Journal of a Youth Coach 2023: Small-sided games during practice

By Andy Ryland | Posted 9/1/2023

USA Football Senior Manager of Education and Engagement Andy Ryland recently volunteered to be an assistant coach for his local youth football team. A former Penn State linebacker and member of the U.S. Men’s Rugby National Team, Ryland is an expert on tackling and preparation for contact with athletes, consistent with USA Football's Football Development Model. He also assists coaches of all sports in areas of drill design and skill development. This series of journal entries chronicles his 2023 youth football experience. 

I have a confession. Sometimes we scrimmage at practice. 

At USA Football, we push hard for well-designed practice plans and fight against the, “I don’t have a plan so we will just scrimmage for two-hours” coach. Understandably, sometimes you need scrimmage reps. We talk about the importance of experience, but many don’t experience the game in practice. Young kids have to learn not just about the game, but in the game. We have limited numbers and want to do more than half-line sometimes. Plus, new and different opponents, who do new and different things, help young athletes learn.  

I said in last year’s blog series that one of my favorite lines is, “the difference in medicine and poison is dose.” In the right amount, some (some!) scrimmage work, just like any other full contact work, is a rich learning experience and skill builder. 

With dosage in mind, I wanted to talk about what the first part of practice looked like before we joined with one of the other teams we share the practice facility with to run plays against each other. 

We knew we would have a good amount of contact during the scrimmage, so we reduced it other places. After warming up, we did our athletic development work and cut our skills time in half. The physical development work was planned for teamwork, fun and togetherness. High school, college and NFL teams do team building activities but because of time limitations many don’t with kids. We just tried to incorporate it into some fun games. 

Our first activity I know as “Dog and Bone,” but I have no clue why it’s called that. Three to four players join hands in a circle. One of the players is the target. A single standalone player is “it” and tries to tag the target. The circle of players must work together to keep the target away from “it.” They work together, communicate and circle back and forth to shield their teammate. “It” must have great lateral movement, speed and use change of direction and fakes to get around the circle and get the tag. 

Next, we played “4 Corners.” It was a competition game. Four players versus each other at the same time with the goal being lots of energy, effort and cheering each other on. This can be a very hard, physical conditioning game with lots of changes of direction and some decision making.  

The game is simple. A square is used with one small disc cone and one player on each corner. On the whistle, players all run to another corner and try to grab an opponent’s cone. Players are not permitted to block or guard, and everyone has free access to steal. With no contact, the game is about speed, change of direction and decisions. The goal was to try to get as many cones as possible back to your corner. A few players did manage to get two cones, nobody got three. All were tired. 

Note: I used even numbers because it was our first time doing the drill and it makes it easier to run, but harder to win. Four corners, four cones and three players set up better to challenge their decision making to try to get three cones to win. 

Next, we played tic-tac-toe. A fairly common team game for sprinting and thinking/problem solving. We made a big grid on the ground. We put two cones about seven yards away. The players split into two groups behind the cones. Group one had white balls; group two had colored balls (just used some soft squishy indoor things I had laying around the house).

On the whistle, the first player from each team sprints to the grid and places their ball. They sprint back and tag the next player in line. That player sprints, reads the grid and places their ball. The two teams compete in tic-tack-toe but with the addition of the relay race style sprints and rotating players to add a ‘read’ and decision on the board. 

If you followed my work or the blog last year, you know I am a huge fan of small-sided games; games for learning and hiding the hard work. Games like this that can be tied to good physical development traits like change of direction, sprinting and some thinking/problem solving are much better than simple lines of running and cutting. 

Furthermore, they were fun and showed how we tried to balance contact programing. If you know the end of practice will have heavy contact, try to balance the rest of practice so the total collision load isn’t too high. Yes, we all know one bad drill can ruin a practice, or a child’s football experience, but don’t forget to look at the total workload and manage that for daily and weekly load to keep athletes fresh, healthy and excited.