Coaching the ‘Uncoachable’ Creativity

What is creativity? A quick Google search can provide us with countless definitions from artists, writers, speakers, musicians, and scholars. Webster’s dictionary defines it as the ability to make new things or think of new ideas; the irony of an uncreative definition. Yet, if we continue the search we stumble upon ideas on the matter which make you think maybe creativity really is indefinable. Water has no form unless you consider the recipient which holds the water to be the water’s form. Perhaps each person’s perception of creativity is the container and creativity is formed according to it.

Creativity is connecting things
— Steve Jobs
Passion is a great force which unleashes creativity…
— Yo-Yo Ma
There is no innovation and creativity without failure.
— Brene Brown
Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement.
— William Pollard
There is a fountain of youth; it is your mind your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love.
— Sophie Loren

Among other things, creativity is youth.  When a child asks an adult “Do you want to play?” The answer is always the same, “What do you want to play?” This interaction is much simpler between two children, “Do you want to play?” “Okay.”

There are no questions, no rules, no limits, boundless from any stipulations. Just play.

Quite often as a coach, and more importantly as an adult, we forget that football is nothing more than a game, an emulation of child’s play. Us coaches eat, sleep, and breathe coaching manuals, websites, drills, exercises, and videos only to return to where we started, a simple game. We get so hung up on finding the perfect drill that we forget to let the player play. Youth players fall victim to their coaches’ line drills and subsequently lose the ability to think and create.

At this point you may be asking yourself, how on earth am I supposed to coach if my drills are denying the player of creativity? This brings us to the beauty of coaching. I recently read an article by Jamie Hamilton on These Football Times where the author perfectly sums up why football’s unpredictability perfectly replicates life. As a coach we are responsible for creating many unpredictable situations in a training session to prepare our players for everything and anything which could occur during a match. A coach must have the ability to foresee all probable challenges, reconstruct them in a training environment, and if need be assist the player in the problem solving process.

If at any point in the assistance of problem solving does the coach command the player as to how they should proceed then creativity is denied. The player is instructed as to how something should be done rather than participating in a self discovery process. Especially in youth players, self discovery and problem solving are crucial in their cognitive growth on and off the field.

Let’s work with an example.

The objective in today’s training session is improving the technical ability of dribbling and our team is an average skilled team of under 10s.  One way to approach this session would be to create a drill that many of us have executed in the past either as players or coaches. The coach places a line of cones and instructs the players to zigzag through them while keeping the ball as close as possible. The coach may ask the players to only use their right foot or their left foot. He may even be specific in his instructions and demand they use only the inside of the foot or the outside of the foot. One player would carefully slalom through the cones to the liking of the coach as six other players patiently wait their turn to perfectly execute the task.

This drill is indeed improving each player’s ability to keep the ball close as they move through the stationary obstacles. By definition, dribbling is just that, to move with the ball from one location to another while maintain possession of it. In a football match, when do you ever face obstacles which are stationary? Never. Football is flowing and ever changing, therefore there is no benefit to training with stationary obstacles.

This drill isn’t all bad. It can provide the player with a sense of comfort and confidence on the ball and can be used as a warm-up, cool down, or during a recovery session if the coach was genuinely fond of it and wanted to use it. The main issue with this drill is it robs the player of any creative approach to football. There is no problem for them to solve. The coach has created a situation which already has a solution. As previously mentioned, a coach’s job is to prepare a player to face possible challenges they may face in a match by reconstructing them in training sessions. This drill has failed to do so, and consequently does not prepare a player for the match.

Read: The USMNT will (probably) never win a World Cup

So now let’s go back to the training session. What’s another alternative that a coach could use when training dribbling? The first step is to critically analyze the objective of the training session. In this case, we would like to improve the technical ability of dribbling. Along with identifying the technical ability, we must identify the tactical intention of said technical ability. For example, dribbling could have two possible tactical intentions, to beat a defender or to mobilize a defender.

In the case of our training session, we are working on dribbling to beat a defender, and therefore we need to recreate a specific moment when the ball possessor is forced to dribble past his mark to reach a certain point. The following game requires players to divide themselves into groups of 2; each group will have a ball between the two of them. The following diagram has four groups in the space provided but each coach can modify the game to their specific needs. In this case, we are recreating a crowded midfield, and for this reason there are eight players in the game area.

The objective of the game is to score as many goals as possible in the allotted time by dribbling through the small goals placed on each side of the rectangle. The only rule is the player cannot score in the same goal twice in a row. When the coach blows the whistle the ball possessors must attempt to dribble through the goals while maintaining possession of the ball by not permitting their partner to steal the ball and avoiding collisions with other groups. If their partner steals the ball, they must then attempt to score as many goals as possible. The game continues until the coach ends the round.

As we can see, this game requires an immense amount of dribbling which allows the player to practice the technical aspect of the skill, all the while creating a match-like situation where the player must constantly make decisions that they will most likely be faced with in a match. They are having fun, developing skills, and most importantly, problem solving.

Although in theory both of these activities have been created to improve dribbling, one of the two falls short when we apply it to the skills needed in a match. Football requires much more than the technical execution of an ability, it requires an entire decision making process to recognize situations and to apply the correct skill to achieve the desired objective. Drills which remove the decision making process from the equation hurt the player’s development and in the long run have no beneficial outcome.

As coaches we must avoid mindless drills, and to do so we must understand where our team is and where we would like to take them. Without knowing the desired result we will never know what our players need. We must be creative ourselves in the planning of games by dissecting match situations and recreating them for the development of our players. Let’s create games which mimic matches and as such promote creativity in our teams.

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