Episode 6:

Adapting Football

Published: June 2011: Updated August 2013; July 2015; September 2017


Small Sided Games is a version of football that has been developed as a junior development program in Australia and world-wide. It is naturally inclusive in many ways. Here, we take a look at Small Sided Games and demonstrate some of the ways you can further modify using the TREE principle.

We try here at The Inclusion Club to give you fresh ideas and models of practice that can be of practical help to you. Some weeks we’ll be looking at what people from around the world do, and their approaches to inclusive sport and physical activity—other weeks, like this one—we will give you some entirely original material that he hope helps in some way.

That’s what this week is.

One of the most productive and easiest exercises you can do to help modify any kind of activity to suit the needs of people with disability is to apply an adaptation framework—such as the TREE principle—to any activity format BEFORE you conduct the activity.

You may not cover every necessary adaptation beforehand but you can certainly do a lot to ensure your activity is as inclusive as it can be.

We’ve already introduced the TREE framework to you—but as a reminder—the TREE framework consists of four elements:

  1. Teaching Style
  2. Rules and Regulations
  3. Equipment
  4. Environment

This gives you a framework in which you can consider adapting any form of activity.

Today we’re going to apply the TREE principle to football—specifically Small-Sided Games—a junior development program used throughout Australia and the world. We will also introduce some key principles of inclusion—just to delve a little more into the practicalities of inclusion.

First—you’ll need the TREE Worksheet for this exercise:

Introducing Small-Sided Games

Small-Sided Games are simply modified versions of regular 11 a side football, designed to meet the needs of players under the age of 13. The philosophy of Small-Sided Games is all about learning, self experience, having a lot of touches on the ball and, importantly having fun—perfect for inclusion!

The approach emphasises enjoyment, player development and freedom of expression.

This kind of approach makes Small-Sided Games already a very inclusive activity, suitable for a wide range of children regardless of whether they have a disability or not.

Although we are going to look at some video of Small-Sided Games from Australia, this is an approach that has been adopted across the world.

Here, we are going to consider a range of possible adaptations of Small-Sided Games using the TREE principle.

Teaching/coaching style

Now, there’s not a lot to see in this short clip but you can see how the approach of Small-Sided Games lends itself to inclusion.

If there were children with vision impairments in the group you might think to adapt some of the teaching style.

Take a look at this short video and then use your Worksheet to make a few notes.

You see how just a little pre-activity thought could help bypass the exclusion of children with disabilities in this group. Simply using manual signals to signify breaks in play could make a huge difference to an individual in the group without affecting the integrity of the activity for all the other children.

This is what we call ‘the balancing act’ and is one key principle of inclusion. This is where you need to balance the need to meet individual potential and participation but not at the expense of the integrity of the activity for the group.

And vice versa—retaining the integrity of the activity—that is, is it still a worthwhile activity for everyone in the group—can mean some compromise at times when you balance out the individual needs of children.

The Inclusion Club—Episode06

Rules and Regulations

Moving onto Rules and Regulations. Again, Small-Sided Games have a focus on minimising the rules that dictate the activity. This is a good thing as far as inclusion is concerned.

Rules are generally not made with people with disability in mind!

There are a number of ‘game formats’ for Small-Sided Games. There are basically four age ranges corresponding to each format:

  1. Under 6
  2. Under 7 and 8
  3. Under 9 and 10
  4. Under 11 and 12

An often debated principle of inclusion—and in general education for that matter—is that of age appropriateness. Children with disabilities should be in the appropriate groups of children of the same age. This is a generally accepted principle and would apply in most cases.

However, it is worth thinking about this where there are children whose physical size and maturity are significantly different to that of the other children in the group. This can happen when small age range groups are made.

This is not an issue solely concerning children with disabilities of course. It applies to all children who mature and develop skills are significantly different rates.

Strict guidelines around age levels in Small-Sided Games may restrict participation for some children with disability. Bottom line is that a common sense approach is often the best solution.

In Small-Sided Games there is a progression from the Under 6 level to Under 11 and 12 ages. Rules are gradually introduced as children progress through the levels. In the early ages in particular there are minimal rules and there are no actual team positions for players until they get to the Under 9 and 10, where goalkeepers are introduced for the first time.

Have a look at this short video clip that considers the Rules of Small-Sided Games at the Under 9 and 10 age level—there are some excellent examples of inclusive practices here in how the rules of football have been modified for all children.

Write down in the Worksheet which rules you think are particularly inclusive.

The progression of Small-Sided Games like this and the gradual introduction of rules is good inclusive practice. Of course, there are many other adaptations that could be made to rules and regulations to help inclusion. You can change rules around use of substitutes, tackling, passing etc.

Where possible it is always advisable to stick to the original format of the game but, on occasions, some slight variations may make a difference to participation of individuals without adversely effecting the activity for the group, such as permitting an underarm throw in for the older age range, allowing certain players to roll the ball into play rather than using the traditional over-head throw.


For Small-Sided Games there is not a lot of equipment being used—which is generally a good thing as far as inclusion is concerned.

The ‘Training Games’—games such as End Zone, Four-Goal and Passing Gates are really good activities that can easily be adapted to suit a wide range of abilities. In an inclusive situation however, where there are one or two children with disabilities involved, changing the ball would certainly have a negative effect on the integrity of the games for all the other children. The ball os the single most important piece of equipment in football, unlike other sports where multiple pieces of equipment are used.

In this situation it is better to look at adapting rules and environments, such as making rules that all players must touch the ball or restricting the number of players in particular zones at any one time.

Of course, you can change the ball for teams of players that are at a similar developmental level and use partially deflated balls, foam balls or beach balls in specific circumstances. Always be mindful of the balancing act before making any changes to core pieces of equipment.


Finally, to Environments.

The people who came up with Small-Sided Games have put a lot of thought into creating the right environment. There are different roles for coaches, game leaders, instructing referees, managers and even parents. Take a look at this video clip that articulates the different roles of people involved in Small-Sided Games—there are some really good lessons here for sports that are looking to develop an inclusive and positive environment.

Now, we know that the video clips here present an almost ‘perfect’ scenario. Great pitches, the right equipment and children that have good skills. There are no children with disabilities in these clips. Often, our activity places are not quite so perfect!

But, the principles of adapting and modifying can still apply. Certainly, the ‘philosophy’ of Small-Sided Games is very well articulated here, which is what we are looking for. So rather than look too closely at what is actually happening in the video, think about how the approach of Small-Sided Games naturally promotes an inclusive environment. In many cases children with disabilities would easily fit into the approach of Small-Sided Games.

What we have tried to do here is encourage you to think about the TREE principle, the Balancing Act and how an approach from a sport can, naturally, promote an inclusive philosophy.

Small-Sided Games is naturally a very inclusive modified sport. The flexibility it allows means you can easily apply a framework for adaptation, such as the TREE principle, to include children with disabilities. Because it encourages the involvement of a wide range of people—from players to parents and managers—in one single approach that has an emphasis on development and fun—then this is a recipe for inclusion.

Thanks, until next time.

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About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.