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Optimizing the Use of Soccer Drills for Physiological Development

Little, Thomas PhD

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: June 2009 - Volume 31 - Issue 3 - p 67-74
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181a5910d
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Physiological development plays a crucial role in defining a soccer player's potential match performance and has been shown to correlate with playing standard (3,36) and performance (3). In particular, training programs aimed at improving aerobic capacities have been shown to enhance aspects of soccer performance, such as the time spent at high exercise intensities and the involvements in play (14).

The physical nature of certain soccer drills used in training suggests that they may be suited to improving a player's endurance capacities. Such soccer drills contain many of the elements of soccer match play, such as passing, dribbling skills, and scoring, but typically involve reduced player numbers and/or modified rules. The use of soccer drills for physiological development has recently gained increasing popularity, with support from scientific literature (13,15,28) and empirical evidence from successful teams (32). It has been demonstrated that several soccer drills have the potential to elicit intensities suitable for developing soccer endurance at elite and recreational levels (20) and in both sexes (21). Furthermore, training programs involving soccer drills have been shown to be equally effective in improving physiological factors important to soccer performance as generic aerobic training (15,28). The voluntary nature of movement during soccer drills meant that there was concern that some players may train at inappropriate exercise intensities for conditioning. However, recent results (18,19,25) suggest that soccer drills can produce sufficiently similar exercise intensities across different players and repetitions (reps) to warrant their application for physical training.

Beyond the obvious advantage of increasing training efficiency with combined technical and physiological training, utilization of soccer drills has several advantages over more generic conditioning methods, such as running without a ball. Motivation of the players is improved when soccer and competition are involved (4). Also, more similar movement types and patterns in soccer drills may also lead to a greater transfer to match specific fitness. Enhanced movement efficiency is particularly a key for unorthodox forms of locomotion, such as side and backward movements, which are frequently performed in soccer drills (26). Furthermore, the metabolic consequences of intermittent exercise, as used in soccer drills and competition, have been shown to be different from continuous exercise at the same average intensity (9).

Despite these significant benefits, generic physical training is still prevalent at all levels of the sport. This may be in part due to the greater difficulty in controlling training load and the increased organization demands when using soccer drills compared with generic physical sessions. Table 1 summarizes the benefits and disadvantages of using soccer drills and generic conditioning methods. The present article aims to review research concerning conditioning with soccer drills and provides practical guidance on how to optimize such sessions.

Table 1
Table 1:
Advantages and disadvantages associated with physical training using soccer drills and generic running


During physical training, it is paramount that training load, consisting of training intensity and duration, is appropriate for the intended physiological and performance adaptations. Control over training intensity is achieved during generic conditioning by specifying distance and/or duration parameters of the exercise. The voluntary nature of movement in soccer drills means that the control over intensity is potentially less precise. However, evidence suggests that a coach can attempt to control the intensity of soccer drills by selecting specific drills and by manipulating parameters of the soccer drill (19,25). Factors that can influence the intensity of soccer drills include the type of drill, player numbers, player motivation, pitch size, and rule alterations.

The type of soccer drill is often modified by adjusting the number of players within a team. The literature presents a consistent trend between playing intensity and number of players during small-sided games, with lower playing numbers resulting in higher exercise intensities (18,19,25). Video analysis has shown that reducing player numbers results in more continual involvement in play, and relatively more time is spent performing higher intensity activities, such as sprinting (11,12,23). In accordance, 8-a-side to 5-a-side drills (6,18,19,25,28,30) have often been reported to result in intensities appropriate for lactate threshold development (∼85-90% HRmax; 11), whereas 4-a-side and 3-a-side games may produce intensities appropriate for Vo2max development (90-95% HRmax; 11). Blood lactate and perceived exertion responses indicate that 2v2 drills (1,18,19,27) are suited to anaerobic training. All these training formats are considered critical in developing soccer endurance (3,14). Discussion of optimal endurance training methods for soccer performance is beyond the scope of this article but has been extensively reviewed in previous literature (4,14,31). Table 2 shows the recommended training loads and soccer drills that have been reported to produce suitable intensities for the aforementioned endurance training methods.

Table 2
Table 2:
Methodology for the main forms of endurance training for soccer and appropriate soccer drills

Possession games, without goalkeepers, have been shown to increase drill intensity (30). This may be due to fewer breaks in play and the lack of positional movement restrictions. Therefore, possession drills may allow coaches to train higher threshold adaptations with relatively larger team sizes. In addition, rule changes, such as restricting the number of consecutive touches (4,29), man-to-man marking (1,29), and using support players, have been reported to cause an increase in intensity (1).

It may be that larger pitches produce greater intensities (3,22,25), presumably because players cover greater distances and play is more open on the larger pitches. Table 3 shows the pitch sizes used by Rampinini et al. (25) for various small-sided games when examining the effects of pitch size.

Table 3
Table 3:
Pitch sizes considered small, medium, and large for various soccer drills, reported by Rampinini et al. (25) and Owen et al. (22)

Authors (29,30) have reported, and empirically it is often seen, that coach encouragement increases training intensity. Indeed, Rampinini et al. (25) reported that coach encouragement was the dominant variable on playing intensity, when examining the effects of varying pitch size, player numbers, and coach encouragement. Therefore, coaches should aim to maximize motivational techniques when high training intensities are required. Factors that can be used to enhance motivation include a coaching staff providing encouragement, using a competitive playing structure, and providing feedback to the players about intensity (8).

A factor that can influence soccer drill intensity that cannot be controlled by the coach is the standard of the players. Players of low technical ability may not be able to produce high training intensities during soccer drills because play is often disrupted and does not flow across the pitch quickly. Despite this concern, relative intensities have been reported to be similar between amateur and professional players during the same soccer drills (2,20,25,28). Table 4 shows intensities of soccer drills reported in the literature with details of the aforementioned factors that can influence intensity.

Table 4
Table 4:
Soccer drill parameters and intensities reported in the literature
Table 4
Table 4:
Table 4
Table 4:


The practicalities of organizing a soccer drill session are much more daunting than that of a generic physical session. With generic conditioning, the main practicalities concern producing the appropriate training load. However, soccer drills have an additional number of factors to consider, which are often dictated by training circumstances.

Total player numbers dictate what type of soccer drills can be used because the team sizes used must be a dividable number of the total number of players. For example, 16 players would require 8-a-side, 4-a-side, or 2-a-side teams. Player numbers and team size also affect how many teams are formed. If more than 2 teams are formed, multiple drills have to be set up where teams play simultaneously on different pitches. In addition, the number of goalkeepers and goalposts influences what type of drills can be used. Possession drills without goalkeepers can be used in scenarios where there are insufficient goalkeepers/goalposts for the number of pitches needed. Once the drills that suit the training circumstances have been identified, the coach must select those that have the potential to produce the desired work intensities. The coach must then select appropriate drill parameters, such as pitch size and rules, to produce the desired intensity.

The number of teams and different drills can affect how many reps are performed, if a competitive structure is to be used. A competitive structure involves all teams playing each other an equal number of times. Such a structure can aid motivation levels by increasing competition and placing increased significance on the results. For example, if there are 4 teams, the number of reps would be multiples of 3. However, if different types of drills are used, a competitive structure would require that all teams play each other an equal amount of times and that each team plays the same amount of the different soccer drills. For example, if there were 4 teams with 2 playing 3-a-side and the other 2 teams playing a possession game, multiples of 6 reps should be administered so that each team plays all the opposition teams on both drills. The effect of a competitive structure on repetition numbers often requires that repetition durations are manipulated from what are typically used to produce the appropriate training load. When conditioning, training load must always remain the priority, and therefore, a competitive structure should not be used if it interferes too much with the appropriate repetition duration.

Soccer drills allow simultaneous physical and technical development. Therefore, when possible, the soccer drills used should contain the tactics/technical elements desired by the coach. Normal small-sided games are generally desirable because they closely replicate the demand of match play. Possession drills are often used if the coach wants to emphasize pressurizing opponents or maintaining possession of the ball. Figure 1 illustrates the decision process a coach must use to produce the correct training parameters when using soccer drills for conditioning.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Thought flow in producing the correct training parameters for the desired physiological goal when using soccer drills. Rep = Repetition.


Recent evidence has supported the potential of using soccer drills to train physical capacities of soccer players and thus provide simultaneous skill and fitness training. Using soccer drills for conditioning has key advantages when compared with generic physical training, such as enhanced motivation and greater transfer to match specific fitness. However, their utilization can present a challenge in producing optimal work intensities and in determining appropriate training structures. Information within this article should aid coaches in choosing and organizing soccer drills and training structures for physiological development.


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                fitness training; conditioning games; soccer; training specificity

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