"Children learn by playing." – John Allpress, National Player Development Coach, The FA
The game is the teacher. Or is it?
In youth football, there is a saying "the game is the teacher". I've used it myself in the past when trying to encourage coaches to abandon drills and play small-sided games (SSGs) instead.
But it's not strictly true.
An uncoached game will improve your players' co-ordination and balance and it will allow them to learn the basics of ball control, i.e, if you don't keep the ball close, you might lose it to another player. A small-sided "street soccer" style of scrimmage will also allow your players to learn by watching other players and it will give them time to experiment without worrying about making mistakes.
But simply setting up a pitch, giving your players a ball and hoping they are going to turn into a set of skilful players who go out and win matches, is not coaching and it's not meeting their needs.
You have to teach!
That doesn't mean you have to step in and stop small-sided games every few seconds to make a coaching point. Young players like their games to flow more or less uninterrupted and they get very restless if you shout "stop! stand still!" too often.
Teaching skills via SSGs is all about conditioning - adding "rules" and awarding bonus points - that force your players to deal with the types of scenarios they will meet on match days. Conditions can also be used to introduce or improve skills.
If, for example, your defenders tend to panic under pressure and hoof the ball upfield or into touch too often, you can play a small-sided game on a pitch that is divided into thirds. Award bonus points to teams that can score a goal after moving the ball through the thirds. When the ball goes dead, the game is restarted by the goalkeeper who must roll the ball out, not kick it.
This type of game should be preceded by a short discussion on the merits of playing out from the back rather than hopefully punting the ball upfield. But be careful not to say "you MUST move the ball through the thirds" - there are times when the ball has to be cleared quickly and decisively.
That's why you award extra points for the team that plays in the desired way but you don't stop your players deciding for themselves if it is always possible to do as you suggest.
The key is to think about what you want to achieve and devise a condition that will reward the desired behaviour in a 4v4 or 5v5 game. But don't force your players to play in a particular way. Always allow them to make their own decisions. Never say "you HAVE to do this... "
What to do if it isn't working
Don't step in too quickly if your conditioned SSG isn't working as you thought it would, but if your players are obviously finding it too easy:
If the game seems too hard for your players:
How to cope with the "wrong" number of players
It's all very well suggesting that you play 4v4 or 5v5 games with your players but what can you do if you have 11 players? Or if an extra player suddenly turns up?