How to use small-sided games as a pre-season conditioning tool?

If you want to utilize SSG as a conditioning tool, the following might help you to ensure progression and consistency in your approach.

First of all if you have not read my separate section on “ALL about SSG” it would be recommended to do so CLICK HERE to get to the page.

If you have done it, you will recognize some of the rules and restriction that can be applied to alter the physical/physiological demands of the game.


Therefore you will also be aware that depending on the game different players might receive a lower/greater stimulus and it might be hard to a) prescribe the “optimal” load to each and individual players and b) to actually receive the desired load (disregarding internal vs. external load – if these two definitions don’t tell you anything you might want to read HERE).

I am assuming that the majority of teams have no access to heart rate and/or GPS units to monitor players and measure the load. As a result, this is going to be a very practical example on how to prescribe (external) training (load) via SSG “disregarding” its limitation.

Having the end in mind

I believe as a coach you have an idea of “how much” the players can train in a “neutral” (±48-72 hours of game) training session in a usual mid-season week. What I mean here is that I am sure every coach has played some form of 4 vs. 4, 6 vs. 6 and so on for a certain amount of time on a certain pitch-size including several rules.

From these games you should “know” (at least you have an idea) where to go in terms of your target load (for example 6 x 5 minutes for a 6 vs. 6) that can be handled by the players without getting injuries or too much fatigue the following days. Furthermore I am also (relatively) confident that coaches have similar experience with a 2 vs. 2 (for example 4 x 2 minutes).

This is important as I tend to categorize relatively low amount of players per team (<4) as anaerobic type session and relatively great(er) amount of players per team (≥4) as a more aerobic type session. In the beginning of your pre-season it seems easier and safer to prescribe a greater amount of “bigger” SSG compared to “smaller” SSG. That does not mean that you cannot use a 2 vs. 2 in pre-season, however, in my opinion utilizing big SS in the initial stage makes more sense.

How to plan

I always like to see the players perform “more” and/or “faster”. Therefore it seems easier to progress duration per game and number of games for one session compared to manipulating rules and regulations (restriction of touches, off-side, manmarking etc) to alter the intensity and the total load. Consequently, whatever rules you take, whatever pitch size you take – keep it for (4-5 sessions or ~2 weeks) to be consistent and be able to “see” progress.

From a player’s perspective it might be more boring to have the same game again, again, and again. However, it seems also plausible to build up their confidence in their physical ability throughout the progression of the pre-season. Sooner or later the players will realize they have come a certain way (from 3 x 4 minutes to 5 x 6 minutes for example) and know they can perform the tasks. This comparison is harder to achieve if the coach alters rules and regulations every session/to soon. Nevertheless I switch up games after two sets slightly anyway.

From strength and conditioning principles it seems more common to increase duration (of a single set) first, then the number of sets and decrease the duration of the rest-periods within a progression as the last parameter. Furthermore, an increase of these two first parameters over 2-3 weeks seemed plausible concluding with a one week “unloading” micro-cycle at the end. Depending on the length of the pre-season the procedure will then be repeated.

Consequently, coaches can use these limited amounts of information to set their plan and span-out a possible pre-season scenario/progression. Depending on pre-season length, base-line fitness levels of players, aerobic based SSG can be performed 2-3 times per week. In the later stages of a pre-season (for example week 4 and 5) the number of anaerobic type SSG can/should outweigh the aerobic types.

Where to start and how to progress

In combination with the two factor mentioned in previous paragraph (pre-season length and baseline levels) coach could start with a 2 x 4 minutes bouts (in relatively unfit teams and enough time in pre-season) increasing the total amount of SSG by 1-1.5 minutes (and therefore 0.5 minutes per set or ~ 10%) per session. In this scenario (which might be unrealistic for some teams) the chronic load (load over multiple sessions, and weeks) is consistently increased which may reduce injury risks.

However, if you have a look at the table below you might see that in order to derive from 2 x 4 minutes up to 5 x 6 minutes (from example above) you need up to 15 session and therefore a total of ~ 6 weeks, which might not be feasible for some teams.


Week #
Session #
1  2 x 4 minutes
2 x 4.5 minutes
2 x 5 minutes
2 x 5.5 minutes
3 x 4 minutes
3 x 4.5 minutes
3 x 5 minutes
4 x 4 minutes
4 x 4.5 minutes
4 x 5 minutes
4 x 5.5 minutes
4 x 6 minutes
5 x 5 minutes
5 x 5.5. minutes
5 x 6 minutes

Therefore if you have “fit(ter)” players in combination with a shorter total length of pre-season (i.e. 4-6 weeks) you might want to start with an higher initial load (i.e. 3 x 4 minutes). With many players I have experienced I was very confident they can handle even greater loads right from the beginning (3 x 5 minutes), however, in addition to the load from other parts of the training as well as the strength sessions the fatigue will accumulate and basically catch-up on the athlete after the initial two weeks. Not only the physical but also the mental fatigue. Therefore I always appreciate a “long” pre-season (~ 8 weeks) for other reasons as well. For example, the longer the players are away, the harder it is to keep the focus on keeping a good health and fitness. I don’t want to stereotype, but I am very happy if my Brazilian comes to pre-season on-time with only 5 kg more.

The next parameter to manipulate

I have tried to come-up with a rank-order of parameter that can be manipulated to increase the demands slightly, but not too drastically. Consequently, and in order to make the individual session more interesting, mentally demanding and more diverse you can use the modification below.

Pitch size

Well the pitch size I usually use is relatively small in the beginning (the actual area depends on player numbers) to increase the technical demands and the number of touches per player per game and limit the physical/physiological demands. Furthermore, I find this the easiest variable to manipulate (in terms of progression for the next session) if I find the last set of a SSG was not demanding enough. If this is the case a 5-meter distance each side will increase sufficiently. However, this is also the hardest to change between sets within a training session, in case the coach discovers/believes that the intensity is not high enough.

Scoring rules

Changing the scoring rules is a very simple, but highly efficient method. For example to increase the demands the team in possession can only score if all players are in the opposition half.

Shifting game area/playing fields

Also highly efficient in terms of increasing demands on players. For example, in a game with no actual goals, a team receive a point/goal after 10 connected passes and shifting the play into a new space.

Number of touches

This can be a tricky one. Generally lower amount of touches increases the speed of play and therefore the game demands. However, if players are not up to the game demands regarding technical ability, focus, peripheral vision and in combination with a small pitch size there might not be a great deal of game. Giving a one-two touch restriction will enable a better flow of the game. Taking the ball of the opposition can be performed in 3 touches. If there is still no game, then I increase the pitch-size. In the beginning of each training session and sets, I use unlimited touches, hoping that the game ends up in a max. 2 touch game anyway (and therefore 1 touch or one-two touch play is seen as a progression). However, unlimited touches will also suit some players that need to “be with the ball more” like a winger that is used to dribble to pressure the defense. The central defender will more or less take 1-2 touches and he will not dribble anyway (most likely).

Uneven player numbers

I like to incorporate that when (particularly) a player comes back from injury and he is lacking speed, endurance…..everything. Advantages are he is always in the possession team, and the other players usually know he should not be tackled. This also creates an over/underload and increase/decrease the demands. In aerobic type SSG I don’t have more then ±2 players. My experience here is that if a team has possession there might be some players are pacing and are not really pushing anymore, due to the fact they are ±2 anyway (so its actually +2-1, which actually results in a +1). In anaerobic type SSG an overload of up to 3 for a certain amount of time is alright in my opinion and suits the goal. Having players on the outside that can be used as bumper players are good for the team in possession (and can be used as an active recovery for players outside), however, as the team out of possession will change their approach and most likely pay more attention to tactical ability and how to regain possession.


There are many variables and different set-ups that can be used to successfully conditioning players. Coaches experience will come to shine to set-up interesting and entertaining games for the players that progress logically towards the game demands in a variety of ways.

The Training Manager -