Great Re-Arrangers

Why coaching creativity is more complex than we think

What is ‘creativity’? It is a word we use all the time, in football, in life and, as coaches, it is an idea many of us feel confident enough to claim we know how to teach.

Despite the widespread usage of the term I have recently become concerned that our thinking about the concept of creativity is often confused, ill-defined and poorly articulated. If these observations are true, they would suggest that, on many occasions, the practice of coaching creativity is just as poorly conceptualised and executed.

Of course, I cannot promise that this article will offer any advances on these shortcomings, but in the spirit of, well, creativity, I thought I’d better try to put something together.

Before we tackle ‘creativity’ itself I think there is an important idea that would be useful to upload. This is the idea of subjective perception.

The problem one encounters when grappling with an idea such as this is that you could fill a thousand libraries with the profound works of great thinkers who have written on the topic. I’m going to try to stay away from obscure literary or scientific references as much as possible, but it is nonetheless important that you realise (if it is not already obvious) these ideas are not of my own conception.

Being the layman I am I have read but a drop in the ocean of insights that roars and swells across the great realm of subjective perception — and I have understood less than that! Despite this ignorance I am going to foolhardily turn my bow towards the storm and offer an attempt at condensing what I have learned -

We all see the world differently

Simple enough then, and I guess it is, we all know this to be true to at least some degree, but perhaps it is the abyss like depth if this idea we find difficult to fathom, perhaps it is even truer than we realise.

Perception is direct, it is an action, it is something we do. We are not passive receivers of the outside world. Think about it this way; if you are very hungry the world revealed to you is different from the one you perceive when your belly is full. When you are hungry the things that ‘catch your eye’ are likely to be associated with solving the problem of getting something to eat. Homer Simpson is forever hallucinating images of food.

When you arrive in a foreign country your attention is drawn to things that a native citizen ignores. As a young child brought up in rural Scotland, I remember being shocked that the Police in Europe carried guns. While a city’s facades and gargoyles might shine forth to the architect it is the light reflecting off the silver skin of fresh market fish that will glisten so much more brightly to the chef.

We each inhabit our own world of experience; these worlds result from both our innate biological make-ups and our external environmental influences. They are born from a time and place unique to each of us, created from a fleeting moment in the ever-flowing narrative of our lives. Our worlds are perceived from within and without.

We might think about these factors which shape our world-views as constraints; the narrower they are the less we see. They are the borders of our knowledge, the walls of our perception. But, like the walls of your house, their restrictive nature also provides considerable benefit, frames provide the necessary boundaries within which we are able to focus our attention and protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed.

Without constraints the information and stimulus of the environment is infinite — you could spend a lifetime studying the nature of a single blade of grass — our frames give us direction, they allow our attention to pick a target and for us to act towards the attainment of our goals.

Our frames allow patterns to emerge, patterns which we grow to recognise against the backdrop of chaos. These patterns allow us to make sense of things, they are how we make sense of things, without them we become lost, adrift and without somewhere to call home.

If we can accept and integrate this metaphor of frames then I think we can try to address the issue of creativity in a way which might be useful.

If the world we perceive exists as a result of our attention which is focused by the nature of our frames then it would be reasonable to suggest that we are also largely unaware of those things that exist beyond these boundaries.

It seems as though the trigger for some creative process to take place would be the desire to step outside of the frame’s restrictive perceptual barriers. The problem seems to be that this is far easier said than done. People in general — not least football coaches — appear loathe to leave behind the sanctuary of their known world, their frames provide security, but at the same time stifle the creative process.

The creative individual is assured enough to accept that their current patterns-of-being are always insufficient, their frames not broad enough, they seek something other than what they hold, they are willing to abandon their old sense-making systems to make space for the new.

In this sense, creativity begins with a sacrifice, with the breaking of frames. But smashing down the prison walls is itself an act of destruction rather than creation. Creativity seems to emerge when the pieces of the shattered frame are reconstituted, rearranged in some new way which gives rise to patterns more meaningful than before.

We can use the metaphor of the creative footballer to conceptualise this process.

When Messi perceives the game, he is using his current frames and patterns. But so often it is as though he then does something that even his teammates find difficult to believe. An escape from a seemingly impossible predicament, a dribble through a passageway that wasn’t there before or a block-splitting pass that no-one else on planet earth could have seen.

It is as though Messi is updating his sense-making patterns in real time, and we get to watch him do it. He so often seems to play in a state which cognitive scientists refer to as ‘flow’, with one foot in the land of the known and the other dipped in the waters of chaos.

At his mystical best, Messi dances on the brink of reason, creating things for fun like an impish boy-wizard. He ‘makes things happen’, he is a ‘game changer’.

No sooner has he restructured a new sense-making frame than he destroys it just because he can, so confident is he in his ability to effortlessly weave pattern after pattern, each of greater beauty than the last.

There is a jazz-like feel to Messi’s perpetual creativity, the feeling of what John Vervaeke calls a ‘cascade of insights’, a continual sequence of mini-enlightenments, a pivoting ascendency which always seems to take the game of football to ‘the next level’.

Viewed in this way creativity is a complex idea, and it is a mistake to take it lightly, we should tread carefully when designing exercises which claim to aid its emergence.

It seems absurd for a coach to to attempt to teach a game where creativity is essential when they themselves are prisoners of dogma, subservient to the status-quo of their own rigid frames of conformity.

Fortunately for us there are many coaches who ‘think outside the box’, from bankers to shoe-makers, bloggers, former players and engineers, football’s patterns have been arranged in so many new and beautiful ways.

Perhaps, if any advice can be offered on the topic of creativity, it is the idea of change that coaches should be promoting? To create an environment where staff and players are encouraged to continually transform themselves and their views of the world as much as the games they are tasked with winning.