To date, only 1 study has explored the influence of the game duration on physiological responses in soccer SSG (21). In this study, Fanchini et al. (21) investigated the effect of SSG duration with 2-, 4-, and 6-minute interval format, on exercise intensity (i.e., HR and [La−]) and technical actions during 3 vs. 3 SSG. There was a significant increase in HR responses (expressed in percentage HRmax) between the 2- and 4-minute game durations (82.4 vs. 85.9%, respectively) and a decrease between the 4- and 6-minute game durations (85.9 vs. 85.6%, respectively). However, no significant differences were found in RPE responses between the 3 different bouts (2, 4, and 6 minutes: 6.7 vs. 6.8 vs. 6.8, respectively). Moreover, no effect of duration was found in any of the technical actions (i.e., passes, dribbles, tackles, and shots). The authors concluded that the 4-minute bouts seem to provide the optimal physical training stimulus during the interval SSG training format.
In conclusion, to date, only 1 study has examined the effect of SSG duration on physiological responses in soccer players. Therefore, we are unable to provide firm practical recommendations on the optimum duration of SSG for training adaptations. Further studies investigating the effect of different SSG durations on physiological responses and technical and tactical skills in different team sports are warranted. In this context, it would be worthy to conduct longitudinal studies to not only determine the technical and physiological responses to SSG but also the long-term effects of different SSG training protocols of differing bout durations. From a practical perspective, 4-minute durations seem to provide higher exercise intensities during SSG interval during. Therefore, we would recommend that coaches use the 4 × 4-minute format during SSG.
Energy Expenditure and Enjoyment
Despite their importance during aerobic training, to the best of the authors' knowledge, there is only 1 study that has explored the energy expenditure and enjoyment during SSG in overweight boys (58). In this study, the authors examined whether energy expenditure and enjoyment during SSG training on a badminton court (6.1 × 13.4 m) were comparable to larger court dimensions (volleyball and basketball courts: 9 × 18 m and 14.2 × 26.5 m, respectively). In this study, 12 overweight boys played 30-minute 3-a-side SSG on each court in a counterbalanced design. During SSG, energy expenditure was estimated through accelerometry, HR, and RPE. Energy expenditure was similar between badminton and volleyball courts, but lower than the energy expenditure obtained during a basketball court. Mean percentage of HRmax was significantly lower on the badminton court than the volleyball and the basketball courts. However, there was no effect of court size on RPE or enjoyment. These results suggest that it may be preferable to play SSG on a larger court when space is available. However, the selection of this variable during SSG training depends on the official court area of the practiced sports. Alternatively, when space is limited, the difference in energy expenditure between court sizes is equivalent to an additional 2–3 minutes of play on a badminton court.
Player maturation is another important factor that has been neglected by most studies in SSG and seems to have an influence on physiological responses during games. Indeed, Da Silva et al. (13) examined the influence of players' maturation on exercise intensity and involvements with the ball. Sixteen male soccer players completed 2 bouts of 3 vs. 3 (SSG3), 4 vs. 4 (SSG4), and 5 vs. 5 (SSG5) SSG training. Intensity was measured using HR and expressed as a percentage of HRmax, and the maturation stage was determined using the Tanner stage scale. Intensity in SSG3 (89.8 ± 2.0% HRmax) was higher than that in SSG5 (86.9 ± 3.0% HRmax), and there were no differences between SSG3 and SSG4 or SSG4 and SSG5. Moreover, no effects of number of players were found in involvements with the ball, passes, target passes, tackles, and headers. Significantly more crosses, dribbling, and shots on goal were observed during SSG3 compared with SSG4 or SSG5. However, the authors showed that the level of maturation was not associated with either exercise intensity or involvements with the ball. These results extend previous findings with adult players (32,45,50) suggesting that SSGs can provide an adequate training stimulus for young players and are feasible for groups with heterogeneous maturation levels. Therefore, coaches could use SSG training effectively with different age groups and categories.
Wrestling in Rugby
In collision sports such as rugby league and rugby union, players are required to perform multiple tackles per game, with static lifting, scrums, and mauls placing considerable demands on players (24). Consequently, the physiological demands of the rugby codes are significantly increased through the large amounts of tackling, wrestling, grappling, and physical collisions that occur during match play (23). One method of simulating the most demanding passages of play during a rugby match is to intermittently integrate wrestling periods throughout the SSG. Gabbett et al. (24) investigated the influence of wrestling on the physiological demands of SSG in rugby league. In this study, 28 elite rugby league players completed 2 training sessions performed 5 days apart. Two SSGs, with or without intermittent wrestling, were played in each session. The players were divided into 4 teams of 7 players. On day 1, 2 teams played 2 × 8-minute SSG with a recovery period of 90 seconds, whereas the remaining 2 teams played the SSG with intermittent wrestling. The wrestling periods employed grappling, pushing, and pulling tasks that were similar in nature to the demands of rugby. At random periods throughout the game, the players were required to wrestle a partner for approximately 5 seconds. A total of 8 wrestling periods were performed throughout each 8-minute game, for a total of 16 wrestling periods. On day 2, the groups were crossed over. The results of this study demonstrated that the games without wrestling resulted in a greater total distance covered (2,475 ± 31 vs. 1,964 ± 27 m) and greater distance covered in low (930 ± 19 vs. 842 ± 19 m), moderate (1,120 ± 28 vs. 752 ± 26 m), high (332 ± 16 vs. 240 ± 12 m), and very high (24 ± 4 vs. 15 ± 3 m) speeds. Conversely, the games with wrestling resulted in a significantly greater distance covered in mild, moderate, and maximal accelerations and a greater number of repeated high-intensity effort bouts (2.1 ± 0.2 vs. 0.2 ± 0.1 bouts). No significant differences were detected between games with and without wrestling for the total number of skill involvements, including receives, passes, effective passes, ineffective passes, and disposal efficiency. From a practical perspective, these results suggest that intermittent wrestling may be a useful supplement to rugby SSG to concurrently train repeated-effort ability and skills under game-specific fatigue. Therefore, coaches should incorporate intermittent wrestling during rugby SSG training to replicate the repeated high-intensity effort demands of match play.
Battlezone in Cricket
Vickery et al. (59) were the first to explore SSG in cricket. The authors have investigated the movement demands and physiological responses of cricket SSG termed: Battlezone. Thirteen amateur male cricket players completed 2 sessions of a generic cricket SSG (Battlezone) consisting of 6 × 8 minutes separated by 5 minutes of passive rest. Heart rate and movement demands were continuously recorded, whereas [La−] and RPE were recorded after each respective bout. The results showed that batsmen covered the greatest distance (1,147 ± 175 m) and demonstrated the greatest mean movement speed (63 ± 9 m·min−1) during each bout. The majority of time (i.e., 65–86%) was spent with a HR ranging between 51 and 85% of HRmax, [La−] ranging between 1.1 and 2.0 mmol·L−1, and an RPE ranging between 4.2 and 6.0. Movement demands and physiological responses did not differ between standardized sessions within respective playing positions. These results suggest that the physiological responses and movement characteristics of cricket SSG are consistent between sessions within respective playing positions.
Types of Comparisons in Small-Sided Games
Several studies have compared the intensity of SSG with that experienced during competitive match play in soccer (19). This comparison was performed with different team formation methods (43), SSG and friendly matches (FM) (10), amateur vs. professional players (16), and between movement patterns in matches of different playing standards (25). The findings of these studies can also be used to determine if the most intense periods of matches are comparable to the intensity of SSG exercises. Dellal et al. (19) compared the effects of common rule changes on technical and physical demands for elite soccer players in 5 playing positions during various 4-minute SSG in comparison to 11-a-side match. Compared with match play, total distance covered per minute of play and high-intensity running activities (i.e., sprinting and high-intensity runs) were significantly higher during SSG than during the football match for all playing positions. Indeed, the authors showed that %HRmax, [La−], and RPE were higher in SSG compared with match play (i.e., 87.6 vs. 83.2%, 4.8 vs. 3.0 mmol·L−1, and 8.0 vs. 7.4 for %HRmax, [La−], and RPE, respectively). Also, a greater number of duels and lost balls, and a lower percentage of successful passes and total number of ball possessions were found during the different SSGs for all playing positions in comparison to match play.
For comparison between team formations methods, Köklü et al. (43) examined the influence of different team formations on the physiological responses of 4 vs. 4 SSG (SSG4) in young soccer players. SSG4 team formations were created according to 4 different methods: according to the coaches' subjective evaluation, technical scores,
multiplied by technical scores. The 4 teams played 4 × 4 minutes with 2 minutes of passive rest at 2-day intervals. The authors showed that %HRmax, [La−], and RPE responses during SSG4 were significantly higher for teams chosen according to
multiplied by technical scores compared with coaches' subjective evaluation and technical scores. In addition, teams chosen by
multiplied by technical scores spent significantly more time in a high-intensity zone (i.e., above 90% HRmax) and covered a greater distance in the high-intensity running zone (i.e., above 18 km·h−1) than teams formed according to technical scores. In conclusion, to spend more time in the high-intensity HR and running zones, the teams in SSG4 should be formed according to the players'
or the values calculated using both the
and technical scores.
Casamichana et al. (10) compared the physical demands of FM and SSG. Twenty-seven semiprofessional soccer players were monitored during 7 FM and 9 sessions involving different SSGs. The authors showed significant differences between SSG and FM for the following variables: (a) overall workload (SSG > FM), (b) the distribution of the distance covered in the speed zones 7.0–12.9 km·h−1 (SSG > FM) and >21 km·h−1 (FM > SSG), and (c) the distribution of time spent in certain speed zones (FM > SSG: 0.0–6.9 and >21 km·h−1; FM > SSG: 7.0–12.9 km·h−1). The results show that coaches and strength and conditioning professionals should consider FM during their training routine to foster specific adaptations in the domain of high-intensity effort.
For the comparison between amateur and professional soccer players during various SSG exercises (i.e., 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3, and 4 vs. 4), Dellal et al. (16) found that, in 2 vs. 2 SSG, both RPE and [La−] were higher in amateurs with respect to professionals (i.e., 8.5 vs. 7.9 and 4.6 vs. 3.6 mmol·L−1, respectively). However, HR responses were similar (91.8 vs. 90.2%, respectively) between amateurs and professionals. Moreover, the authors found that physiological responses for amateurs during 4 vs. 4 SSG were similar to those recorded for 3 vs. 3 SSGs. More specifically, there was no significant difference in the HR response between amateur and professional players during 4 vs. 4 SSG (i.e., 86.4 vs. 86.0% of HRmax, respectively). Across all SSGs, amateurs completed a lower proportion of successful passes and lost a greater number of possessions compared with the professional players. These results demonstrate that playing level influences the physiological responses obtained during SSG. Consequently, this study has shown that the main differences between elite and amateur players within SSG concern the capacity of players to perform high-intensity actions (e.g., high-intensity running and sprints, etc.).
Gabbett and Mulvey (25) compared the movement patterns of SSG (3 vs. 3 and 5 vs. 5) vs. domestic matches against male youth teams, national-league matches, and international standard competition in elite women soccer players. The authors found that the overall exercise to rest ratios were similar among SSG (1:13), domestic competition against male youth teams (1:15), national-league matches (1:16), and international competition (1:12). Greater total distance was covered during the international matches 9,968 ± 1,143 than in SSG (4.48 ± 1,304 m), competition against male youth teams (9,324 ± 804 m), and national-league matches (9,706 ± 484 m). Although few repeated-sprint bouts were performed in the lower levels of SSG and match play, repeated-sprint bouts occurred commonly in international competition (4.8 ± 2.8 bouts). The results show that SSG may simulate the overall movement patterns of women's soccer competition but offer an insufficient training stimulus to simulate the high-intensity repeated-sprint demands of international competition.
Studies Comparing Small-Sided Games Training with Interval Training
Although there has been an increase in the use of sport-specific conditioning approaches for team sports, several researchers have questioned its effectiveness when compared with traditional methods of conditioning (8,12,20,33,51). The results of these studies are summarized in Table 7.
Reilly and White (51) compared the intensity of SSG and aerobic interval training. They trained 18 professional soccer players (i.e., divided into 2 groups of 9 players) twice per week over 6 weeks during sport-specific conditioning involving SSG of 5 vs. 5 over 6 × 4 minutes interspersed with 3 minutes of active recovery (i.e., jogging at 50–60% of HRmax). In aerobic interval training, the subjects performed 6 × 4-minute periods of running at 85–90% of HRmax interspersed with 3 minutes of active recovery (i.e., jogging at 50–60% of HRmax). After the training intervention,
increased by only 0.2% for the SSG group and by 0.3% for the aerobic interval group with no statistical significant differences within or between groups.
Chamari et al. (12) investigated the effect of 8 weeks of training (twice per week) involving 15 young male soccer players on physiological responses to SSG. Once per week, players performed 4 × 4-minute bouts on the Hoff track at 90–95% HRmax, separated by 3-minute active recovery at 60–70% of HRmax. During the second session on the following day, players participated in 4 vs. 4 SSG on a 20-m square pitch at the same intensity as session 1. The 3-minute active recovery involved 2 players passing and juggling with the ball. This training regime resulted in an increase in
of 7.5% and a decrease in running economy of 14% while running at 7 km·h−1. Submaximal HR also decreased by 9 b·min−1. Sassi et al. (55) compared the responses of repetitive interval running with SSG (i.e., 4 vs. 4 and 8 vs. 8) training in top European league soccer players. Repetitive running consisted of 4 × 1,000 m runs, separated by 150 seconds of recovery. The authors concluded that SSG with the ball provided physiological training stimuli comparable with interval training without the ball. This was supported by the higher intensity observed, expressed as HR, during SSG (178 ± 7 b·min−1) than repetitive running (167 ± 4 b·min−1).
In addition to the observed increases in aerobic fitness, Impellizzeri et al. (33) found substantial changes in several measures of match performance albeit derived from 1 (i.e., posttraining) match analysis, for both training groups (i.e., interval training and SSG training). Perhaps, most relevant to soccer performance was the 22.8 and 25.5% increases in the time spent performing high-intensity activities for the interval and SSG training groups, respectively (Table 7).
Recently, Dellal et al. (20) compared the effects of soccer SSG vs. high-intensity intermittent training (HIT) on the performance in a continuous aerobic test (Vameval) and in an intermittent test with changes of direction (30-15 intermittent fitness test [30-15 IFT]). Twenty-two amateur soccer players were divided into 3 groups (HIT [n = 8], SSG [n = 8], and a control group [CG; n = 6]). The SSG group performed 2 forms of training 2 vs. 2 and 1 vs. 1 on 2 different pitch areas (20 × 20 and 15 × 10 m, respectively), whereas the HIT group performed 3 types of intermittent runs with passive recovery (30 s–30 s, 15 s–15 s, and 10 s–10 s). Both groups conducted 9 sessions of training for 6 weeks. High-intensity intermittent training and SSG groups showed significantly improved Vameval (5.1 and 6.6%, respectively) and 30-15 IFT (5.1 and 5.8%, respectively) performances, whereas no changes were observed for the CG. Also, there were no differences between the 3 groups in the HRmax, HRrest, and RPE before and after training. These results demonstrate that both SSG and HIT training were equally effective in developing the aerobic capacity and the ability to perform intermittent exercises with change of direction in male amateur soccer players.
In handball, Buccheit et al. (8) investigated the effect of HIT vs. specific game–based handball training (HBT). The HIT consisted of 12–24 × 15-second runs at 95% of the speed reached at the end of the 30-15 IFT interspersed with 15-second passive recovery. The HBT consisted of SSG handball performed over a similar time period. The results showed a small difference between the HIT and the HBT groups in
(50.1 vs. 53.3 ml·min−1·kg−1, respectively) and in HR (178.6 ± 7.8 vs. 175.4 ± 8.7 b·min−1, respectively). The authors concluded that both HIT and HBT were effective training modes for adolescent handball players.
It seems that sport-specific or traditional aerobic conditioning approaches are comparable in terms of developing aerobic fitness and match performance in soccer. As expected, the magnitude of response in most instances is dependent on the intensity, frequency, and duration of training as well as the total duration of the training program and the initial fitness level of the athletes involved. Small-sided games seem slightly more physically strenuous than traditional training approaches as demonstrated by the elevated HR responses (26) that may potentially evoke greater improvements in cardiovascular function and subsequently aerobic fitness adaptations. These higher responses can be attributed to the additional physical demands imposed upon players during SSG and possibly the motivation and enthusiasm of players (52).
Few studies have investigated the effects of SSG training on injury rates in team sports (23,24,39). It is worthy to note that SSG seem to have numerous advantages with respect to running interval training; nevertheless, as SSGs are performed with a lot of player contacts, it is a possibility that contact injuries could be one of the disadvantages of such a form of training. This warrants further investigation. Moreover, from a practical application viewpoint, we suggest that SSGs are an effective form of training to develop aerobic fitness and to prepare players for real situations that occur during match play. Small-sided games can be used to ensure motivation and enthusiasm of players; however, coaches should be aware of the different variables that may influence playing intensity.
Small-sided games are widely used by coaches to develop technical and tactical skills as well as to improve the endurance of team sport players. Several studies have systematically investigated the effects of SSG while manipulating different variables or game rules such as pitch size, the number of players, or the combination of these variables in team sports. Some studies have also included variables such as coach encouragement, rule modifications, and different work regimes. The studies confirm that by altering these factors, it is possible to manipulate the overall physiological and perceptual workload placed on players.
Research has focused on evaluating physiological, tactical, and technical responses of athletes when these factors were modified in SSG. Further studies are required to improve the understanding of the interaction between the technical, tactical, and physical demands of SSG, and how these can be better manipulated to improve the training process for team sport players.
In addition, because of the lack of consistency in SSG design, players' fitness, age, ability, level of coach encouragement, and playing rules among the studies, it is difficult to make firm conclusions on the influence of each of these factors separately. Because of these limitations, SSG management requires further investigations. The use of standardized conditions in SSG studies will allow a better understanding of the role of each factor and may help researchers to develop more reliable recommendations.
This review provides information that can help coaches and strength conditioning professionals. As the intensity of training varies according to the season phase and aims, SSG training sessions should be used with different formats (i.e., by manipulating the player numbers, the pitch size, etc.) at different phases of the season. Coaches can alter the number of players to vary the exercise intensity during SSG. Indeed, higher exercise intensity is reached with lower player numbers and with larger pitch areas. Also, coach encouragement is effective for increasing exercise intensity. Therefore, continuous coach encouragement is needed during SSG training session to provide some feedback to the players and to attain the required intensity. Concerning goalkeepers, some contradictions are observed on SSG intensity in the presence or absence of these players and the results are currently inconclusive. However, when coaches use large pitch areas with large goals, the presence of goalkeepers could motivate the players to play with higher intensities. Using different bout durations seems to have minimal effect on exercise intensity. Concerning the duration, the utilization of 4 × 4-minute SSGs seems to offer the most effective format. Moreover, manipulating some rules such as increasing the number of ball touches or introducing man marking can increase the intensity of SSG.
In summary, further studies should explore other factors such as decision making and cognitive load of players during different SSG formats. A careful examination of the influence of goalkeepers on SSG intensity and the effect of different SSG durations on physiological responses and technical and tactical actions is warranted. Moreover, further studies exploring the effect of continuous SSG vs. interval SSG training on physiological responses and technical and tactical skills in different team sports may allow for firm recommendations to be made on the design and implementation of SSG.
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Keywords:Copyright © 2014 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.
SSG; physiological responses; variables; exercise