Why small-sided games work!

A recent national study; the Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity study (CSPPA), concluded that much more work had to be done to ensure that all children participated in the recommended amount of physical exercise and a significant increase in participation levels of all children and youth in sport and physical activity in Ireland is warranted (Woods et al. 2010). This finding acknowledged that the traditional methods of sport involvement used by local clubs were not encouraging all children to join in and participate.  One of the major problems of this was the association of the traditional sports (hurling and Gaelic football) with competitiveness, lack of involvement and low levels of enjoyment.  This review of literature focuses on the belief that small-sided games can help to reverse these trends by increasing participation and enjoyment at the same time. It presents a brief overview of the benefits of small-sided games in child team sports.

Playing small-sided versions of games often goes against the tradition of selecting the best players and focuses on the holistic development of all individuals. A plethora of research acknowledges that there are a number of benefits to this approach as well as using small-sided games in child sports. When involved in small-sided games, children participate in the games in order to have fun and to play with friends. The aim of small-sided games is to optimise the child’s decision-making and enhance their technical development (GAA, 2007).  The view that small-sided games benefit children is supported by a study conducted at Dublin City University which found that “when participating in small-sided games the children worked harder, had more touches on the ball and expressed a greater level of enjoyment and perceived competence as compared with participation in 15-a-side games” (GAA 2007, p. 5)

Whelan (2011, p.3) agrees with this view and states that skills were generally more easily implemented in small-sided games and that “among children between the ages of 10-14 years, small-sided Gaelic football games are a viable alternative to traditional 15-a-side games”. The view by Whelan (2011), that skills are more readily developed in a small-sided game, is strengthened by findings from a study by Mandigo and Holt (2000). Their analysis found that small-sided games helped children develop their skill level because they were more involved in the activity (Mandigo & Holt, 2000). 

The Sport Education Model champions the use of small-sided games. A study by MacPhail, Kirk and Eley (2003) found that when children were asked about how their participation in sports could be improved, a large percentage of those questioned responded that adapted versions of traditional sports using small numbers per side would be an excellent step forward. Siedentop’s (1994) seminal work on the Sport Education Model focused on how sports could be adapted to increase participation numbers amid falling numbers in traditional sports.  The work found that small-sided games, hybrid sports games and those that helped increase skill without fear of becoming injured or hurt were those that were most successful in increasing participation. It has also been noted that small-sided activities are much more likely to reduce the number of variables present so that children enjoy a higher level of involvement and understand the sport more quickly (Bailey, 2000, p.73).

Many studies have been conducted on small-sided games, many of which indicate that students are able to work harder, enjoy a higher level of involvement and increase their skill levels more quickly than they would in traditional sports games with high numbers of participants on each side.  Studies from the United States and Australia support the importance of using small-sided games.  Dyson and Griffin (2004) indicate that there has been a renewed focus on the tactical games model and skill enhancement recently in certain sports. They note that when games are modified by using small-sides, this can help to slow down the pace and momentum of the sport so that balance, control and skill levels can be increased (Dyson & Griffin 2004, p.226).

These activities are part of the Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) pedagogy and typically begin with simple, small-sided games through which students are encouraged to participate and increase their involvement. (Light & Fawns 2012, p.165). The TGfU model has a variation in Australia known as Game Sense. This model focuses on development of the ability to work off the ball, the development of independent players, increased motivation and a higher level of inclusion…at the grass roots level, the model uses small-sided games to meet its aims (Griffin & Butler 2005, p.170).

More recently, the Game Sense model has been transformed at the child level to the Auskick initiative, a similar model to that of the Go Games. Auskick centres on developing skill, ball handling and enjoyment of the game and has been designed to recruit and harness the interest of primary and elementary children…the initiative also reduces the contact of the sport so it is the skill that is focused on primarily (Hickey & Fitzclarence 2004, p.7). 

It is also worth noting that recently, the Football Association in the United Kingdom, (the F.A), has announced that it has also realized the benefits of small-sided games for children, with a move towards small-sided games aimed at “developing skills, rather than rewarding basic physical strength” (Conn, 2012). From 2014 onwards, the F.A will incorporate these smaller games into the development of children’s football in England (Conn, 2012).

Another study conducted in Scotland assessing the nature of small-sided games in football acknowledged that the format has tremendous benefits for individuals (Small, 2006).  The quantitative study analysed data from four-a-side and seven-a-side games as opposed to traditional eleven-a-side games in the sport.  It found that there was a greater emphasis on player development, there were less negative thoughts about the small-sided games, children had far more touches all over the pitch, higher levels of required fitness and that the more touches meant higher levels of success which in turn led to increased self-confidence and self-esteem (Small, 2006). 


In 2007, the GAA Games Development Committee launched the Go Games – Hurling and Gaelic Football for 7-11 year old children - initiative as a way of playing smaller sided games; a maximum of eleven players per team or a smaller playing pitch, as opposed to the adult rules of fifteen players on a full sized playing pitch. The playing rules and equipment are modified to ensure that participants develop “the basic skills of the game and derive maximum fun and enjoyment while doing so” (GAA 2007, p.7). The “Go” in Go Games means that every child gets a go at playing the respective game. www.gaa.ie/gogames

The introduction of Go Games attempted to address the perceived imbalance between competition and development. In developing the philosophy and values, which underpin Go Games, we compared the key factors associated with the traditional competitive model of participation and an alternative developmental model of participation. The competitive model is identified by its focus on the outcome, which is winning. The best way to ensure this outcome is to use the full complement of the rules and to use the best players to exploit them (GAA, 2007). Furthermore, an environment of increased and inappropriate parent and mentor pressure on the young players often marks the ‘win at all costs’ competitive model. Taking these factors into account, one can safely assume that for many players such a model limits development (GAA, 2007). By contrast, a developmental model of participation focuses on development of the players and, as such, can utilise modified rules and equipment to best suit their current levels of ability. As winning is not the ultimate focus, the model can cater for a variety of numbers and full participation can be assured making the idea of substitutes obsolete.

 The GAA believes that Go Games makes a valuable contribution to the development of young players. Participation levels have increased year on year since their introduction, with over 130,000 children ‘getting a Go” so far this year in Ireland.

Video: What are GAA Go Games?


Bailey, R. (2000) Teaching physical education 5-11. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. 

Conn, D. (2012). FA votes for smaller-sided matches for young footballers [online], available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/may/28/fa/ [accessed 2 July 2012].

Dyson, B. & Griffin, L. (2004) ‘Sport education, tactical games and cooperative learning: theoretical and pedagogical considerations’, QUEST, 56, 226-240.

GAA (2007) Fun Do: Go Games resource, Dublin: GAA

Griffin, L. & Butler, J. (2005) Teaching games for understanding: theory, research and practice, New York: Human Kinetics.

Hickey, C. & Fitzclarence, L. (2004). ‘ “I like football when it doesn’t hurt”: factors influencing participation in Auskick’, ACHPER Healthy Lifestyles Journal, 51(4), 7-11.

Mandigo, J. & Holt, N. (2000) ‘Putting theory into practice: How cognitive evaluation theory can help us motivate children in physical activity environments’, The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 71(1).

MacPhail, A., Kirk, D. & Eley, D. (2003) ‘Listening to young people’s voices: youth sports leaders’ advice on facilitating participation in sport’, European Physical Education Review, 9(1), 57-73.

Small, G. (2006) Small-sided games study of young football players in Scotland, Dundee: University of Dundee Press.

Whelan, M. (2011) Effect of altering the number of players, the dimensions of the playing area and the playing rules on the number of selected technical skills performed, possession characteristics, physiological responses and levels of enjoyment and perceived competence during Gaelic football in prepubescent and adolescent boys, Dublin: Dublin City University Press.

Woods, C., Moyna, N., Quinlan, A., Tannehill, D. & Walsh, J. (2010) The Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity Study (CSPPA Study), Dublin: DCU / Irish Sports Council.