“You can’t teach creativity, all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play” – Dr Peter Gray

The Oxford English Dictionary defines creativity as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”. The ability to be innovative and inventive on a football pitch is something that we as English coaches seem to have been striving to develop in our young players for many years now. Players such as Jaden Sancho, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish have flourished in recent times and are archetypal examples of what can be considered to be the modern day creative footballer.

But, how do we begin to coach creativity? Is it even possible? This article delves into the different ways we can start to provoke and develop creativity in our young players and how we are able to capture any opportunities in training and match-play to enhance these maverick type tendencies.

1. Setting An Appropriate Environment:

In order to provide affordances and feelings of freedom in our training sessions, it is imperative that we develop an environment in which children can feel comfortable and confident to express themselves. Players generally come bounding into our sessions with bundles of energy and excitement and if these feelings and emotions are stunted and ignored from the outset, the children often don’t get the opportunities to showcase their ideas and imagination.

Consider what your session looks like for example. As your players arrive at your training venue, what is the first thing they may see? Can you set up several small pitches with different size goals? Are there lots of footballs lined up ready for the kids to grab and start moving with? Do you as the coach greet the players with a fist bump and a warm smile? All of these simple elements make the children feel at ease when they arrive and with subtle and individualised challenges from the coach, the players should already feel confident enough to express themselves.

Using fun and engaging arrival activities will capture the children’s interest immediately and provoke enthusiasm and motivation even before your session begins.
Small-sided games with little or no rules and structure, opportunities for players to spend time with a ball each to develop their ball co-ordination and mastery, time for them to showcase something they may have been practicing at home or simply allowing them quality time with their friends certainly promotes these emotions of freedom and expression which can transfer into the training that follows.

Session design is crucial if we are to allow our players opportunities to display signs of creativity. Variable practices where the same or similar skills are practiced but in differing conditions are applicable here. An example of this may be a directional overload activity (e.g 3v2) to goal with the emphasis on quick incisive attacking play. Here, the coach should encourage lots of varied movement patterns from the trio where they will be performing numerous repetitions of similar attacking traits without it becoming repetitive. The word repetitive elicits feelings of monotony and boredom, whereas repetition in this context could look very different but with hopefully the same successful outcome (i.e a goal!).

Try to avoid placing restrictions on players. Limiting touches and ‘locking’ players into areas can stifle invention and also reduce transferability to the actual game itself. One way to increase decision making in possession is to task players with the challenge of trying to play with 1 touch or 4+. This constraint encourages those who enjoy playing quickly but doesn’t limit the dribblers in your group. The objective for the players here is to try and identify when to inject tempo into the game (1 touch) and when to entice and eliminate an opponent (multiple touches).

2. High Order Questions:

A high-order question is one in which the recipient cannot answer through simple recollection. This increase in cognitive demand is prompted through cleverly constructed questions, for instance those that have starter-words such as “can you show a way to…..how could overcome that problem….what does success look like in this situation? These thought provoking questions prompt solution based thinking in our players and are crucial for their decision making development and enhancement of cognitive ability. They are also effective at establishing connection and rapport between player and coach.

Divergent questioning (e.g those that have multiple solutions) is preferable to convergent (single answer solution) in that children can feel empowered to make their own decisions and have ownership in overcoming a challenge.

Anna Craft, author of the book ‘Creativity in Schools (2005)’ states that “creative performance is more likely to happen with a teacher who empowers students”. The same principle can be applied to football coaching, where a coach who values imagination, welcomes original ideas and deems there to be no wrong answer, is one in which will foster a long-term affinity to creative actions and thought.

The use of questions that ‘plant a seed’ in our player’s minds will mean that they are able to develop and learn in an implicit manner (i.e suggested, though not directly expressed by the coach). This is more favourable if we are looking to garner creativity compared to explicit instruction which is where the coach states clearly and in detail what they want, leaving no element of confusion or doubt. This method is perhaps more suited to out of possession principles of play where a greater degree of structure and organisation is required.

As a coach, try to consider questions which ‘pull’ the player with you rather than ‘push’ them towards their objective. This ‘pull’ method focuses on increasing player’s self-awareness through questioning, getting players to reflect and encourage the setting of challenging but realistic goals. This non-directive and player centred approach puts the child at the heart of their learning and increases the opportunities available to them to express freedom through an innovative approach to their development.

A clever teaching method to add to your coaching armory is the ‘Think, Pair, Share’ approach. Here, the coach asks an open-ended question (e.g one where an open dialogue can be established) in which the players at first consider their answer as an individual. They then discuss it in pairs and after a pre-set time, each pair then shares their thoughts with another pair before feeding back their thoughts to the coach. A heightened sense of ownership is achievable here and the peer to peer learning also generates social cohesion and team-work amongst the group. The ‘Think, Pair, Share’ method also ensures that it’s not the same hands up in the air each time we ask a question and that every player has to think, as the coach can choose either an individual or pair to share their thoughts.

3. Coach’s Response and Attitude

How we as coaches respond to our players expressing creativity either through their actions or thoughts goes a long way to dictating whether or not those in our groups feel confident and vulnerable enough to consistently try new things. Positive and encouraging body language such as a smile, thumbs up, and clapping are all fantastic attributes at a coach’s disposal. Try to always respond to player’s opinions with support and encouragement and consider every person’s ideas as valid and valuable.

Using replies such as “I’m really impressed at that idea”, “what else do you think might work?” and “what other ways are there to solve the problem?” help build strong connections and ultimately trust between you and your players. When players feel trusted and comfortable with being vulnerable and open to getting things wrong, we as coaches see expression, originality and inventive ways of engaging and interacting on a football pitch.
Instead of intervening in a practice to show where something or someone went wrong, consider stopping to highlight creative play, even if the outcome was not successful. This empowering of the player or players involved through praising of the intent rather than the outcome, means that they will be more willing to try again. The detection and correction of errors should become the responsibility of the players rather than the coach and if we encourage this creative approach, over time, the outcome should hopefully be one in which the players themselves implicitly learn through their own and each other’s feedback. Coaches should learn patience with this approach and think long rather than short term development.
As a coach, try to resist the temptation to rigidly stick to the structure of session. This stubborn approach and feeling that the players have to cover everything in your session plan can sometimes stifle creativity as they may just be starting to enjoy a particular activity and are expressing themselves, only for you to move on to the next element. Try to read your players and respond accordingly. Have a library of constraint-based games in your mind so that on the occasions where the session you’ve planned doesn’t seem to be developing in the way you’d hoped, you can offer a more appropriate practice that suits the players at that particular and specific moment.

Summary

Research suggests that we spend as much as 47% of our waking hours in a ‘mind wandering’ state. This unconscious way of thinking can be critical to the creative approach that a coach adopts. Consider having a pen and note pad with you at all times as imaginative ideas can appear when you least expect it and often when you are doing other non-football related things! Sir Ken Robinson said that “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”.
Try new things and put yourself out there to be challenged. If your players see you role modelling these behaviours yourself, they are far more likely to mirror them.

Try to establish an environment for your players with activities that engage, excite and encourage freedom. Allow time for experimentation, whether that’s in your arrival activities or within the main session itself. Create opportunities where the children can simply just play the game with no shackles and restrictions.

When planning your sessions, it’s not just the activities that you should be considering. Allocate time in which to challenge players with high order questions and always respond with positive body language. By empowering our young players, we place the responsibility to develop creatively in their minds and we as coaches can strive as problem setters not problem solvers.