Ludvig J. T. Rasmussen, Lars D. Ostergaard, and Vlad Glaveanu

The Big Idea

Few sport coaches would deny player creativity as an essential component of a winning game performance.  Nor would they deny that facilitating in-game creativity is typically a significant component of practice sessions.  In other words, when creativity is valued it is understood to be an end to be achieved; and it is measured by serendipitous or improvisational performance.

But in this research paper published in the journal, Sport, Education and Society (2017), the authors take a different approach to creativity and sport.  They argue that seeing creativity as a developmental resource for players is to redefine creativity not as an end of our play, but as a means to habit-breaking/re-making, learning, enjoyment, and solving even daily life challenges.  In other words, creativity is not a destination but an explore.

When coaches are preoccupied with narrowing their vision of creativity to performance, there is the possibility of trivializing the very event they pursue.  This happens when all eyes are open for creativity during competition but are closed to the very foundation of creative experiences in training practices.


  • Undeniably, there is near-universal belief among coaches that creativity is an essential component of successful competitions.
  • But typically, coaches and players in team sports take creativity to mean is creative performances in matches.
  • What gets lost is a more primary understanding of creativity as a valued foundation of training activities.
  • Coaches should not only coach creatively, but also coach for creativity.
  • For these authors, pre-game developmental training is defined by the extent to which a coach will modify player-environment transactions.
  • Changing up affordances, intentions, and norms in training sessions seeds novel responses, decisions, and actions.
  • Player growth and development is nurtured when creativity is seen as a means, not merely an end.
  • Play and open-mindedness are foundations for creative training and practice conduct.
  • Applications are given to help coaches think up unusual action possibilities to explore creative means and developmental learning.

The Research

The potential utility of creative development

These authors are primarily focused on developmental creativity in such unpredictable and dynamic invasion games as soccer, basketball, and ice hockey, as opposed to swimming, gymnastics or athletics (track and field).  This is not to say that pre-competition creativity can’t impact performance in non-invasion sports, as demonstrated by the well-known innovation in high jumping as the Fosbury Flop.  But typically, it is in invasion games where there is a premium on players’ ability to successfully handle novel game situations.

From the get-go, when we limit the likely instances of creativity in sports to performance there is the inevitable result that creativity is the domain of the gifted athlete; in fact, creative responses and improvisational moves by talented athletes are often the very definition of creativity in sport.  As such, creative play is produced by the few, not the many.

A more pragmatic approach is to utilize training and practice sessions as creative opportunities for all players.  In other words, these researchers want to challenge convention when it comes to the meaning of coaching itself.  To coach, they believe, is to commit to finding ways to anchor creativity in pre-competition action which in turn frees players up for new and future actions.

Using the thinking of the American philosopher John Dewey, these researchers describe the creative act is a transaction between the human being and its natural and social environment; it is “active, adaptive, and adjustive.”  Besides its survival function, creativity becomes our human agency where, as creators, we can do and make creative things.

The consequences of player-environment transactions

The player-environment is defined as interactions between player generation and social structures.  These transactions can be essentially negative or positive; either a decrease or increase in the process of exploring.  Thinking about creativity in sport as a pre-competition means is a creative idea given the history of thinking about creativity in sport.

They argue that unusual affordances (opportunities) in training arise from three kinds of novelty.  There is acting on unperceived, unexploited, and un-invented affordances.  They mean that in traditional practice contexts, athletes: 1) may not perceive action potentials that do not fit the habitual intentions of a player; or 2) may choose not to exploit available affordances due to social or cultural norms; or 3) may yet to see affordances that could be invented from such things as rule changes or equipment upgrades.  The result from exploring these novel sources of affordances as unusual becomes usual; new unusuals then appear, only in time themselves becoming usual.  Such is individual and collective development.  This process of exploring is the ground base of learning.

Habits, growth, open-mindedness—and play

Habits, for Dewey, can be active, varied, and elastic—at least potentially.  While humans do have this inventing capacity, habits can also imprison by way of following routines that arrest growth, development, and open-mindedness.  By challenging routines, habits can be broken and re-made.  Our habits appear to be intentions of the mind.  Such minding reveals the habits of the hand and eye, says Dewey.

What stimulates the intentions of the mind in sport training can come from experimenting with ideas, learning new things from teammates, imitating elite players, or just goofing around with the implements of the sport at hand.  What impedes creating new habits is winning at all costs, humoring or satisfying others, or being driven by the fear of avoiding mistakes or disappointing others—all limiting creative possibilities.

And what drives exploring novel affordances?  Playfulness does.  The irony here is that being at play is not direct utility-seeking.  “Play and open-mindedness are stimulating transactional ingredients for the exploration of unusual affordances in positive transformation.”  In other words, we mow the pitch in order to play on the pitch; we play on the pitch in order to play.  Play is not an in-order-to.  But by playing, we open ourselves to intrinsic meaning—mere utility becomes agency; agency becomes affordance-seeking; affordance-seeking becomes players-in-the-making.

What happens in training sessions in the absence of play?

There is a tendency in organized sports for the institution itself to smother player-at-play urges.  At the very least, this threat limits instead of liberating player potential.  Other research studies have discovered a range of complications for training practices when inertia is substituted for divergent thinking and sport-specific creativity:

  • That informal sport participation is a better environment for nurturing creativity.
  • That when day-to-day practices are defined by pedagogic authority and control, team members take up subjugated roles.
  • That when practices are designed to train the body/mind capital of players into “machined” capital to win games, the result is docile, submissive, and conforming players.
  • That exploring unusual action possibilities is nullified when coaches’ prescriptive tendencies become so proscriptive that open-mindedness, originality, and differential expression are effectively suspended.
  • That striving for extrinsic habits of efficiency and motor skills without thoughtful exploring of novel affordances is a deliberate stunting of player growth and development.

Application of creativity as a means (training) rather than an end (matches)

So, how do we stimulate creativity as a means to individual and team-wide positive growth and development?  First off, it is incredibly helpful if coaches simply explain themselves when creatively transforming practices into creatively-stimulating initiatives.  Helping players directly see the distinction between training session creativity and match creativity will be helpful.  A result will be a team who understands the dual role of the coach: to coach creatively (using new-fangled activities) and to coach for creativity in matches.  Done rightly, the value of creativity becomes self-evident to the entire team.  When the training and game performance are creativity-based: obedience is replaced by gumption.  Gumption is life-giving and life creating.

To elicit team-wide gumption, coaches can modify the player-environment variously, highlighting affordances, intentions, and norms.  As these researchers suggest, the players should be helped to identify, explore, and enact unusual action possibilities, occupy and utilize unfamiliar intentions, and challenge the norms of training—even when players do not consider such modifications applicable.

Exploring unusual action possibilities could be stimulated by:

  • Create open-ended tasks by asking young players: How many different ways can a ball be kicked, or a puck be slapped?
  • Modify game rules in small-sided games: You must change skills used for each ball possession.
  • Change-up sport-specific skills in practices: Basketball players can use their feet; soccer players can use their hands.
  • Use different materials: Play small-sided soccer games with an American football, or with balloons, or tennis balls.

If these modifications seem bizarre, here’s how these authors justify them.  These experiments shift the player’s attention away from the conventions of their sport.  Attention is drawn to differing action potentials.  These action potentials are enacted.  If the players can meet novelty face-to-foot-or-hand so to speak, they will experience losing control and making mistakes with no negative consequences.  Their playing world expands to include unskilled behaviors in a safe, controlled, autonomy-supported, and open play environment.  And creativity is thereby stimulated as a developmental resource.

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