Beyond the Joystick. Empowering Players' Autonomy and Creativity in Football

How can we prevent all players from crowding around the ball like a swarm of bees? That was one of the first questions I asked myself when I started coaching kids.

I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution, and I’m still searching for an answer to that question. I keep searching because, in reality, this is part of a broader problem that doesn’t only apply to kids. It’s about influencing the behavior of a group or even shaping habits.

Here are two different alternatives to solve this problem.

The Joystick Coach

The first way to solve the problem is by giving instructions to the players. Shouting at them loudly to make sure they hear us. We can give them all kinds of instructions like “run,” “pay attention,” “go,” “come back,” “kick the ball with your right foot,” “use your left foot,” “head it,” “jump,” etc.

I once watched a game where the coach was directing his team in this way. To be honest, it was irritating and deafening. The worst part was when his team got a corner kick, a player grabbed the ball, turned around, and shouted at the coach, “What do I do?” The player needed the coach to tell him what to do during a corner kick. It’s true that you can have planned plays or follow certain guidelines, but a corner kick in children’s football should be simple: send the ball into the area or make a pass. There’s not much more to it. The player couldn’t decide that on his own.

The problem with those who dictate tactics is that they take away the joy and creativity from the players. The most important thing in football is to play with joy and passion. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re not playing the game correctly. Brian Clough

The problem with the joystick coach is that it takes away the players’ sense of autonomy.

Autonomy and intrinsic motivation are closely related and often go hand in hand. Autonomy refers to the sense of self-direction and control that individuals have over their actions and decisions. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in an activity for its own enjoyment and satisfaction, rather than for external rewards or pressures.

When people have a sense of autonomy, they feel empowered and have the freedom to make decisions and choices that align with their own interests, values, and goals. This autonomy supports and enhances intrinsic motivation. When people have autonomy to engage in activities they find meaningful and enjoyable, they can nurture their intrinsic motivation to participate in those activities voluntarily and wholeheartedly.

In contrast, when people experience a lack of autonomy, such as being excessively controlled or micromanaged, it can hinder their intrinsic motivation. External pressures, strict rules, or imposed goals can diminish the sense of autonomy and reduce intrinsic motivation, making the activity feel more like an obligation than a personally fulfilling pursuit.

Research has consistently shown that providing autonomy to individuals in their work, learning, or other areas of life can promote intrinsic motivation, leading to increased engagement, creativity, and overall well-being. By allowing individuals to have a say in their actions and fostering a sense of self-determination, autonomy supports and nurtures their intrinsic motivation to engage in activities for the pure joy, curiosity, or personal growth they bring.

This is closely aligned with what the current coach of Brighton & Hove Albion says:

I don’t move my players with a joystick… the decisions are all up to them. Roberto de Zerbi

Games with Incentives and Restrictions

Let’s say we want to teach a group of kids how to make passes. A joystick coach shouts at the players to pass the ball until they understand it.

This not only frustrates everyone but also takes a long time to work. One of the reasons it doesn’t work is that players, especially children, may take a long time to understand what making a pass means.

Making a pass is difficult to learn because it requires many skills that are not easy to incorporate. For example, looking up, having a spatial awareness of teammates, having the motor skills to kick the ball with the right force and direction, etc.

The idea to solve this problem is to devise specific games to acquire skills or change habits. For example, in the case of passing, the “rondo” is a simple game with restricted rules designed specifically for players to practice specific passing skills, among others.

A rondo is a game where a group of players positions themselves in a small space, forming a circle, while one or several players defend in the center. The goal of the players in the circle is to maintain ball possession through quick and accurate passes, while the defenders try to intercept the ball.

Another example would be dividing the playing field into different lanes and assigning one to each player to teach them to avoid crowding. Then, restrictions and incentives can be set. For instance, if a player stays in their lane, they have no restrictions, but if they step out of it, they can only touch the ball once. Violating this restriction results in the opposing team being awarded a free kick.

That’s why training sessions are important. It’s the moment to make interventions. The rondo is just one example, and there are as many playful interventions as there are skills to develop or train. The key is to recognize the behavior or habits you want to incorporate and then find or develop the necessary game.

Restrictions can be incorporated into matches, but in practice, I haven’t found it necessary. It’s impressive to see how in a matter of weeks, a swarm of bees can disperse on a football field and start using space intelligently.

For many, football is played with the feet. For me, it is played with the head, and the feet are used to express it. Johan Cruyff

Football is played with the head because it’s a game of decision-making. Forcing individual or collective decisions comes at a high cost: it discourages players’ autonomy and motivation. The best alternative I’ve found so far to convey a concept is to present different options through activities to the players during training and let them decide in the match.

The key is to respect the players’ decisions, especially during the match, to the point where I’ve come to believe that telling a player what to do in a match is like spoiling the ending of a movie.

And no one wants to be a spoiler.