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Neil Rollings

Spirit of invention

Neil Rollings asks: can you coach creativity?

Posted by Hannah Oakman | June 27, 2015 | Sports & Leisure

Everyone loves creative players. They are the ones who light up sport, providing the priceless, memorable moments – and the flashes of genius that win the game. They are so important to sport, both to the results and the beauty that underlies it. They are the household names: memorable – and disproportionately important.

It would be logical, therefore, if the development of creativity dominated the debate regarding sports coaching. Creativity has everything: effectiveness, desirability, inspiration. But, it seems, little attention.

A lot of coaching is aimed at the average player. Drills, practices, coaching activities and games are dominated by fixed outcomes. Everyone does the same thing most of the time. Follow the cones, run in the same patterns, pass the ball with the same techniques. The most able are stifled, the least able frustrated.

This learning-by-rote is the opposite of challenge and experimentation – things the creative player thrives on. There is an industry-wide reluctance to indulge the timeless, international request, “Can we have a game, sir?” Skills learning, it seems, must come before the game, not as a result of it. The game is seen as an opportunity
to demonstrate appropriate, previously learned skills: not an avenue by which these might be developed.

But what do creative players do? According to research from Association Football superior players see patterns in the play they see before them. They are less fixated by the ball than lesser players are: they see more around them, make sense of it and infer what is likely to happen.

None of this can be learned in orderly practices without opponents. Drills lessen the demands of the game: they also lessen the capacity of players to learn open skills. Games are inherently disorderly, and have to be practised in an environment of controlled disorder in order to be effective.

Creative players do different things. They can't learn different things by doing the same as everyone else. At the heart of creativity is experimentation. Practice environments therefore have to offer the opportunity for such experimentation in an atmosphere tolerant of error.

So what can coaches and schools do to encourage experimentation in all sports? Several approaches are key here:

Set up open-ended challenges where players can come up with their own solutions to the problems posed

Praise and value innovation wherever you find it

Tolerate error, where this results from trying to do something different, or better

Create a culture that values doing things in new and different ways

Create periods in the practice schedule for un-criticised activity: where players are active on open-ended tasks, but the coach is silent or offering only general encouragement. Encourage experimentation and ask players to show the group what they are trying to do. This is the environment which develops the individual tricks and unique, deft skills which are the hallmark of the best creative players.

Learn from the approach of examination boards. This may sound counter-intuitive: however, the concept in some exams of ‘positive marking’ offers something from which coaching can benefit.

In this approach, candidates gain marks for answers that are correct – but lose nothing for errors. The result: they are encouraged to have a go at all questions. A coaching environment that allocates periods of positive coaching, where successful attempts are acknowledged and failures ignored, could have the same encouraging impact.

Many coaching programmes are not good at encouraging creativity. A short-term focus, driven by the importance of winning on Saturday, leads to a coach-centred, do-it-like-this approach. Experimentation and individual creativity are not encouraged, as the development process may entail errors that could impact on the likelihood of winning – or not losing.

Creative genius enhances the chances of a team winning. But it also runs the risk of failure, and the management of risk is not always on the coach's agenda. More popular is the elimination of risk, which leads to sterile, predictable patterns of play, from which players are wary of departing for fear of criticism from their coaches.

This issue is too important to be left to the whim of individual coaches to determine. Schools need to work out their approach to creativity, and to align this with attitudes to error and the importance of winning.

In the words of South African talent researcher Ross Tucker: “South African rugby coaches the creativity out of its players. They start with a box of crayons, and finish with a blue pen.”

Neil Rollings is Director of PADSIS, the Professional Association of Directors of Sport in Independent Schools



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