How to Train “High Intensity” Through Small-Sided Games

Vince Massara

We’ve all seen fitness activities, whether it be preseason or during the season, that involve a lot of running.

Don’t get me wrong, fitness is essential – if your team isn’t fit, you’ll struggle to win games. But you don’t always have the time for full running sessions.

This article looks at how you can incorporate high-intensity fitness training into small-sided games with the ball.

Benefits of Small-Sided Games for Soccer Fitness

I’ve coached teams with two or three hours of training a week, sometimes even less. You probably have too.

Dedicating 30 minutes or more to fitness training is not how you want to use your valuable time on the pitch.

And let’s be honest here – we want the ball to be used as much as possible at our sessions. This is especially true if we’re dealing with limited time.

Here are some benefits of using small-sided games to train for high-intensity fitness.

  • We get to use the ball: Meaningful touches create better players. Simple when you think about it.
  • Small-sided games help train the game model: Using small-sided games – or suitable small-sided games – allows you also to coach parts of your game model.
  • Player engagement: It’s no surprise that almost every player you ever coach would rather play a small-sided game as opposed to running sprints. There is an important correlation between small-sided games, high motivation and commitment in footballers.
  • The right kind of fitness: Have you seen someone physically fit struggle when they get onto the pitch? Being fit for straight-line running is not the same as being soccer fit. Small-sided games encourage fitness that’s echoed in actual games.
  • They’ve been proven efficient: Now we have GPS data, and we have been able to see that with the right SSG, players’ heart rates get just as high and have a similar physical load to standard sprints.

How to Design the Best Small-Sided Games for Physical Training

Not all small-sided games are created equal when it comes to making sure you’re training player fitness. However, many coaches will just slap on an SSG and say they’re training at a high intensity.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Here are a few things to consider.

The Pitch Size and Number of Players Used

Obviously, you need to know how many players your game will use, and how big you want the size of the game area to be.

The dimensions of the field can vary according to the rules you use for the exercise, for example, a game with goalkeepers will have a larger field than a pure ball possession game. Similarly, games where you want to encourage 1v1s in a game with 5v5 (for example), might need to be larger. Using fewer players on a large pitch will encourage players to exploit space.

Here’s a guide that I use to measure the size of SSGs (in metres, but yards is close enough).

Small 4×128×1612×2016×2420×2824×3228×3632×40
Medium 5×1510×2015×2520×3025×3530×4035×4540×50

By ensuring the pitch is the right size, you can achieve your desired goals for the session.

Rest Ratios

You want to keep players active.

To seek high intensity, you should organize an SSG with a total duration between 2′ and 6′. The recovery time must respect the ratio of 1:3 or 1:4.

In fact, SSGs with a small number of players (1vs1; 2vs2; 3vs3 and 4vs4) allow you to reach a
peak heart rate equal to 90% of HRmax – so makes sure players are resting.

More rest encourages higher intensity. Run an intense two-minute drill for six minutes and watch the intensity drop.

Plan for Flexibility

Like any session – there’ll always be players that pop up out of nowhere. You want to create games that you can quickly change with the changing numbers.

Basically, it’s important to be aware of the pitch size and number of players – but make sure you’ve got a plan A, B, and C.

Have Equipment Handy

When you’re planning high-intensity games, you need to everything to be fast. That means that you need to have extra balls laying around. Can’t have a two-minute game at high intensity when you spend half of it chasing balls around.

Make Sure You Measure Success

These days there’s plenty of ways to measure physical data for players.

If you’re lucky enough to be at a club that measures with GPS data, you can use that. If you’re coaching a playing group that own smart watches, then you can get data from that too.

However, if you don’t have any fancy tools, doing something is better than nothing. You can even have a quick two-minute Google form attached to a QR code that players complete after training. It can be something as simple as a 1-10 scale of how physically demanding they found the session.

Ideas for Intense Small-Sided Games

Below are a couple small sided games you can use for high-intensity training.

SSG 2 v 2 and 1 v 1

Before you start, this activity needs:

  • Extra balls to keep the game moving fast
  • All coaches to encourage and push players
  • This game is all about short and sharp efforts, so make it count

The activity should be played in spaces of 12 x 24 meters and 6 x 18 meters. It is considered a short high intensity SSG.

The drill takes place in two parts. In the first part, two pairs of players compete in 2 vs 2 duels in the central field.

The players aim to score by driving the ball into the end-zone at the end of the play area, where another member of their team is stationed.

Every time a player invades the goal, he must change “place” with the teammate at the end zone. This is played quickly, with quick rotations.

The second part of the drill uses the areas on the sides of the central playing space with mini goals as seen in the image. There’s a player waiting in the side-pitch.

After two goals are scored, or when the coach blows his whistle, one player from each team goes to the small adjacent area and establishes a 1 vs 1 with the opponent stationed there.

Players play a 1v1 in the small area until there’s either a goal – or 30-seconds pass.

The game is played with 3 sets of 4-6 attempts. At the end of each set, give players a short rest. Rotate players at the end of every attempt.

Potential Progressions: You can turn the player waiting in the end into a target man that can also be passed the ball.

4v4 + 2 Joker

The game is to be played in a circular space as shown.

One of the teams (in this case, the red team) and the two jokers/wild players (green) start in the circle. The other team of four (in this example, blue) position themselves in a square around the circle.

The blue team, along with the jokers, need to connect a set number of passes (start with six, and if that’s too easy, move up to eight).

If the teams make the set number of passes, the red team members have to sprint to one of the yellow cones and back into the circle.

If the red ream win the ball from the blue team twice in a row, they swap roles.

If, on the other hand, the reds intercept the ball from the jokers, they play a 4v2 inside the circle and have to reach 6-8 passes to switch roles with the blues.

Rotations when changing roles need to be fast.

Play for 3-4 minutes per round, with 6 rounds in a set. Then play another set where rounds are 3 minutes.

Make sure jokers swap roles every set.

Final Thoughts

There’s plenty of ways you can hold physically demanding sessions with the ball – hopefully these drills are ones you can use in your sessions.