffic.  Repetition of discrete movements is also helpful.  Such drills can improve speed, power, and performance of specific technics by increasing the sheer number of shots on goal, passes to teammates, dribbling sequences, and interceptions/tackles.

However, if such drills become the mainstay of training, if such drills are restricted to improving the physiology or isolated actions from performance (also called “closed” environments), the isolation and restrictions may not transfer to functional performance behaviors where interpersonal interactions live (“open” environments).

The actual team game components are just that, competing teams: unpredictable, dynamic, interpersonal, inherently unstable, and just plain messy.  Coaching the game is inherently more complicated and chaotic but ultimately far more productive in the long run.

A rationale for ecological dynamics in team game preparation

The model supported by the research reviewed here is based on the theory that individual players and sports teams themselves are complex social systems.  As such, unpredictability becomes the norm; the participants and the context continuously interact, that is, the dynamic system is self-organizing.

What follows is a summary of the many research studies supporting this information-based approach to coaching team sports.

  • Team practices ought to reinforce the essential nature of competitive team sports as unstable, dynamic, and unpredictable.
  • Research supports re-creating simulations of the game, including sub-phases.
  • Manipulations in practices should include, for example modifications of the width and length of the field, and the use of games where objectives and rules are modified.
  • These manipulations are the contexts of what are called small-sided and conditioned games (SSCG).
  • SSCGs facilitate players gaining experience in exploiting the natural self-organizing tendencies and developing skill in coupling actions and decisions in the face of ever-changing information constraints in actual competition.
  • Key interacting constraints are to be simulated but without providing specific prescriptions or even detailed feedback from teacher or coach on how to respond to the calamity of the game contexts.
  • Thus, there is a change in mind-set as performers perceive the on-going environment as opportunities to act, that is, as affordances.
  • It is these kinds of possibilities that need simulation with training tasks, such as the distance to a teammate/opponent, goal, or target area, and the location of the ball relative to teammates or opponents.
  • For any affordance design it is important to be faithful to the context of the game since there are substantiated differences in movement actions when players are forced to rely on drills.
  • The spatial-temporal interactions between attacker and defender in a dyadic (1v1) system are key constraints insofar as ball trajectory, goal location, and angles to goal target areas are concerned.
  • In these dyads research shows there are differences in spacing between attacker and defender depending on field location, as well as maintaining or disrupting system stability as players adjust their positions.
  • Players learn when and how to maintain or eliminate dyadic system stability by way of SSCG.
  • When teammates are attuned to information and affordances there can be shared cognitions to help create interpersonal cooperation from the perspective of the team goals.
  • Coadaptation is possible when small groups of attackers or defenders in a sub-phase work together to achieve a performance goal.

Overall practice applications

It was the pitch of this research summary paper to improve coaching results for actual game play on the pitch.  The upshot of using the model of dynamical systems in coaching the game is that dynamical systems is the functional model of the games themselves.

If practices are designed using SSCGs, the players-as-learners experience functionally relevant information and facts for continuously exploring different performance solutions as performance environments change.  Such exploratory learning through simulations of competitive performance is sometimes called nonlinear pedagogy.  By way of it, players are challenged by the manipulations of task or rules to expect the unexpected.  These constraints can be related to:

  • Task objectives such as the challenge to maintain ball control or modifications in points scored other than shots on goal.
  • The nature of the playing surface, pitch size and shape.
  • Time of match or time to attain a sub-objective of the match.
  • Size and number of balls and goals.
  • Simulations of 3v3 or 3v1 on a small pitch—results in players receiving more opportunities and practice at dribbling, passing, shooting, more time to experiment with sub-phase stability/instability, more player chances to support teammates with the ball, intercepting the ball, and coordinating with teammates to deny space and prevent shooting opportunities by opponents.
  • Sub-phase simulations also give more players time with the ball even over full-sided team games because in full-sided scrimmages many subgroups on the field are inactive.
  • There is inherent value in establishing SSCG practices to increase the amount of time players experience the playfulness and joy of conditioned competition.
  • And finally, if it is true that traditionalists coaching the practice are rationalists, and those coaching the game are considered irrational, if imaginative, we offer up the following poem for the reader’s consideration: 

Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses —
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon —
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

–Wallace Stevens (1954)