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Creative Freedom - Why did I become a coach?

by Peter Prickett

As coaches we have two fundamental questions to ask ourselves. The first; Why did I become a coach? The second; Who is it for?

The second should have only two answers. Either the players or yourself, the coach. The answer should really be for the players, but there are times when even the most altruistic coaches will do things for themselves. After all, we all have qualifications to obtain and bills to pay.

It is the first question where the variance will be greatest. Each unique personality will have their own unique reason. For me it was because I looked at English football and felt that there was a lack of creative players. In a display of arrogant thinking I thought I could help change that. I wanted to help. I believed I could help. So I changed everything.

This needs to be typed in large font and pinned to my wall. Every time I plan a training session these thoughts should be at the forefront of my mind. I wanted to develop creative players, therefore this should be at the core of everything. Except, developing creative players may be the wrong perspective. Drawing the creativity out of players, be they young or old, is a more fitting description. The nuance is minor but crucial.

Many coaches share this objective. To unlock the imagination of young players so that when they are fully formed they have match winning qualities. The qualities possessed by the best and most exciting players in the world, from any era. Defenders are respected but we revere those who produce moments of magic with awe and wonder. After all, it is harder to create than destroy. This is entropy in action across science, life and sport.

Be creative. Here is your blank canvas. Go and do something creative.

It is a rare individual who will not react with a somewhat frozen look. The instruction is intimidating. To tell players to simply be creative is clearly not enough. As coaches the role must be to provide guidance. To generate sessions in which creativity is to fore.

Here comes the paradox.

If we plan for creativity, is it truly creative? Is it a false creativity? Forced creativity? If the explicit goal of the session is “creative dribbling” then several other outcomes have been ruled out of. The possibilities have not broadened, the have narrowed. Our quest for creativity has had the reverse effect. Coach education has taught us to have sessions with targeted outcomes. To have these outcomes the coaches must have a set of tasks for the players to fulfil, boxes to tick. Limitations are being set before the session has even started. Is this a creative environment or another form of standardised testing?

There are many areas of life where human beings are very good at being creative. Quite obviously creativity thrives in the arts but it is required in industry, law, detection, any area in which there are problems to solve. Yet some of these problem solvers do not regard themselves as creative. “Not the creative type” is a familiar refrain. Educator Sir Ken Robinson writes a lot about creativity. He believes that the first problem is understanding what creativity is.

“The process of having original ideas that have value” – Sir Ken Robinson

In the above clip Sir Ken Robinson insistent that creativity is a process. It is something that can be worked at. As football fans is not particularly appealing. As football coaches this is extremely encouraging. On the pitch the process of creativity is likely to appear instantaneous, but the true length of the process will have been years of experiences on and off the pitch.

Creativity is not reliant on perfect technique. Though it may help. Creativity is not reliant on the unorthodox. Though it may help. Creativity is not reliant on a high IQ. Though it may help. What creativity is reliant upon is freedom of thought.

How does creativity happen?

The first factor is that it must be encouraged, not quashed. If it isn’t the world creates more people who believe they are “not the creative type”.

What if we can remove fear? What if we can help them find ways to break free?

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Within business companies will bring people in to help rediscover lost creativity. The non creative types who have lost their creative capacities. There are people who specialise in these activities and they have numerous techniques to draw the creativity out. Often they are met with resistance. As they have grown up practicality has replaced imagination. This first barrier often needs breaking down.

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One task used to break down this first barrier involves the above nine dots. The task is thus; Join all nine dots using no more than 3 continuos straight lines. The answer requires a ruler and a little thought.

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To answer the problem people have to free themselves of the limitation of the page and the limitations of a set way of thinking, once shaken off it becomes possible to answer the puzzle using a single straight line.

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Gita Langston of GL Connects shared a number of methods and exercises (including the nine dot puzzle) with me.

Rather than asking people to brainstorm ideas on how to sell more of a product they will ask the opposite. The business will be asked to come up with ideas to ensure that they never sell another unit again. No matter how bizarre the idea it is written down on a post it note and placed on a board. Then in groups two or three of these post it notes are taken down with task now being to counter the idea, thus a selling technique is born or solidified.

With more senior and experienced people they like to take them back to childhood. With glitter, glue, scissors, magazines, felt tips and pencils they are charged with making a collage. The title of the collage will be whatever the client is looking to be creative about.

Stories are also used. Once upon a time stories when work spaces are being created. When these are being written “what if?” questions are used. What if this space was a castle? What if a bear was in this space? How would you keep it out? How would you keep it in? What if you were this bear?

There are many other ideas and methods utilised. The common thread is that they are open ended and playful. Very playful.

And this is the dull grey world of business.

The multitude will associate creativity with the arts. With film makers, sculptors, actors and writers. We have all heard of writers block, so we must all understand that the creative switch is not always on, even for “creative types”.

How do they find their creativity?

Ealing artist Nicola Gaughan described her process.

“It’s all about imagination, day dreaming, visualising ‘stuff’. I see it in my mind’s eye, listening to the subconscious. Meditation can help with this, as can reading and looking at images.”

“More importantly you have to feel the fear and do it anyway. Not being scared of being wrong and being prepared to do something anyway, even if you or someone else think it is wrong or doesn’t look right. Have confidence in your ability, believe in yourself and your creativity.”

“Feed this creativity. Watch films, read books, go to gigs, meet new people, listen to new music, visit new places. These will help spark new ideas.”

However, as Sir Ken Robinson said being creative does not mean that your ideas have to be wholly original and new to the world. A new take or spin on something pre existing can be more than enough to inspire.

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Or

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Picasso was far more methodical than one might at first imagine. He had five core pillars to his artistic philosophy that guided his work.

Radical Constraints

“For a long time I limited myself to one colour as a form of discipline” – Picasso (in reference to his blue period)

By using constraints Picasso forced himself to come up with solutions to problems. This method is echoed in Scandinavian cinema, with the Dogme 95 methodology. Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg produced ten rules to which dogme cinema had to conform in an effort to avoid over production and better connect with audiences.

  1. Shooting must be done on location. If a particular prop is needed a location with this prop must be found.
  2. The sound may never be produced apart from the image or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless music occurs on the location where the scene is shot)
  3. The camera must be hand held.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable.
  5. Optical work and filters are not acceptable
  6. The film must not contain superficial action
  7. The film takes place in the here and now
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable
  9. The film format must be 35mm
  10. The director must not be credited

Total freedom can be intimidating. By adhering to a set of rules Scandinavian cinema experienced an artistic rebirth.

Ruthless Reduction

“Every creation is first an act of destruction” – Picasso

By taking something complex and simplifying art and innovation can be created.

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Continuos Iteration

“Action is the foundational key to all success” – Picasso

Picasso was a prolific artist (as was van Gogh). Rather than being protective of ideas and awaiting perfection he simply got on with it. Churning out works. If it wasn’t good enough, Picasso just did it again.

Motivating Competition

“Only one person has the right to criticise me. It’s Picasso” – Matisse

“All things considered there is only Matisse” – Picasso

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The competitive rivalry spurred these two great artists on. It has often been the case. In the 60s The Beatles success pushed The Rolling Stones. Upon hearing The Beatles album Rubber Soul songwriter Brian Wilson was inspired to write Pet Sounds, the classic Beach Boys album. In tennis McEnroe and Borg pushed each other to ever greater levels in the late 70s and early 80s and now that effect has been amplified by Federer being pushed by Nadal who was then pushed by Djokovic who was then pushed by Murray. External motivations can be exceedingly powerful.

Contrarian Experimentation

“Anything you can imagine is real” – Picasso

This final point takes us back to the methods used to free the mind of the societal manacles. Being deliberately contrarian can lead the brain into numerous interesting places.

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Picasso understood that creativity needs prompting and developed methods to help lure it forth. A box of tools at at his finger tips.

In music Brian Eno has chased usable tools throughout his career. Beginning with his time with Roxy Music and then as producer extraordinaire for David Bowie, U2 et al. Many turned to him when they needed a creative muse. Eno has his own check list of methods.

Freeform Capture

Drawing from a range of sources then linking them together. Brian Eno keeps a a microcassette recorder to hand at all times to gather up any and all ideas that come to him.

Blank State

Start with nothing. No preconceived ideas. In musical terms this might be described as “jamming”. Eno will often only have the musicians and a few instruments. They will “toy” with the instruments until a texture or emotion emerges to guide the process.

Deliberate Limitations

Picasse, Dogme and Brian Eno would seem to be in agreement.

“This piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it is going to have changes here, here and here, and there is going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it.”- Brian Eno

Opposing Forces

At times the forced blending of ideas can produce outstanding results. By bringing together artists who would not usually work together a fresh approach will be created.

Creative Prompts

While with Roxy Music in the 1970s Brian Eno developed “Oblique Strategy Cards”. These are prompts designed to trigger the mind into a different direction. Examples include;

  • Try faking it!
  • Only a part, not the whole
  • Work at a different speed
  • Disconnect from desire
  • Turn it upside down
  • Use an old idea

Brian Eno wanted to be able to apply his methods. As a guiding figure his role is to enhance the creativity of others. A modern muse.

This role is precisely that of the youth football coach. If we want to develop creative footballers, with the ability to solve problems in ways that others would never imagine, we have to act as their muse.

Leaving one small, unanswered question. If they can do it, how can we do it too? How can we use the creative processes that have been such a success in other walks of life in our sport?

Questions and Deliberate Limitations/Radical Constraints

These are not new to sports coaches. The average modern (post 2005) coaching course will encourage the asking of open questions to encourage players to think. Often coaches will ask questions with a specific answer in mind, just as they will have designed the session with a specific outcome in mind. The players need to be free to answer, to come up with their own solution, even if it differs from that of the coach.

Coaches have been using deliberate limitations for years. One and two touch passing practices will have been a common experience for any player or coach involved in football. There is much more scope to this area. Beyond needing to score with a one touch finish, x number of passes equals a goal or playing with your weak foot only. Especially when combined with the word Radical and with a little contrarian thinking sprinkled in. Our only limitation is what we can think of, the outcome we are aiming for is the spark of creativity, thus the phrase “realistic to the game” is less relevant.

  • Move the goals. They can face the wrong way, be placed in the corners, be back to back in the middle of the pitch, the list goes on. The players will have to think of different ways to attack and different ways to score. Their perception of the game has to alter.
  • Change the shape of the pitch. What happens when the pitch is narrow and long? Or when the pitch is wide but short? Further than this, change the shape entirely. A square. A triangle. A diamond. A circle. How will the players have to play in such a shape? How will they perceive space? Where do the goals go?
  • Change the scoring system. The “x number of passes equals a goal” style of practice hints at this. Yet we can get more creative. Different types of goal equal different points. If we are looking for creative dribblers then moves in game might equal points. Even better if the players set the types of move/dribble and the point weighting.
  • Add zones/areas/targets. There are never ending possibilities here when it comes to constraints. Pass to outside target players before scoring (wide players, touch line players, floating players). Play through a gate before scoring, the ball must pass through a certain zone (magic square), play through the thirds, only score from inside/outside the area. In this regard, it is the constraints we place upon training that differentiate between a “practice” and a “game”.

Contrarian Experimentation and Outsider Thinking

Outsiders are vitally important to progress. Though our years of experience are of immense value they can close us off to the new. To the unrealistic. What may be unrealistic can still be relevant. The creative ideas and methods used need to be directed towards football otherwise we get no buy in. Simply, without the correct framework, there are certain ideas that the under 8s will engage with but the under 16s will reject instantly.

Nicola Gaughan suggested asking “What would it be like to play football on the moon?”. I didn’t ask the under 8s exactly this question. I asked “What would it be like to dribble on the moon”. They gave back bountiful ideas before attempting to recreate it. The overflow from this was perhaps more beneficial.

“Can we try dribbling underwater?”

“What about in the desert?”

“On the motorway!”

Each location prompted different tasks. Dodging a cactus, being chased by a shark, dribbling through traffic. The practice did not belong to me, it belonged, wholly to the under 8s. From one question.

Gita Langston put forward similar questions.

  • How would you play football if you were playing in a swimming pool? (I assumed that the pool was filled with water)
  • How would you play football if the ball was made out of feathers?
  • How would you play football if you were wearing high heels? Or concrete boots? Or dressed as a football?

Gita suggested a number of thought exercises and questions to apply to the game.

  • How would you make sure your goal missed?
  • What would your rules be for football if there weren’t any?
  • Imagine that your game of football was a pizza. What would you put on it and why?
  • If an alien landed and you were the only person left on Earth how would you describe football and how to play it?
  • How would you convince your friends and family that football is a really bad game?

Both Gita and Nicola made a similar suggestion when taking into account that the tasks are for children.

  • If you were picking a team of film stars/actors/musicians/Disney characters/other sports people/etc who would you pick and why?
  • How would Beyonce/Darwin/Peppa Pig/(select well known person/character) play football? Why would they be good? Why would they be bad?

As an experiment I put out a tweet to see how this would work with notoriously cynical adults.

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The responses were mixed, some jokey, some serious but the important factor was that people were thinking.

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Other selection variations might be a 5 a side team of Kanye West, Jay Z, Dizzee Rascal, Eminem and Dr Dre or Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW, Bugatti and McLaren. We would then ask the players to perform as they perceive the line ups, in the example used on Twitter leadership came to the fore, so the question has created a situation of communication and leadership, something I did not expect when I (semi) randomly put names together. With no fixed outcome a session would have developed.

From these suggestions we can produce our own contrarian ideas and questions, utilising our knowledge as coaches and then actually implement them. Reversing questions can also be an extremely powerful tool to utilise.

  • What happens if we change the size/shape/weight of the ball? If we play with a tennis ball? Or a rugby ball?
  • Give the players the options of removing certain rules from the game. Or changing rules. To practice corners without having relentless and monotonous repetition we can have every restart as a corner. If we are looking for greater discipline from a team every foul might be a penalty.
  • Think of the most boring game of football. How can you make sure you never play in a boring match?
  • Where could you stand that would mean you never score a goal?
  • What could you do that means your team never wins a game?
  • How can you make sure you concede lots of goals?
  • What would make all your passes bad?
  • Remove one rule from the game. What does the game now look like?

The idea of contrarian thinking links with the idea of giving players a run in every position as some point in their development. Some coaches believe in playing them in similar roles (Left back at centre back or left wing) however, if a centre forward plays as a central defender he will understand what defenders dislike and hopefully learn from that.

Creative Prompts and Freeform Capture 

Young players are highly susceptible to external stimulus. Given the correct stimulus they will take an idea and run with it. Taking it into unexpected places. Generally children are better at this than adults. Just as children seem to be more naturally tuned into new technology.

Technology is our first bridge into creative prompts and will be the most likely source of the players freeform capture resources. By using videos at training we can give players ideas and inspiration. Goals that have been scored, imaginative set pieces or passes that open up defences that others have used can serve as inspiration, particularly if the examples come from well known, respected players. Many players look to the F2 Freestylers and have learned more tricks and moves from their videos than multitude coaches. This is their free form capture. Sitting and pouring over YouTube, Vine, Instagram and other social media sources. Soaking in the information. If we as coaches can tap into this and understand it then we can build a relationship with our players that puts this time to good use. The concept of homework is often rejected by players, but it is less likely to be if it is fun.

Using respected players may also prompt a particular style of play. Coerver use a star model. Pass like Xavi. Dribble like Di Maria. Finish like Ronaldo. We can choose to be less specific than that.

messi

What does this image make you think of? What style of play does the individual make you think of? What about the strip? Is that linked to a different style of play?

Different players/images provide different prompts. Who is renowned for long shots? Who is a deadly finisher? Who is fantastic defensive header? Who splits defences open? A card for each of these players/attributes could prompt your player. The cards might act as a menu, with the players making their own selection.

Scenario cards offer similar selection possibilities. Soccer IQ provided a book of situations which could be cut out and presented to players. The scenarios provided very little information but the small amount of information meant that players had to provide more thought.

Examples

  • Wingers – One team has inverted wingers. The other has traditional wingers. How might this effect the way the teams play?
  • Star Player – One team has a superstar player who they look to give the ball as much as possible. How can the defending team combat this?
  • Speedy Team – One team has all quick players. How will they look to utilise them?
  • Red Card – One team has had a player sent off, but they are 1-0 up. How will they approach the game?
  • 2 Minutes To Go – One team is 1-0 behind with 2 minutes left in the Champions League Final. They have a corner. What do they do now?

There are a vast number of examples that we can use with our players. The key is that they solve the problem, thus thinking for themselves rather than being told what to do.

We can prompt our players audibly too. We can create a mood that encourages creativity with music. By playing music during sessions we can relax players, or pump or players or help them find a rhythm. Players listen to heavy rock or rap before games to get pumped up, but how does different music make people feel? What would a game look like if it was freeform jazz? Or classical music? By playing different music we may get different styles of play.

Quotations are also a very powerful tool. Depending on the source of the quotation people can attack a task in a different manner after reading the quote. A quote from Michael Jordan may prove more inspirational and freeing to a teenage footballer than a quote from Tony Blair. No matter how powerful. The converse is also true. Some quotes are so powerful that the source is not important.

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Motivating Competition

Competition comes in different guises. Usually it is just something to overcome but it can serve to inspire as it did for Picasso and Matisse. As it does for Ronaldo and Messi.

  • Why are they so good?
  • What can I take from their game?
  • How do they practice?
  • What can I steal?

It is not just our direct opponents who are competition. Team mates are competition. In a way our heroes are also our competition, for one day, with a little fortune, we will replace them as players or coaches. We steal from our heroes and those we admire so that one day we will better them.

 

The best players are problem solvers. Armed with thought process that see pictures in a particular way. Good players will come up with a solution. Great players will come up with with three or four, then select the best one. With that best one sometimes being a solution that no one else perceived. They perceived it because their mind was open. Over their life they will have been exposed to a variety of situations in which they will have had to think. They will have got the answer wrong thousands of times, but each failure allowed them to seek a different solution. We can only find these solutions by asking questions.

If we can ask the creative questions, with complete freedom, in imaginative situations, with limitless possible outcomes, we might just find unimaginable answers.

Many thanks to –

Gita Langston @chatnmeetcoffee

Nicola Gaughan @iconiccreative

Peter Thornton @insidewrite1957

John Davies @renegadestyle

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