How Small-Sided Games can Unlock the Synergy Between Conditioning and On-Field Performance

Lorcan Mason

[4-min read]

In any team sport, it is important that the data collected is used to not only provide basic information to feedback to coaches and players about physical outputs, but it is imperative that it is also used to add context to the training environment to have the greatest impact on performance (Impellizzeri, Marcora and Coutts, 2019; Martín-García et al., 2018). Specifically, within football, ‘Conditioned Games’ (small-sided games, medium-sided games, and large-sided games) are often used to replicate the physical, technical, psychological, and (when used appropriately) tactical demands of match day outputs (Impellizzeri et al., 2006; Owen et al., 2012; Hill-Haas et al., 2011; Riboli et al., 2020; Moniz et al., 2020; Da Silva et al., 2011).

Depending on the required objective, conditioned games are highly versatile and can be manipulated to achieve the desired outcomes (Riboli, Esposito, and Coratella, 2022; Riboli et al., 2020). In addition to this, conditioned games can be utilised to manage players’ training load throughout the micro-cycle while also specifically contributing to the development of the specific sporting task (Lacome et al., 2018b; Martín-García et al., 2018; Riboli et al., 2020; Riboli, Esposito and Coratella, 2022).

However, although conditioned games are extremely useful, the format of the conditioned games has a direct impact on the physical requirements that can be achieved (Hill-Haas et al., 2011; Olthof, Frencken and Lemmink, 2019; Riboli et al., 2020; Riboli, Esposito and Coratella, 2022). Gaining a better understanding of match day outputs and how they compare to training loads will aid in the planning of the training content and help achieve the desired physical adaptations.

Figure 1: Small Sided Games Definitions

Understanding the Impact of Area per Player on Small-Sided Games

To gain greater insight into how conditioned games can be utilised to achieve the specific match day requirements, an understanding of the concept of Area per Player (Area per Player, expressed as m2/player) must first be established. Clarifying the Area per Player that is needed to reproduce specific match day requirements may help practitioners and the coaching staff to properly plan small-sided games for specific performance objectives (Lacome et al., 2018b).

Area per Player can be defined as the total pitch area divided by the total number of players within the given area (Hill-Haas et al., 2011). This allows practitioners to calculate the theoretical space each player has available around them at a given instance on the field of play. In official competition, the area per player is approximately equivalent to ~340m2 (Riboli et al., 2020), however, it should be noted that this is dictated by the size of the field of play.

Managing Training Loads and Technical Demands of Small-Sided Games

In essence, pitch size and player numbers can be controlled independently of each other to create a high number of small-sided game formats thus, increasing pitch size or reducing the number of players within a given area increases multiple training load metrics such as total distance, total high-intensity distance, and total sprinting distance (Lacome et al., 2018b; Lacome et al., 2018a). Conversely, decreasing pitch size or increasing the number of players within the area decreases the space available to cover high-speed distances, however, increases the acceleration, deceleration, and technical demands (Lacome et al., 2018b; Gaudino, Alberti, and Iaia, 2014).

Therefore, the manipulation of Area per Player through these means will bring about different physical and physiological responses (Castagna et al., 2019; Riboli, Esposito, and Coratella, 2022; Riboli et al., 2020), while also affecting the technical and tactical behaviours of the players (Kelly and Drust, 2009; Olthof, Frencken and Lemmink, 2018). It must be noted however, that greater Area per Player is needed to facilitate the expression of higher intensity running demands during small-sided games, especially when goalkeepers are included in the small-sided games (Riboli, Esposito and Coratella, 2022; Riboli et al., 2020; Lacome et al., 2018b).

Figure 2: Area per Player while using Goalkeepers
Figure 3: Area per Player while using Goalkeepers continued

Positional Considerations and Individualisation

Moreover, between-position differences exist for Area per Player when replicating match demands with central defenders needing lower Area per Player as opposed to central midfielders and forward players who need greater Area per Player to replicate their positional demands (Riboli et al., 2020) and thus an individualised approach should be considered. This is particularly important for practitioners, as exposing players to higher-intensity running demands has been shown to prepare players for match intensity through their improvement in fitness levels while also providing greater robustness against non-contact injuries (Bowen et al., 2017; Bowen et al., 2020; Malone et al., 2017).


Putting the science into practice, understanding Area per Player and its usefulness during small-sided games facilitates the management of training loads in order to maximise performance while also allowing the ability to underload or overload a specific match requirement through the use of sport-specific means (Riboli, Esposito and Coratella, 2022; Riboli et al., 2020). Although some considerations must be taken into account as some Areas per Player may be impractical given the small-sided game format or desired requirement thus, position-specific drills, supplemental running-based exercises, and/or specific small-sided games rules could be considered to individualize the training load required/desired (Riboli, Esposito and Coratella, 2022; Riboli et al., 2020).

Figure 4: Practical Conditioning


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Conditioning Performance

About the author

Lorcan Mason

Lorcán is a qualified sports scientist and S&C coach from Kildare, Ireland. Lorcán has vast experience of working with youth and senior athletes across Gaelic Games, professional football and athletics. He has a degree in sports science with exercise physiology and is currently conducting research in the area of ‘Sleep, nutrition and injury risk in athletes’ at ATU Donegal. Lorcán also runs his own educational website (www.lorcanmason.com) to provide practical information to practitioners, athletes and students.

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