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One of your 5-a-side: How small-sided football’s growing popularity benefits players’ mental health

GoPro body camera footage of a 5-a-side game to give you a taste of smaller sided football.

When we were young, we all had a dream to one day play professional football and for the vast majority it’s an unfulfilled fantasy.

Aspiring players would join their local team in the hope a scout would come and watch them score an infinite number of goals, resulting in Premier League stardom the following week.

However, as footballers get older and reach their mid-thirties and above, an age professionals regard as ancient, they may find themselves turning to something more suited to their lifestyle.

Small-sided football is on the rise and its popularity is starting to be supported by the benefits it provides, especially for those on the hunt for their weekly football fix.

How often do you play small-sided football?

  • Never

  • Occasionally

  • Once a week

  • Multiple times a week

Current Dover Athletic 11-a-side and England 6-a-side player, Tyrone Sterling, believes that smaller sided football is a great for experienced players who still have that desire for competition.

“If they [older generations] are hungry, if they still have the technique, I urge them to go and experience the difference.”

It appears many Brits are taking Sterling’s advice as, according to the FA, over 1.5 million adults play small-sided football on a weekly basis.

The former Bromley defender feels there are key differences between 11-a-side and smaller sided games, having played both at international level for Grenada and England respectively.

“One of the biggest differences for me is the intensity; fitness wise it is much more taxing on you. You also need a more acute awareness of what’s around you.”

Sterling, as pictured below, added, “Your touch, weight of pass, decisions all need to be on point as there’s no room for bad touches.”

A report from the FA announced that 30,000 teams participate in competitive small-sided leagues, but what would be the next step up for those still aspiring to achieve more in their footballing career?

Sterling got into semi-professional 11-a-side football through his diligence and dedication, characteristics that also paved his route into the England 6-a-side team. One trial elevated his small-sided football career to the international stage.

“I was invited down for a trial and had to perform and showcase myself.

“When I went, I realised quickly how this could be a great experience for me. I stamped myself quickly in the team and was picked for the World Cup.”

This was where Sterling, who has made two appearances in Wembley finals, had one of his most unforgettable experiences. A special atmosphere playing small-sided football abroad remains a fond memory from his ongoing footballing journey.

“I’ve had great examples of good atmospheres whilst playing] and honestly nothing more electrifying than a packed 6-a-side World Cup quarter final against host nation Greece.”

This shows that, despite almost half the players on the pitch, football is universally adored and will always bring people together.

As an international footballer, Sterling believes the difference between casual small-sided football and playing for England is, “With England, we were taught about shape and what the intricate side of 6-a-side football was all about.

“It’s not just your normal Goals session.”

However, what if you are more interested in partaking in casual five, six or seven-a-side football at your local Goals or Powerleague pitch?

Dave Langton has been a regular 5 and 7-a-side player for many years after his glory days of playing 11-a-side came to an end.

He currently organises a weekly fixture for his network of friends, of varying ages, to get together and play a relaxed, yet well contested, game of 5-a-side football.

“It accommodates players of varying ability nicely,” said Langton, “I think all that most players want out of the experience is a good competitive friendly game.

“It’s amazing when both teams leave the field smiling saying ‘what a great game’, something that is far from the tense atmosphere of the many 11-a-side encounters over the years.”

Langton being passed the ball by former colleague and current Chelsea Head of Youth Development, Mark Robinson.

The extremely rewarding nature of smaller sided games, whether on the winning or losing team, provides the players with a collective joy which is very hard to attain anywhere else.

Science tells us the combination of socialising, teamwork and fitness benefits triggers the release of hormones such as endorphins and serotonin that are proven to keep players happy both on and off the pitch.

Langton remarked, “For me, the mental health benefits and playing benefits are mutually inclusive. They go hand in hand.

“Playing with guys who have the same love of the game, who are trying their very best during the match, is a wonderful feeling.”

Having previously played Sunday League football and for his former employers’ football team, Dave Langton can see some differences between his 11-a-side and 5-a-side encounters.

“If you’ve got a bit of ability there are far more opportunities [in small-sided games] to make that ‘special pass’ or get that ‘great finish’ compared to 90 minutes of 11-a-side.”

Langton also stated, “You also don’t have to play on a muddy pitch effecting the game hopelessly.

“The 4G pitches are always true (unless it’s been heavily snowing) and encourage a lovely passing game. It also accommodates players of varying ability nicely.”

All 11-a-side footballers of experience will have faced the anticipation of whether a game will go ahead in the middle of a boggy field on a bitterly cold winter morning.

This is far less of a concern with the improved drainage system of many Astroturf pitches across the country.

That is the beauty of small-sided football, it really is for everyone.

5-a-side pitches remain open and playable through heavy rain

Smaller sided games normally feature as training sessions for 11-a-side players, resulting in some players enjoying training just as much, if not more than their weekend and midweek fixtures.

“I have always enjoyed 5-a-side and 7-a-side football but even more so after I stopped playing on the weekends,” commented Mile End Town’s Goal of the Season winner 1991.

“More involvement and constant action, and less getting kicked up in the air. The fitness you can gain from it and personally the feel good factor playing with like-minded footballers. Always have felt better mentally for it.”

Football remains an integral part of many people’s lives. We should all have that urge to play for as long as our bodies allow us to and reap the mental and physical rewards of the beautiful game.

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Great article Jonnie!

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