Manual Santos and Kevin Morgan

The Big Idea

In 1974 Studs Terkel, the American broadcaster, actor, and oral historian, published the best-selling non-fiction book, Working. In it he interviewed a cross-section of Americans about their working lives, “about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.”  In one interview, Terkel interviewed jazz tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman.  Freeman got to talking about how hard the work of improvisation is, the working out of all the possibilities of a theme, and the on-going promise of finding ways to get better. Something or someone is calling you—and you follow; your name and face reappear and become stamped with the impression of character compelled by the improvisational demands of living. Freeman recalled the words of tenor sax man Ben Webster who played with Duke Ellington: “I’m going to play this damned saxophone until they put it on top of me.” Like Webster, after forty-seven years of blowing the horn, says Freeman, it’s become dearer to me. Freeman confides, “It’s a thing I need to do.”  And it’s a thing we all want to find.

So it goes, the Big Idea of this first-person research study.  Yes, it is about meaning, improvisation, and jazz.  But it is also and especially about youth player development in sports and the coaches who instruct them. 


  • Common to traditional youth development coaching methods is to position the coach at the center of the process of learning.
  • This study provides an alternative to tradition on creative team play by shifting the center of the learning process to the players themselves.
  • The specific focus of learning was the extent to which creative responses to the challenges raised by competitive volleyball functioned to augment the players’ tactical and strategic knowledge.
  • This knowledge is a central component in what is commonly called “Sports IQ.”
  • Seven female competitive youth volleyball players (ages between 10 and 14) were invited to improve their team creativity through player collaboration.
  • The learning model for this transformation comes from the pedagogical principles of jazz-related literature, primarily on the collaboration required for improvising within jazz ensembles.
  • An action research design was implemented (the coach as researcher) during a 14 weeks period.
  • The players collaborated to set pre-planned, creative strategies; practiced abilities to improvise creative tactics when facing emerging challenges in game play; strove to exhibit empathetic attunement; and elaborated on their communication channels.
  • In the end, that despite their young ages, there was some evidence the players acquired the concept of “jazz motifs” and learned to collaborate, improvise, take risks, and to play off one another’s personal challenges.

The Research

This research paper was published in the International Journal of Sport Science and Coaching (2019).  It is aligned with the growing body of research on the very structure of the learning process in coaching.  The traditional model of the coach as the pivotal voice of decision-making, especially when it comes to player creativity, is challenged.  They will argue the traditional model can compromise players’ personal development and their ability to respond to creative opportunities in competitive environments. 

All that jazz

What is unique in this study is the primary body of knowledge the authors appropriate.  Not the traditional tenets of sport pedagogy, but—listen to this—jazz ensembles pedagogy.  Let’s see what’s up with this line of thinking.

These authors argue that jazz-related literature is creativity-related literature.  They ask, why wouldn’t we find it to be compatible with promoting the novelty of creative actions in sports—especially opening windows to improvisation?  Jazz ensembles depend on creative, unpremeditated interactions between the performers.  In other words, the players are in conversation with one another.  They are literally playing with ideas, playing off one another, and playing with meaning.

In both jazz and sport, a developing a culture of creativity is what provokes group creativity.  There is no surprise that developing such a creative culture can be a primary function of coaching—whether the jazz coach or the sport coach.  As put by these authors, “. . . coaches play a central role in developing creativity while maintaining personal challenge.” 

Oddly enough, producing a culture of creativity is deliberate, and quite contrary to the way spontaneous play emerges.  In team sports it is imperative that teammates listen to one another, become aware of one another’s body language, gestures, and styles of play.  In improvisational jazz, motifs are important.  The motifs are stocks of music recyclable to a wide range of musical contexts.  The equivalents in sports are the tactical or strategic actions employed against the emerging challenges created by the opposition.

The basic belief of these authors is that creativity and improvisation are learnable.  And further, that whether in ensembles or team sport play it is the collective sources available not the individual talents that are the primary focus of coaching.  “Creativity is, therefore, framed as a collaborative, social and collective endeavaor.”

This study may be the first study to use jazz concepts of ensemble creativity as a model for sport pedagogy.  It was an aim of this study to improve player creativity by way of introducing the principles of collaborative creativity in jazz.  It also suggests the role of the coach should be modified when it comes to coaching creativity.  This study is also one of a few such studies using what is called “first person action research” or AR for short—which makes this study on creativity, creative.

The study sample size was seven female volleyball players aged between 10 and 14, the majority aged 14.  These players were coached by the first author and had been for four years.  The approach was to develop what was called an “inquiring approach” to his own coaching practice.  The study design was to use “jazz concepts of collaborative creativity to challenge the dominant culture rooted amongst sport coaches and to promote a transformation in coaching practice.”    

Regarding AR as a method of study, its justification for use is summarized below:

  • By design AR studies are conducted by invested individuals.
  • The argument is that such invested individuals best understand practice that may need transformation possibly inhibited by socio-cultural preferences and habits.
  • Such first-hand practices depend on transforming the social relationships in the field.
  • AR permits direct observation of the activities themselves and how practice can be enhanced.
  • AR depends on reflective opportunities as a form of inquiry, as a way of designing action plans to address deficiencies in play, as a way of finding creative modifications in the environment, and as a way of cycling in additional voices in the research.
  • AR basically favors experience over information as the source of useful and potential creative improvements in current coaching practice.
  • This AR was an intentional intervention in the prevailing ideas of coaching culture.

The intervention

This AR design included three data sources: 1) critical colleagues; 2) reflective log; and 3) focus groups.   The use of critical colleagues involved a bi-weekly meeting for the primary investigator to use as a sounding board.  He looked to the colleagues for constructive criticism during the intervention. 

The focus groups and the reflective log served as the evidence for the results of the 14-week intervention.  The focus groups met twice, at week eight and fourteen.  The volleyball players were the focus groups participants.  They were invited to evaluate the impact of the creative intervention. 

The reflective log was the way the coach/investigator kept track of the daily events in the intervention, including the development of the intervention, the ups and downs, the frustrations, and feelings.

The sequence of the intervention was as follows:

  • The big idea was to implement a collaborative, creativity-centered coaching and practice environment.
  • The intervention began in a first cycle with the coach gradually challenging his volleyball players to collaboratively develop creative outcomes within a range of generic volleyball games—still coach centered.
  • The next step was to challenge the players to construct creative actions within modified games or game-related scenarios.  The idea was to enhance their strategic and tactical knowledge.  For example, the players were invited to do the opposite of what they normally did in sequences of play.  Much of this was produced by way of small-sided games.
  • In the third cycle and using the jazz pedagogy technique of introducing inspirational tales of well-known jazz musicians, the coach used video clips of especially successful volleyball teams, highlighting especially creative plays.
  • By way of enlarging the plays to discover possible motifs typically used by creative jazz ensembles, the volleyball players could build a repertoire of collaborative adjustments in emerging situations within games.
  • Although developing genuine collaborative improvising by his volleyball team over the 14 weeks was itself a challenge, the players were at least getting the idea of collaborative improvisation by having the privilege of full team improvising in-the-moment as play evolves against an opponent.


By way of the focus groups and the reflective logs, this coach/researcher presented his findings in four themes.

1. Creativity can be a tool to develop strategic and tactical knowledge

Creativity is not an end.  It is more like developing creative habits of mind.  Then creativity in the specific context of any competition becomes the leading edge of collaborative actions.  The learning is not merely acquiring “if this, then that.” It is like starting with creative “thats” and improvising the opponents to do “this.” The strategies and tactical knowledge aren’t simply produced; they become the embodied presence of each teammate collaborating in-time and in-space.

2. Improvisation can create the emerging characteristics of the game.

Once players realize the power of improvisation—even when it doesn’t work quite right—their overall comprehension of the range of possible game-variables emerges.  Team solutions to sudden problems create sudden and unexpected problems for their opponents. 

3. Like the musical motifs of jazz ensembles, sport motifs become improvisational expansions.

Popular jargon refers to the number and kind of tools in one’s toolbox as indications of possible problem solving.  A motif is sort of like having different and full toolboxes available in the course of play, not just different tools.  As frameworks, motifs can become what gets an entire team on the same line of thinking; and which in turn becomes the foundation for improvisation within pre-conceived circumstances.

4. When pre-planned strategies and tactics are failing in the course of play, inter-player communication will turn the play into “risk and respond” solutions.

Both verbal and non-verbal communication between teammates on the court or the pitch are called empathetic attunements.  Again, like jazz ensembles, players comfortable with improvisation will take creative risks when moved to do so knowing that the ensemble will respond in kind.  In jazz this is called empathetic attunement.  It means in both jazz improv and in sport improv that there is common identification between the players.

5.  The quality and quantity of in-play communication channels established by the players were facilitated by the emphasis on creative responses to challenges and constraints.

Notice the phrase “established by the players.”  This action research (AR) study entailed a modification of the role of the volleyball coach (and researcher).  It wasn’t that the communication channels excluded the coach.  It was simply that there were more communications in addition to the coaches’ channel.  By giving these players permission to creatively experiment together, the coach was prescribing not proscribing.  The prescriptive role was to set up the creative-based collaborative coaching design in the first place.  By doing so the urge to proscribe what the players will do in different in-play situations was eliminated.   

It’s like being shouldered to shoulder as a coach with the players than fact-to-face.

Afterthoughts courtesy of Bud Freeman

I loved to play—the fact that I could express myself in improvisation, the unplanned.

True improvisation comes out of hard work.

I’ve never been terribly interested in technique, but I’m interested in facility.  To feel comfortable, so when the idea shoots out of my head, I can finger it, manipulate it. Something interesting happens. You’ll hear a phrase and all of a sudden, you’re thrown into a whole new inspiration.

Image Source: Bogomil Mihaylov via Unsplash

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