The 10yd x 10yd boxes are set out with a cone in the middle for some, while a goalie sets in their cage communicating to the defense in the middle for others. Players are split into small groups. Pinnies are being passed around and put on, and there are groups of 4v4 across the entire field. Everyone is involved in their areas and no one is waiting around. 

The offense just completed a pass  — then another — then another. The defense is calling where the ball is. Then in an instant, the player with the ball spots an opening and drives in to try to score. Immediately the defense yells “crash”!  The ball carrier, seeing no clear opportunity, pulls back out to their cone and passes the ball to their teammate, and the defense has just prevented a scoring opportunity. This game continues for five minutes before the horn goes off—signaling the end of this round of Red Raider (found in the US Lacrosse Mobile Coach app). The players clean up and huddle around their coaches to review positions and match ups. It’s game time! 

Game time?  

Over the last couple of weeks, I have shared the importance and benefits of Small-Sided and Free Play,  one of the six Core Values of the US Lacrosse Athlete Development framework. There is another important aspect of this core value to consider:  small-sided play (stations) is not just an essential tool for practice—it is indeed for games as well. What do I mean? Let’s look at our traditional formats for practices and game preparation.  

Often, we play mini-games and run stations in practice—some position-specific and some not. However, when it comes to pregame warmups, after dynamic and static stretching happens, we tend to revert to the same routine for the entire team regardless of what was worked on in practice. We often end up doing shuttles, line drills, 3v2 work, shots from a feeder at X, and anything else to warm up our goalies. This isn’t a terrible concept and it is by no means “wrong”, but I would ask: How does that warmup routine for the game relate to what happened at the most recent practice? Is the pregame warmup routine the same as the practice warmup routine?  

We all tend to learn better when we have continuity and context in our experiences. When we have continuity and context, we are better able to grasp concepts and adjust our thinking as different situations arise. As we coach our players (when we return to play), we should keep this in mind—our pregame warmup should have some element of change that directly relates to what we worked on in our most recent practice.  

Let’s look back at that team playing 4v4 Red Raider at the end of their pregame warmup. They likely spent the previous practice working on defensive communication (specifically communicating the crash), defense following cutters, offense passing with their outside hand, and offense being strategic in when to drive to goal. The coach likely ended practice with the game to end on a fun and successful note with the players. Wanting to give players the same confidence as well as a reminder of those specific game elements, the coach can put 4v4 Red Raider at the end of the pregame routine knowing the continuity will help the players. 3v2 and shots from a feeder at X will not necessarily create the same opportunity for that focus in this situation since that is not what was done in the previous practice.  

Regardless of what you are working on in practice, why not consider starting and ending both practices and pregame warmups with small-sided play (stations)?  The stations can be formed from a variety of resources with the goal of meeting the needs of your players. The stations could be position-specific or general in nature. It builds routine. It’s fun. Every player is involved. It builds confidence. It creates continuity. Most important, the players feel prepared going into games based on the context you built connecting practice to competition…all from the strategic and intentional use of small-sided play.