What are the challenges creativity poses? PDP Lead Researcher James Vaughan challenges the place of this important ingredient in human development.

The problem with creativity is that our world is not designed for it…however, before we get into that, a few disclaimers:

1. This blog post may be viewed as controversial, confronting and a bit annoying (but it is all evidence based). Therefore, when I want to make an important point, I’ll use an academic reference (peer reviewed) and, where possible, I’ll include a full quote. This is for your piece of mind, and mine – so you can trust the information and I don’t come across as some crazy heretic (you may decide that I’m a crazy heretic anyway).

2. I am currently in the process of writing the opening to my PhD – a cross-cultural study of creativity in football. Therefore, my writing may tend towards the academic, or it may go to the other end of the spectrum, be well informal and a little bit rubbish, who knows.

3. I am visually dyslexic so there may be a few funny spelling mistakes. Please embrace the comedy, bear with me and remember, “Dyslexics are teople poo”. Also, take a moment to consider my academic supervisors and remember you can choose to laugh or cry.

4. To provide context, I will link the research to football and coaching. However links are often my own ideas on how the research could be understood, please feel free to comment on these in relation to your own experience but remember that everyone’s experience and environment is different so what works in one may not be applicable to another.

So, back to our problem with creativity:

“The problem is that our society is not designed for creativity but for machine conformity. Most importantly it does not support creative ideas. Lets just look at academia: having a good mind in academia means, among other things, to be razor sharp in critique. But we do not learn how to play with ideas, how to explore together, and support “newborn” ideas and allow them to flourish for a while. We immediately learn to attack and critique. In organisations, we laugh at “wild” ideas. We make jokes about people with their odd approaches. So as Oscar put it, art keeps people sane, but it is the environment that kills creativity in people, and arguable kills many creative people.” (Bocchi, Cianci, Montuori, & Nicolaus, 2014, p. 362)

Does this sound familiar? It will for those of you who’ve seen one of the worlds most watched TED Talks – Ken Robinsons “schools kill creativity”. So considering the quote above: “it is the environment that kills creativity in people, and arguable kills many creative people.” – does society kill creativity? Could this lead to the flawed genius’ we see on the football pitch?

From George Best to Paul Gascoigne, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Mario Balotelli, creative football players have often been self-destructive.

But is this nature or nurture? My research and a growing consensus from lots of different scientific disciplines (listed below) suggest nurture:

(i) The Psychological Study of the Athlete in Context (Coulter, Mallett & Singer, 2015), (ii) Athlete-Centred Coaching (Kidman & Lombardo, 2010), (iii) Socio-Cognitive Theories of Motivation (Mageau and Vallerand, 2003; Mallet 2005), (iv) The Ecological Dynamics of Skill Acquisition (Ajaujo & Davids, 2009; Krebs, 2009; Uehara, Button, Falcous & Davids, 2014), (v) Personality Psychology (McAdams & Pals, 2006), (vi) Cultural Psychology (Stambulova & Ryba, 2014) and even (vii) Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience (Kiverstein & Miller, 2015).

All these disciplines are starting to highlight the pivotal, potentially defining role of the environment or the socio-cultural context. So the argument for nature or nurture is leaning towards nurture. Either way, the question becomes pointless when we consider that as coaches we can’t influence nature, but we do have the ability to shape the environment.

At this point I feel like we reach a Matrix/Morpheus moment. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Morpheus is about to reveal the true nature of the world to Neo (the main character) and he gives him the opportunity/choice to turn back.

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill –the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe what you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in wonderland and I get to show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Playing the role of Neo, you have the power to change your world but first you need to be open to re-assessing a few fundamental assumptions. If you’re indeed willing to play with these ideas, lets continue to tumble down Alice’s rabbit hole.

According to Bocchi, Cianci, Montuori, & Nicolaus, (2014), current systems of education reinforce redundant ways of thinking and organising, ill-equipped to solve the varied and complex challenges of the 21st Century. Montuori (2012) elaborates, siting Reproductive (mainstream) Education as the historical source of our current creative paralysis:

“Reproductive Education stresses conformity and homogeneity and supresses creativity at a time when it is apparent that creativity needs to be mobilised to get beyond the decaying industrial views of modernity and envision new futures, new possibilities, new economic, environmental, social, and cultural and ethical systems” (p.65).

Ok, so the rabbit hole is manageable now but it becomes a little more complex when we consider all the systems mentioned above and how they connect:

“Every system is part of a larger system. Every part exists in a larger whole, which in turn is part of a larger whole. In an organisational setting, the individual is part of a group, which is part of an organisation, which is part of a national economy, which in turn is part of the larger global system. Every system is part of a larger system, in a series of endless nested systems.” (Montuori, 2011, p. 416)

And this is the problem with the environment – it’s so complex, unravelling it to find the things (socio-cultural constraints) killing creativity becomes like finding the end of the Sellotape. You know it’s there, but its invisible (it’s like dark matter), and then when you almost get it, it’s one of those pretend long thin bits that peels off and you have to start all over again. This is the best metaphor my mind could muster for addressing the complexity of the environment, and ultimately finding the stuff that kills creativity. Luckily, there are a growing number of academics embracing this Sellotape style complexity. And some of them are getting pretty close to the core of Sellotape by looking at things from a socio-historic perspective.

Prior to the 1960’s, philosophers and psychologists attempted to understand the human mind and our behaviour in mechanistic terms (Withagen, Poel, Araújo, & Pepping, 2012), based on fundamental assumptions and old school metaphors from the Newtonian worldview (Montuori, 2011). Basically they weren’t open to, or looking for their matrix moment.

This lack of open mindedness created a ripple effect of tsunami-ish proportions, as explained by Montuori, (2012):

“The Newtonian/Cartesian worldview, central to the industrial age and at the heart of modernity, saw the Universe, society, and human beings, as machines and mechanical processes” (p.65 ).

A great paradox of this worldview is that while it led to the emergence of science and technology – and an era of incredible creativity – it failed to account for the creative process. Indeed, Bocchi et al., (2014) explain:

“With the Enlightenment, creativity did not fit into the orderly, predictable, controllable world scientists were studying so successfully”.

The value placed on order led to a pretty influential ripple effect and created an underlying cultural assumption – order is inherently good and therefore, disorder is undesirable and fundamentally bad (Bocchi et al., 2014). Essentially science and the world became all about creating environments of prediction and control, its no surprise that the command and control leadership style historically found in education, management and coaching became so popular.

De-valuing and dismissing disorder, actually meant disregarding human beings dynamic relationship with their environment, a relationship that we now understand is essential to stimulating the disorder that leads to creativity (Hristovski et al., 2012).

This has led all of us, around the world, to ignore the need for our very own Matrix/Morpheus moment:

“We have generally been unwilling to explore the extent to which we are shaped by our culture, and in the case of encouragement and promotions of creativity, we have focused on individual factors rather than attempts to change social circumstances” (Montuori & Purser, 1997, p. 4)

The problem with creativity is it requires social change

To be continued…


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James Vaughan
James Vaughan
James Vaughan is a Co-founder of Player Development Project and currently based in Stockholm where he is coaching at AIK and working towards his PhD in Creativity & Motivation in Football.
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  1. Coach Sampson

    I just happened to stumble on your post and loved every single word of it, and could not have agreed with your more. Please keep me informed of future blogs, postings, books for sale that would be a great enlightenment.

    Thank you so much,
    Hesrick ‘Coach Sampson’ Richards.

    • James Vaughan

      Thanks Hesrick, really pleased this resonated with you. I have a few more blogs on the PDP website (this website) and I’ll be writing regularly. We also have regular webinars whereby we talk about these ideas and we have a regular online magazine that goes into more depth on these topics. Check out the ‘Watch’ and ‘Read’ drop down tabs at the top of this page. James

  2. Gary Boyd

    Excellent words James! Totally agree.

    However, consider this, football by its very development is a game that is constrained by order, conformity and rules that have grown out of a chaotic and violent game 150 years or more ago!

    The English, the inventors of our beautiful game, implemented the first rules and order required to make it into the game we love today. It’s that very ability to invent and the conform football with rules and regulations, part of the culture that exists today that stifles creativity?

    • Anonymous

      Excellent point Gary, its a balance that ebbs and flows but perhaps the balance has swung too far in one direction? I think many ‘development’ contexts have become too controlling.

      • Gary Boyd

        Very true James and for me the sign of a great coach is not only to encourage creativity but also to facilitate the transfer of creativity from training into games. That is the skill and art of the coaching process. Anyone can set up and deliver drills, which in themselves are useful tools for basic understanding, but developing that transfer to freedom of expression combined with good decision making sets the ordinary from the great, both in coaching and playing alike!