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Coaching Fencing

For those who don’t play video games, the concept of ‘joysticking’ as a coach refers to coaches who are micro-managing the performance of their athletes in every bout, telling them what to do and when to do it every step of the way, with the athlete merely a conduit for the coach’s thoughts, like a video game player using a joystick to move an avatar around a game screen. 

This recently posted article from STACK online publication struck me with the repetitive nature of such diatribes on the topic of teaching and learning sports performance. It is disheartening to read yet another article re-stating for the umpteenth time in the last fifty odd years, the tenets of teaching and learning of sports performance.  The apparent futility of this constant discussion of how bad this kind of coaching is for the athlete really makes me tired. 

While it is true that in my own teaching I sometimes feel that if I created an audio loop I might save myself the aggravation of saying the same things over and over again; on the other hand, eventually some people will understand the concept simply by virtue of hearing it so often that it falls on their ears at the most opportune time for them to make the connection between what I’m saying and what they are doing. When that happens it’s like I have actually “said the magic word”; suddenly the athlete is able to perform the action or understand the concept they struggled with previously.  So, despite the repetition of this discussion for those who have been teaching for the last 30 odd years, I quote below what I feel to be the most important parts of this recent article in the hopes that it will strike a fresh chord in my own audience, who I hope will think about it and carry the discussion forward.

‘Joysticking’ Is Killing Youth Sports

Updated: February 01, 2019


“Joysticking is a byproduct of the win-now mentality that’s become extremely prevalent in youth soccer. We live in a world of instant gratification. Parents and coaches want their kids to win every single game that they’re involved in. At the youngest levels of the sport, this leads to a disastrous product on the field. Kids are turning to their coaches for what to do instead of their own brains or teammates. Dynamic, fluid sports require quick decision-making. The only way to hone those decision-making skills is to practice making decisions under pressure. When you’re never given that opportunity, you become a robotic, uncreative player incapable of making decision on your own.”

Everyone knows that fencing requires the athlete to make judgments within fractions of a second that bear immediate consequence.  Fencing is a tool-assisted open motor skill combat sport that happens at close range against opponents who represent both the familiar and the unknown, the orthodox and the flat out weird. 

“True development doesn’t happen overnight, and consistently telling kids what to do is simply an abject failure. Joysticking may lead to more wins now, but when the players who are a product of it run into players with better creativity and decision-making skills down the line, they’re going to be in big trouble.”

“Players need to experiment and figure out what does and does not work. They need to make mistakes on their own. And therein lies the problem for many joysticking youth coaches.”

How many times does a fencer find themselves on strip without immediate access to their coach? Unless the club has a one-to-one athlete coach ratio this is something that happens at every level of tournament.  Something that should be a prized and carefully developed asset: self management, is nowhere in sight for the athlete who is constantly supervised.  There are technical mistakes (insufficient training), tactical mistakes (wrong decision or idea) and avoidable mistakes (staying too close, rushing the bout, etc). 

The coach cannot help with the first while at the event; odds are that the coach has already made technical correction, the athlete hasn’t yet internalized it (charitably assuming the athlete diligently works at correcting their technical errors as indicated by the coach). For the second type of mistake, tactical error, the coach can give the athlete an idea but the athlete has to pull the trigger and make it happen; sometimes the athlete misunderstands, sometimes they elect to do something completely different.  The second two kinds of mistakes the coach usually cannot prevent, only comment upon. They are the kinds of mistakes that experience teaches the athlete not to make, although it is true that an athlete who is coach-able while competing can be steered away from some avoidable mistakes by their coach. 

Athletes will make mistakes over and over again; and yes, having a coach there to provide feedback is very helpful at specific times, particularly when the athlete can’t figure out for themselves what the mistake is and is capable of implementing the coach’s suggestion in that moment.  This is partly coach-ability and partly the skill level of the fencer. Mostly more experienced fencers who are strong in their work can discuss with their coach where the problems are and adapt for the next period of the bout.  It is the coach’s job to teach the athlete not only the physical skills of their sport but also analysis and problem solving.  This doesn’t happen when the athlete gets no practice at failure and self-correction.  The coach who sometimes gives the athlete the freedom to work by themselves generally produces an athlete that has confidence in their own skills and abilities.  Greater stress (competition) provides deeper learning, so competing without a coach is an integral part of the process of development.

“Parents often glorify the joysticking youth coach simply because they, too, care about winning above all else. They send their kids to the teams or clubs that win. We all like winning, but how does this team or club earn victories?”

This is a slightly different issue and presents a different and more insidious specific problem. Like cherry-picking athletes for the travel teams and the “elite” teams in soccer/baseball etc. , what it actually does is remove top athletes from the coaches and clubs who made them, thereby hampering the development of the other athletes from that club/team and the development of the coach, who now has to start over again in the absence of their best product, the athlete/s whose presence in the program helped raise the level of their teammates who are trying to keep up.   This also specifically means that the coach doesn’t get the experience of training their athlete at the elite level, which in turn limits the number of elite level coaches in a sport that is growing exponentially without a large enough cadre of trained coaches

Additionally, the athlete who leaves for what appears to be greener pastures is now deprived of a leadership role in their previous community and has to fit into a new culture, which tends to derail their training and results. This is readily observable in junior fencers going to university teams who frequently experience a decline in their fencing results until they adjust to the new program, and whose previous level of result may or may not be attained again, although many other factors play into this also.  Please note, athletes whose initial introduction into the sport did not include systematic training by qualified coaches will benefit by moving to a stronger program when their previous club cannot help them in any way.  We are talking about ‘brain drain’ of proficient competitors created by the coach in this discussion, not beginners who are seeking education. 

 “But the problem is it takes time. Parents need to be more patient. Coaches are teachers, and teaching takes time. Students don’t get literary analysis the first time they try it, so how are they going to be great soccer players the first time they touch a ball?”

“When a coach tells the players what to do, he or she has effectively removed the stress of decisions off the players, and taken it on him or herself. No wonder college coaches are saying this generation of athletes have issues with responsibility.”

“A good coach can affect a game, but a great coach can change a life. Joysticking coaches may win more games in the short term, but at what cost? Your kid wants to win games, but making their own decisions and discovering the keys to success in the sport are critical for their development both in sport and in life. Decisions should belong to the player, not to the coach or parents.”

Fencers have to be confident problem solvers who are not so crippled by the absence of their coach that they can’t play with a whole heart and all of their hard earned skills.  The coach has to train the athlete to bring their own experience and analysis and skills to the bout, and the athlete needs to be able to operate on their own when necessity demands. The coach cannot always save the day, and in the end whose fight is it?

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