PDP Co-Founder and psychology researcher, James Vaughan, explores creativity in footballers with a focus on the coach’s perspective. What does it mean to foster creativity in players? How can we better understand the process of encouraging creative problem solving on the field? Vaughan offers practical insights and solutions to an often abstract topic.
Creativity is often described as the use of imagination to invent something. Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson refines this idea by explaining creativity as ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’. The need for value in this definition, and understanding the accompanying complexities this brings, becomes essential when exploring creative behaviour in sport. While the context for creative behaviour may change – sport, art, dance, design, entertainment – decades of research have identified two fundamental ideas.
Firstly, that all humans have the capacity for creativity, in some domain, at some point in time (the key is to find this domain and maximise these moments in time). Secondly, that there are two key components of creative behaviour: novelty and functionality.
The novelty, or originality, of creative behaviour can be broken down into two sub-categories: Psychological (P) creativity and Historical (H) creativity. Within football, P creativity occurs when an individual discovers a useful behaviour that is novel to them, such as a new skill, technique or movement pattern. Therefore, P creativity can be thought of as the discovery of an individual performance solution – a way of getting the ball from A to B that is unique to the individual.
Taking creativity to the next level, an H creative act represents a movement pattern, such as a pass, shot, dribble, fake, or turn, that did not previously exist within the sport. A classic example of an H creative moment was the ‘Cruyff turn’, unveiled to the world in the 1970 World Cup. A modern example may be the first time we saw the ‘Elastico’, characterised by the Brazilian playmaker Ronaldinho.
Allowed the freedom to explore, a young player may discover a movement new to them, like the ‘Cruyff turn’, and experience P creativity. In this moment they discover a useful, functional movement pattern not previously part of their movement inventory or playing style. Because they discovered this skill for themselves, by themselves, and it worked, they take ownership of this skill. Making them far more likely to internalise, learn, refine and extend this skill as part of their unique style of play. This is where P creativity links to H creativity: “Research by Beghetto and Kaufman (2007) suggest the stimulation of P creative moments when learning may enhance players’ ability to demonstration H creative acts later in life.”
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. – Albert Einstein
Why is H creativity important?
Moments of H creativity represent creative advances, often resulting from the creative genius of playful mavericks and fearless revolutionaries: Cruyff, Best, Ronaldinho. These individuals push the boundaries of what we know and what is excepted, their actions have the power to redraw the boundaries of our thinking and shift the dominant paradigms within sport. Consider the impact of the ‘Fosbury flop’ in high jump, for example. The input of these creative revolutionist drives the evolution of their sport.
This creativity isn’t limited to football or even the world of sport – creative advances are the spark at the heart
of humanity’s major advances, at the heart of our evolution. As Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
The FC Barcelona Way
FC Barcelona recognise the importance of imagination. At La Masia, young players are encouraged to: ‘imagine the best solution, during the action and have the technique that allows them to implement it’. The ability of individuals to imagine, create, and implement novel skills, techniques and movement patterns is one football- specific definition of creativity.
The challenge all coaches face, including those at La Masia, is to develop technically proficient players while stimulating P creative moments. Stimulating P creativity is not only essential for developing creative football players and promoting psychological wellbeing, it is fundamental to the evolution of the human race. We have a responsibility to create environments that inspire creativity.
What does this mean for our coaching?
It means overly prescriptive learning environments – show and tell; see this, do this, do that – will inhibit creative behaviour, in both the present moment and all future moments.
Rather than allowing players to explore in-game football problems with playful curiosity, We (coaches) attempt to fast-forward learning by showing or telling players what to do, inadvertently hijacking potential moments of P creativity. Rather than allowing players to embrace the challenge before them, we encourage them to fix a problem with urgency. But this leaves players minimal freedom to experiment, to tap into their innate tendencies and creatively discover new movement patterns.
‘Show and tell’ coaching often narrows athletes’ attentional focus on very specific in-game information (‘perceptual stimuli’). Phrases such as ‘place your foot here’, ‘tell them “man on”’, ‘just watch the ball’ are perfect examples. Delivered in a controlling manner, this information constrains athletes’ attentional focus, limiting learning to specific information and encouraging techniques privileged by coaches whose thinking is often limited within specific movement cultures.
What Can we do Differently?
Rather than narrowing players attention by telling them what to say, look at, hear and feel, can we encourage players to see more, feel more and communicate more effectively? Can we respect the fact that our players may see more, feel more and hear more than we ever could? Can we respect the importance and limitlessness of their imagination?
The more information we expose our players to, the more they can take in, the more P creative opportunities they’ll experience and the more creative possibilities they will see in the future. Our challenge is to immerse them in the moment, fully engaged and present with their own learning, helping them attain a state of flow; their skillset balanced with the challenge they face. (For more on Flow see the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi TED talk below).
Can we respect the fact that our players may see more, feel more and hear more than we ever could?
Values and Functional Behaviour
The functional aspect of creative behaviour requires a movement pattern that produces a desirable outcome. But what is desirable, and in whose eyes? Given the same ‘in-game moment’, for example one vs. one with the full-back, would you and I see or imagine the ‘same’ best solution? Where I see a through ball to our #9, you see a dribble, and the #9 sees a wall pass!
Why, in the same moment, do we all see different options? Not only do we perceive the moment differently but we also value the actions differently. I want to play a killer pass, you want to dribble and the #9 wants to play a wall pass.
This becomes a question of personal value. For example, I may have grown up in a culture or been surrounded
by key individuals that value ‘the pass’ and what it represents: accuracy, efficiency, patience, possession. While you, on the other hand, have been in environments that value the deception, unpredictability, risk and directness of a dribble. The #9, meanwhile, saw this scenario as the time the coach wants him to position for a wall pass. Perhaps the key is to simultaneously recognise all options and simply choose as the moment unfolds. The desirability of the outcome depends on the moment, the context and all its complexities. Team playing model, game scenario and player motive all play their part.
The motive for our behaviour is essential to creativity. I have witnessed outstanding acts of technical skill
that leave coaches and teammates frustrated, even resentful. In these moments a player’s ego drives decision-making and behaviour. Ego-orientated behaviour creates controlling contexts, polluting the environment and those exposed to it. Controlling behaviours spread like a virus to stifle the creativity of the individual and those around them. Rather than moments of creativity we get moments of showboating.
Creativity presupposes a community of people who share ways of thinking and acting, who learn from each other and imitate each other’s actions.
Creativity requires a purity of motive, an innocent engagement with the game, a vulnerable expression of self; an expression of who we are and what we value. In this moment, fully immersed and engaged with the task, we are primed for creative behaviour. Famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, expert in the creative process and the attainment of flow, gives insight into the group nature of creativity and the critical role of the environment: “Creativity presupposes a community of people who share ways of thinking and acting, who learn from each other and imitate each other’s actions.”
True creativity, the kind that makes a mark on history, happens in a community with shared values, an environment full of interconnected parts that share a belief or understanding. The starting point for coaches is developing a creative team culture; something we’ll explore throughout the Player Development Project.
Ronaldinho, a beacon of creativity for Barcelona. Nou Camp Stadium, September, 2007. Photo: Maxisports
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