Learning to lead through sports coaching
Can you coach creativity? (The answer is “yes”)

Can you coach creativity? (The answer is “yes”)

How many times have you heard a TV football commentator say in response to an amazing piece of skill, vision or imagination that “you just can’t teach that kind of creativity”? Well, it turns out that you can.

To be fair, it’s more accurate to say that people can learn it than that coaches or teachers can teach it. And a growing amount of academic research and professional practice is demonstrating how.

Lessons from business

Being innovative is a highly prized trait in the business world. It goes without saying that new product development is massively important. Among the biggest corporations, firms like GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever spend billions on research and development.

A business meeting

At the other end of the spectrum, small businesses frequently smash their way into the marketplace through innovation and creativity – think Innocent Smoothies, or Intuit in the business-to-business sector.

And innovation doesn’t just mean new products – it manifests itself in new, slicker ways of working and a general creative approach to solving business problems.

Unsurprisingly, given the rewards on offer to the most successful organisations, companies are willing to spend a lot of money funding a lot of research to work out how they can make their people more creative and innovative – more “entrepreneurial”.

The lessons the academics have come up with can be applied in a sports coaching environment. Just some of the key ones include:

  1. Give people “slack” time to work on personal projects where they explore new things.
    Think about Google’s commitment to allowing its staff 20% of their time to work on something unrelated to their day job. That’s like a football coach giving a fifth of each session to the players to basically create and play their own games – free play, in other words.
    Manchester United have been doing this in their academy for a few years: no matter what the focus of a training session is, players always get time to just play the game with their own rules and no coaching involvement – time that has been widely credited with helping develop players like Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford.
  2. Encourage a wider range of experience.
    Specialisation is all well and good, but it can limit people’s thinking – the enemy of creativity. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story that, statistically, the safest time to have a heart attack in the USA is when there is a national cardiology conference on. Apparently, the story goes, cardiology specialists have a habit of seeing every heart problem as a surgery case. When they are away, more general practitioners have to diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution. Because the general practitioners have a wider field of experience they see more alternatives to surgery and, despite their shortage of specialist knowledge, more of their patients survive.
    In a sporting context this would suggest that players should take on a wider variety of sports. (There are all kinds of benefits to that, but we’ll stick to creativity in this post.) Footballers playing basketball or rugby – or even non-invasion sports like tennis or cricket – will, given time, develop wider ranges of solutions as they draw on a wider if not deeper pool of knowledge.
    The football teams of Brazil, Portugal and Spain are filled with players who didn’t specialise in football until they reached their teenage years. (Admittedly, the sport most played as children was futsal – but I would argue that itself is a fusion of football and basketball, drawing on the latter for much of its tactical inspiration.) Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen, didn’t specialise in tennis until he was almost an adult.
  3. Allow people to make their own decisions – and make mistakes.
    Possibly the biggest contributing factor in developing creativity in people is simply to allow them to be creative – over and over again. That, essentially, means letting them make their own decisions and allowing them to make mistakes. A surprisingly large thread of academic research has explored how jazz musicians learn to improvise. In short, they just practice improvising, and the more they do it the better they get. They make mistakes but – crucially – they learn from their mistakes. Over time that practice tends to make them far more innovative musically compared with classical musicians, who learn to play instruments using set scores that they don’t deviate from. Jazz musicians can be technically as good as classical musicians, but classical musicians tend not to be anywhere near as creative.
    The lesson for businesses is to empower junior staff to work on creating solutions to problems in the business and not to impose solutions from above. The lesson for sports coaching is exactly the same: to empower players to come up with solutions to the problems they see in games and not tell them how to solve them.
    The difficulty many coaches (and parents, and even players themselves) struggle with at a grassroots level is that the logical conclusion of that line of thinking is that it deprioritises a result: we have to be willing to sacrifice winning the game in order to enable the possibility of longer-term future development. Yet that’s exactly what professional club’s academies do, with match results important only in the senior first-team (and in certain junior tournaments where the desired development outcome is about getting results, but by no means the majority of them).

Lessons from the sporting research

A growing body of academic research is looking at the same problem but in a direct sporting context – and coming up with much the same conclusions.

Footballers chasing the ball

Jimmy Vaughan and colleagues working at Sweden’s AEK Stockholm concluded that young players should be allowed to experience a variety of playing styles and ideas about the game of football.

Researchers working with Danish club Aalborg BK expanded on the idea of creativity, and noted that it might include creativity in developing training methods, communicating or improving player workrates amongst other things, rather than just limiting it to the idea of moments of inspiration or genius on the pitch.

All the research, in business and in sport, agrees that creativity can be coached and, what’s more, that there are many benefits to gain from helping people develop it.

Read more

Learn more about how increasing the breadth of knowledge and experience can drive people to success in Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein.

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