Don't be a 'Joystick' Coach

By Alex Kos

I first heard the term "Joystick Coaching" a few years back. What a wonderfully descriptive term. As with video games, joystick coaches want to dictate and control the movement of all players on the field. Hence the term "joystick."

However, there is very little joy to be had by players when they are coached in this manner.

Joystick coaching has reached epidemic proportions (and parents are just as guilty). Why is this happening?

* Look at other popular youth sports such as football, baseball and basketball. Football and baseball coaches are joystick experts. Even in basketball where the game is more fluid (like soccer) and, therefore, more difficult to control and manipulate, coaches still try their best to dictate the action. Since many soccer coaches come from these backgrounds, it is only natural that joystick coaching carries over into soccer.

* We are a sports nation hung up on X’s and O’s. Joysticking is a natural by-product of this fascination. How many times do you see defenders standing in one spot because that is where the defenders were positioned on the dry-erase board?

* Soccer is not an easy sport to learn. No matter how many times coaches tell young players to spread out and not play bunch-ball, they still do. As such, coaches feel compelled to ‘help’ position and move their players about.

Besides early player retirements, there are other consequences of this "helping" behavior.

* In a sport that is very fluid where the action happens so quickly, players must be able to think on their feet and solve or address problems immediately. However, the more players are told what to do, the less they will be able to think for themselves.

* Players lose their sense of purpose. They are out there to play a game and try their best yet are constantly being told how to play.

* Once one adult starts maneuvering players on the field, other adults feel empowered to do the same. Soon, players are being told how to play and where to stand by coaches, parents, and complete strangers. And often, the three groups are giving three completely different instructions. What is a player to do?

These are some simple tips that will help coaches curb the joystick epidemic and truly help players.

* Lead by example. Limited joystick coaching during games as much as possible.

* Set ground rules for your assistant coaches and parents. Explain the drawback of joystick coaching and having multiple adults "help" players with conflicting instructions.

* Rather than telling players what to do and where to play, ask them how and where they should be playing. Let them think of the answer and assist only if they don’t know the answer.

Coaches (and parents), leave your joysticks hooked up to your game consoles at home for use with FIFA 10. If you don’t, you’ll be using the actual joystick much more since Saturday mornings will soon be free.

(Alex Kos' experiences as a player, coach, referee, parent and fan are shared in his blog, Improving Soccer in the United States, where this article first appeared.)

7 comments about "Don't be a 'Joystick' Coach".
  1. Tom Kondas, April 16, 2010 at 8:19 p.m.

    Although Mr. Kos provides his personal opinion on how to coach youth, others, with the same experience as he shows and perhaps more, may not necessarily agree with his method.

  2. Burney Warren, April 17, 2010 at 3:31 p.m.

    Agreed Alex. One goal as a coach should be to train players at training sessions to think for themselves during gametime. Of course, we have to remind them and help get them focused during games, but complete control wil only prolong their development. Good article!
    _Coach Burney Warren

  3. Gerry Khermouch, April 17, 2010 at 4:50 p.m.

    Mr. Kos' somewhat naive remarks would make sense if it was true that the goal of youth soccer programs is to offer kids a healthy outlet for their energy that keeps them out of trouble and teaches them the basic skills of a wonderful sport. However, anyone who's spent time around youth sports will know that their real function is to offer a healthy outlet that keeps the ADULTS out of trouble, offering a fresh-air alternative to competitive shopping, drinking or bickering with spouses. In that regard, to deprive them of their chalkboards, roster sheets, whistles, flags, yellow cards, megaphones and other paraphernalia would be to undermine the main reason we have youth sports. "Joystick" coaches? That's the whole point! Joystick coaching is the equivalent of videogames for adults, except using real kids instead of silly avatars. How dare Mr. Kos try to deprive parents of their afternoon pleasure? The kids can find somewhere else to have fun!

  4. Tom Hudecek, April 18, 2010 at 1:32 p.m.

    Yes in a perfect world you set the kids on the field and their love and desire for the game will guide them to playing the game properly. Well, trying to have 9 year old girls conceptualize the ideas of movement of the ball and proper ways to handle pressure with adequate support ON THEIR OWN is not natural in this country. MOST kids in this counrty, even the high level players rarely watch any high level soccer. In other parts of the world the pick things up naturally for 2 reasons. They watch high level soocer and the neighborhood is full of other players, including more skilled older kids who give the younger less skilled players a reference point on how to play the game. The second reason is quantity of play. Most young players play in their 2 practices per weeek maybe one game and THAT IS IT! Take a 70 minute session and factor in water breaks, warm up cool down and with the small sided games, how much time is left for the players to be come naturally comfortable tactically? In the other parts of the world, neighborhood pick up games for hours each day are not uncommon. I realize tactics are not as vital below age 12, but these are things that will prepare them as 14 year olds where now having a tactical understanding makes a difference in how they develop technically.
    The movement towards coaches not shouting orders and letting the players learn through mistakes is only effective if the players know what is a mistake and what isn't. Do you exepect the 9 year old to know if they are a novice? Maybe better to leave it to the uninformed and inexperienced Soccer Mom on the car ride home to tell the players what is quality soccer?
    The balance needed is to give feedback at the right times, and to make sure the players understand what options they have for the decisions they make and evaluate how their decisions impact play. Not just set them out there and hope they figure it out in their 12 hours of seasonal soccer practice.

  5. Anthony Munoz, April 20, 2010 at 3:15 p.m.

    Amen, Amen, Amen! There are times when instructions need to be given, but not all game long. Check what's happening at training. You should be getting your practice plan from the games, which will be hard to do if you are trying to control what is going on all game long. If you’re not getting the results you want you will need to have patience with the players not understanding, we all don’t get it at the same speed.
    With all the direction going on, during a game, I guarantee you the player is not benefiting from it, at least in the long term; he or she is probable hoping you would just let them figure it out on their own, for once. I know if you let them figure out the majority of the game on their own you will be able to have better, more meaningful, coach to player conversations.
    However, if the need is to win right now brake out the throat lozenges and your joysticks; have at it.

  6. Gary Stewart, April 21, 2010 at 1:21 p.m.

    In response to Mr. Khermouch, "using real kids instead of avatars" is just wrong and quite frankly I find it offensive. It is this type of attitude that is rotting youth soccer (and any other sport) at the core. As parents and coaches we have an obligation to teach our children the right way and the wrong way on and off the field. Equally, we have an obligation to allow these children the right to carry out what is being taught to them on their own. Obviously, we can't follow our children everywhere off the field and force them to do what they are told. So why would anyone think that it is any different on the field? For crying out loud, give the children a chance-let them play! The idea that youth sports is designed to keep adults out of trouble is obsurd and it is a selfish way of looking at things. Youth sports is about the children, they are why we are all involved in the first place. If you remove the children from the equation, you are left with nothing.

  7. Thomas Hosier, May 12, 2010 at 6:25 p.m.

    A wise coach has often told me "leave him alone, he is a bright boy, he will figure it out." Some boys and girls will never "get it" no matter how much coaching is done at practice and during the game. Those that "have game" will figure it out and we will see them become creative and innovative in their play. The kids are making 2 to 3 decisions per second during the game. By the time they have sorted out what we are trying to tell them to do the ball has gone elsewhere or as in my case had the lad moved to where I told him to go, he wouldn't have won the ball and scored.

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