I’m a big fan of small-sided games. They are great for increasing player contacts and you can adapt them in a number of ways to work on specific elements of the game. An Art of Coaching article by Jim Stone speaks specifically to their use in youth volleyball. I actually interviewed Jim for Volleyball Coaching Wizards.
Jim’s focus is on the 10-13 age group in volleyball. He recommends playing 4-v-4 on a badminton sized court. The net is also set lower to accommodate the smaller players. This was a favored approach in England when I coached there. They also used this size court, I believe, in the “bounce” variation I witnessed in Sweden. In other words, in many ways other countries are ahead of us in this regard. (Jim also suggests a best of 7 match model similar to one FIVB used.)
Extending things even more
Actually, we can take things further. In places like Germany they go even smaller. Here’s what one of my contacts over there sent me.
Note that U12 is not the same as 12U commonly used in the States. The former means younger than 12 at the cut-off, while the latter means no older than 12. So they are basically a year apart in top age.
Anyway, notice how they don’t get to 6v6 play until high school age. Before that it’s a steady annual progression from 2s to 4s. I like it a lot.
You can think of it the same way you think of complexity progression in practice planning. The 2v2 variation is quite simple. Just one seam to manage. Not much in the way of tactics. Lots of focus on technical skills.
As you add players you add complexity. More seams to manage. More tactical options and strategy considerations with each additional player.
One possible adjustment
The only thing I’d suggest is that maybe you move to 6v6 at the 14U level – so slightly earlier than the above model suggests. My only reason for going that route is because a lot of kids (and parents) look at Juniors in that age group as prep for high school (not a major consideration for Germany). In high school they will play 6v6, so getting that club season in playing the same way would help with the transition.
The question, though, is whether that benefit is outweighed by less skill development as a result of fewer touches, etc. as compared to playing 4v4. I don’t know the answer to that. I’d be curious to hear what high school coaches say. Is it harder to train skills or 6v6 team play (rotations, transitions, etc.)?
So how do we make this sort of structure happen?
I personally think it’s something that should happen regionally. The big disadvantage of 6v6 competition at the younger age groups is that it seriously cuts down the number of teams where you often already don’t have big numbers. Think about it. You could make three 2s teams from a 6s team – more when you consider the subs.
That gives you a lot more teams available to play against each other for tournaments, which means you can run them over smaller geographic areas. Think a city league, or something like that, depending on your area. You eliminate the need for – and the cost of – travel to big events. This potentially could expand the club opportunities for less well off families.
But what if we want more competition?
Say you’ve got a pair of strong U12 players. They’re beating everyone consistently in your area events. If you’re using a strictly regional concept then you take out the opportunity to go compete against strong teams from other regions. That, of course, is still something you could do, but I think there’s a better (and cheaper) solution.
Just move them up a level. Have them progress from the 2v2 to the 3v3 level (or 3v3 to 4v4). That will increase the complexity, and chances are they will also face bigger, stronger players as well. There’s your increased competition.
In fact, the whole system could be based on ability rather than age.
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