I have been an advocate and user of a games-based approach in coaching since I first heard of it in 2016. As a basketball coach I have experimented with various restraints and structures in small-sided games as well as studying different sports to improve my knowledge and creativity. One particular sport where there is a breadth of information/studies and where this approach really has its first roots is Soccer/Futbol.
After reading a recent article however, I began to question the applicability of this approach for basketball. The study, “Transferring skill from a futsal ball to a soccer ball,” concluded that a futsal group compared to a soccer group, improved their passing ability “specifically when there was less time to perceive a teammate as open,” (https://bit.ly/2qdCcMu). The study targeted skill improvement with relation to equipment manipulation: using a futsal ball vs a soccer ball in practice reps.
It dawned on me that I could never imagine changing the ball used in basketball even in a practice setting. But the phrase near the end stuck with me, and is one that I am always chasing, “improved passing ability when a teammate was free for only a short period of time.” This singular sentence sent me down a rabbit hole to question my entire approach.
I began looking more deeply into futsal and drawing on my own experience practicing soccer indoors and in small-sided games. The ball obviously moved faster on a hard surface, but the other element that was crucial was the limited space. Players had to identify decisions faster because the space in futsal is so much tighter than when you get onto an actual soccer pitch.
In basketball we usual construct small-sided games to 3v3 or 2v2 and use the half court setting. This doesn’t restrict the playing space at all, in fact, it expands it drastically per player. Thus making the practice easier for the offense, and their perceptual skills, than what will be expected in a game setting. If I was truly drawing from futbol and a games based approach, I wanted to understand the exact restriction of space and convert the calculations to basketball.
Hint: skip down to the conclusion if you are not a math person.
Area-per-player on Soccer Pitch = 5,727 ft2
Area-per-player on Futsol Court = 1,650 ft2
Restraint on Space = 72%
Area-per-player on Basketball Court = 420 ft2
The Math Breakdown
The dimensions of a FIFA regulation soccer field is 300 ft long x 210 ft wide which is a total area of 63,000 ft2. Divide that by the 11 players who occupy the pitch and the area-per-player is 5,727 ft2.
The dimensions of a regulation Futsal field is 125 ft long x 66 ft wide which is a total area of 8,250 ft2. Divide that by the 5 players who occupy the pitch and the area-per-player is 1,650 ft2.
Thus the small-sided game of Futsal, compared to Soccer, offers players only 28% of the space they will have on a regulation soccer pitch.
In basketball, small-sided games are usually limited to the half court setting, therefore our analysis will pertain to the half court.
The dimensions of a regulation college basketball court is 42 ft long x 50 ft wide which is a total area of 2,100 ft2. Divide that by the 5 players who occupy the court and the area-per-player is 420 ft2. Thus a basketball player should be restrained to around 117 ft2 area - basically, half the paint.
In a Soccer approach, the small-sided game limits the area-per-player to 28% of the game dimensions.This is the equivalent of restricting two players on a basketball court to playing inside the lane lines (area=228 ft2).
It is not that half court 3v3 or 2v2 have no positive impact on a basketball coach’s practice. These games are a great way to improve the player’s defensive decision making and skill set. By giving the defense a larger area of space to cover, than what will be required of them in a game, it is exactly what the games-based approach is built on. But as a basketball community we need to understand the impact on offensive decision making and attacking skills. We are giving our players an unrealistic area of space to attack and longer periods of time to make the correct decisions.
In soccer the games-based approach has drastically improved decision-making, timing and passing due to the extreme restriction on space - not just the restriction of players or reads.
So if our goal, like mine, is to improve offensive decision-making with a small-sided games approach, we must begin to drastically constrain the space we design for our players to practice in. This is less of a critique on the approach and more of an understanding of what we are trying to train and obtain. Because I for one have never seen a basketball coach practice 3v3 inside the paint or 5v5 only on the right side of half. And to truly reach the applicability of this approach, basketball needs to understand the relation of space and the restriction of it, in reaching player improvement within a games-based approach.