Futsal looks like soccer, but its played indoors on a smaller pitch, features fewer players, and a smaller ball that is easier to control is used. Many professional soccer players attribute their superior ball skills in soccer to their formative years playing futsal.
But why could this be?
Luca Oppici attempted to answer this question as part of his PhD thesis. He recruited elite youth soccer players and elite youth futsal players and assessed where they were looking whilst playing futsal and soccer. The aim was to identify if differences existed between players who had been exposed to approximately 1000 hours of futsal practice compared to players who had been exposed to approximately 1000 hours of soccer practice.
17 futsal players (mean age = 13) were compared against 20 soccer players (mean age = 13). All players played 5 vs 5 modified games.
For futsal players, the games featured a futsal ball and was played on a 24 x 15 m wooden floor pitch. This corresponded to an individual playing area of 36m2/player (i.e., the amount of space that each player had with respect to the total playing area; this is the standard playing area for futsal).
For soccer players, the game featured a soccer ball and was played on a 24 x 36 m synthetic grass pitch. This corresponded to an individual playing area of 86m2/player, which is representative of an actual soccer match.
Each player played 5 games. During one of these games, their orientation of attention (i.e., whey they looked) was measured. To measure orientation of attention, players wore eye tracker glasses. This allowed the researchers to identify if players were looking at the ball or another player.
The researchers focused on where the players looked when receiving and passing the ball.
The key results were:
- Immediately prior to receiving the ball, futsal players looked towards other players on 54% of occasions. Conversely this only occurred on 16% of occasions for soccer players.
- During the action of passing, futsal players looked towards other players for a longer period of time compared to soccer players (45% vs 32%).
Futsal seems to teach players to focus on other players rather than the ball whilst receiving and passing the ball. This might be because the ball is smaller and easier to control, or it might be because the intensity of futsal is greater than soccer and therefore players have less time to make decisions.
To answer these questions, players gaze behaviour should be measured when futsal players play with a soccer ball, and soccer players play with a futsal ball. The pitch size could also be manipulated to test the effect of playing intensity (i.e., by altering individual playing area).
Ultimately, futsal seems to be a useful sport for developing skills that transfer to soccer.
Oppici, L., Panchuk, D., Serpiello, F. R., & Farrow, D. (2017). Long-term practice with domain-specific task constraints influences perceptual skills. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1387.