Reflecting back on my years of coaching 14U to high school-age girls in lacrosse, small-sided games (usually in the form of stations) were the best parts of practice. Why? They were short, fun, and highly impactful for players. Players were able to problem solve, make decisions, and have a lot of opportunities to work on skills in a short amount of time—and usually within a small space. Think about the popularity of Futsal (in soccer), 3v3 Basketball Tournaments, and oh yeah, box lacrosse for similarities.

A game I would often use is Hunger Games (found in the US Lacrosse Mobile Coach app). The premise of the game is to play 3v3 in a confined space. The game starts with teams on different sides with teammates facing each other. Start each round from a ground ball or a toss in the air with the coach calling “go” for players to begin. There are different variations of this, but the one I often used had the following parameters: the players could not move until someone called “go”, there had to be a good scoop (not flick the ball to a teammate) first before the pass, they had to complete a pass within the boundary, and complete an outlet pass to a player outside of the boundary to get a point.

We would start a new round if the ball went out of bounds or if the outlet person did not catch the ball. Other penalties resulted in a turnover, but the team still had to complete the passes to score. Otherwise, the game was continuous until someone scored since possession changed frequently. Another note to this is that they were in small groups—only enough for four players per team in an area. While all of this happened, I circulated between the groups offering feedback.

When we would play games like this, I noticed several things happening: better self-regulation, better sportsmanship, better communication, quicker decision-making, high levels of competitiveness, discovering strategies, and lots of fun all around. Remember back to When Play Truly Becomes Free, when I said, “Imagine that player who shuts down with every mistake learning how to cope with it and keep playing”? That’s exactly what happened.

I have had several players over the years who would miss a pass and want to slam their stick…or would get so frustrated that they would walk away to collect themselves before returning to a station. Sometimes, I would need to go over and talk to the player. More often than not, the frustration had nothing to do with lacrosse (it had to do with other things going on in life). When it did have to deal with lacrosse, the most I would say is “I will never get upset or mad if you miss a pass or a ground ball. I will only get upset if you stop trying. If you miss a pass, go for the ground ball. If you miss the ground ball, box out and try again.”

Me saying that repeatedly in combination with playing continuous versions of Hunger Games and other similar games quickly taught my players to keep going—to not give up because their teammates needed them. In Hunger Games, I would often see a player miss the ground ball or commit a turnover. At first, players would try to walk out; but their teammates either encouraged them to stay or they lost a point because they had stopped playing. I chose not to intervene. Instead, their teammates encouraged them for the next round. They figured out how to channel their doubt/frustration and kept going—especially since they wanted to win. This sounds a lot like my former camper who loved basketball.

At the 14U and high school levels, we did not have the opportunity to play small-sided games outside of practice. However, that does not make the use of stations irrelevant. Hunger Games feels a lot like the draw or face off in terms of players figuring out how to get and maintain possession to create a scoring opportunity. 4v4 Red Raider is a great small game to work on the crash on defense as well as how to reset coming out of it. Pass, Cut, Replace (PCR) is a great small game to work on basic motion offense and off ball movement. All of these games (and more) are useful tools to break down game concepts in a way that will help players know what to do when they see similar opportunities against opponents when they get to the bigger field game—not to mention, having fun with teammates in the process.

Instead of me telling players the same things repeatedly—my athletes figured it out through these games and coaching when needed. Instead of shutting down, my players had opportunities in practice and encouragement from teammates to keep going. Instead of having a play for every game situation, my players used their own creativity and team chemistry to adjust as needed and find success. Using small-sided games in practice does take preparation, time, and repetition in the beginning to establish a routine, but every bit of the hard work is worth it to see players understand concepts and help them see their own improvement along the way.

Lauren Davenport is a manager for athlete development at US Lacrosse.