As sports science research advances, the close relationship between the mind and physical performance is increasingly apparent. For example, a recent study published in the magazine Retos from the FEADEF (Spanish Federation of Teachers in Physical Education) on the relationship between motor and mental skills concluded that high cardiorespiratory endurance is associated with a more extraordinary memory, mathematical calculation, speed of linguistic reasoning and creativity in adolescents, regardless of age and gender.
Creativity is the ability to generate new and correct ideas to solve the same problem. It is a faculty that can apply in all aspects of life, but, within sports, it is especially relevant in team competitions. More and more studies in sports science aim to enhance and develop it through training. Its definition by the researcher Daniel Memmert is that of “unusual, innovative behavior, of statistical rarity or even singular in the solutions to a related sports situation.”
“Creativity is an unusual, innovative behavior, of statistical rarity or even singular in the solutions to a related sports situation.” Daniel Memmert, Professor and Executive Head of the Institute of Exercise Training and Sport Informatics at the German Sport University Cologne
It would not be about improving by demanding more effort or commitment but about introducing and learning to change, generating new ideas, variables that can only appear in environments of motivation and self-confidence. It is a behaviour related to divergent thinking, whose development occurs in a context that, a priori, does not admit limits or exclusions. So, according to these premises, a creative player would be one who can execute different and multiple motor actions, which are novel or unusual, which are original or not used before by other players. Above all, actions that can be insisted on, even if, initially, they are not effective, until you find a way to make them effective through trial/error development.
Stages in creativity development
The necessary and optimal conditions for players with these characteristics to be profiled from the training categories are still the subject of ongoing research. In the collaborative study The Spawns of Creative Behavior in Team Sports: A Creativity Developmental Framework, the authors distinguish five elementary stages in the development of an athlete’s creativity:
- beginner (2 to 6 years),
- explorer (7 to 9),
- illuminati (10 to 12),
- creator (13 to 15) and
- elevation (about 16).
Beginners have the first flashes of confidence and acquire the faculties to move; explorers seek new solutions. In the Illuminati phase, divergent thinking develops (out-of-the-box ideas). The creator focuses on problem resolution, and the elevation of the foundations is already laid to generate a creative collective behaviour. These stages are overcome, starting from a naive game in which sport foundations and movements are learned until reaching specialisation, complex tactical and spatial understanding, and the ability to anticipate the situations that will arise during the game.
Obstacles to creativity
There is now a recurring debate between coaches and sports professionals in general about whether the fact that children play less and less in the street (uneven ground, with interruptions, fixed and circumstantial obstacles and peers of different ages) and more and more in adequate and quality facilities in their respective categories, could be detrimental to creativity. Former national coach Javier Clemente summed up the controversy a few years ago with a maxim: “You learn to play football in the street, and you learn to play ball in football academies.”
“You learn to play football in the street, and you learn to play ball in football academies.” Javier Clemente, former national team coach.
The researchers of the study echo this type of opinion, call material facilities obstacles to creativity, but also add the mechanisation of the game and its lack of enjoyment, among other reasons, as inhibitors of creativity in new players. It would not be the consequence of a single factor. However, quality, in the end, will always come from the athlete’s critical thinking, their ability to analyse actions, find the best ones, make the right decisions and be able to execute them.
We should add to this situation that most studies coincide in pointing out that children’s creativity begins to decline at six years of age, in a natural process in which imagination decreases throughout a person’s life. Therefore, these initial stages are crucial to sowing the seed of the innovative and creative player. Creativity uses imagination to develop its potential. However, in team sports, creativity is not reached by the number of exercises focused on developing or awakening it. Still, problems are solved by a mixture of convergent and divergent thinking. Quantity is not synonymous with quality; a balance is necessary.
Stages of learning
The multifaceted approach that the player’s training requires would go through, for example, the dribbling ability, allowing the athlete to leave the comfort zone from the beginning and acquire the necessary initiative to perform new forms, even if they are unsuccessful. It is required to have the conditions that allow the player to discover unique solutions to face a continuous challenge of their capacity for self-adaptation. Then, there will be time to improve the dribbling techniques that the player has learned, the efficiency, and their ability to adapt to different situations, that is, the versatility. Therefore, the sum of all these stages ultimately will lead to the appearance of unique or original solutions on the player’s part, always within collective actions that contribute to the team’s success.
However, it will be the first experience that will shape the athlete’s later behaviour. At this point, the researchers stress the need for coaches to be aware that they must provide their pupils with the most significant number of positive experiences in these early years. This initial motivation is essential for them to continue their evolution while acquiring complete physical literacy:
- locomotor domain (running, jumping),
- ball handling and control (catching, receiving, throwing, grabbing, kicking, throwing),
- stabilisation skills (balance, rotation, reinforcement, and torsion) and
- fundamental notions of the game, such as passing the ball while preventing the opponent from intercepting it.
However, the study emphasises the importance of order in learning. It is crucial to develop mastery of the movements before learning the sport’s fundamental skills in question. Some studies suggest that the ability to master essential skills decreases after the age of seven. Still, others point out that this learning period can last until the age of fourteen.
In the explorer and Illuminati stages, younger players should also be allowed to explore their limits to enhance their adaptive behaviour without fear of trying or taking risks in competition. In this period, it is still vital that they look for their solutions to adversity before applying the standardised solutions learned. Training rich in a simulation of different experiences that can occur in a match will be ideal for developing the perception of the constant changes in the game.
The importance of the type of training
Researchers know that these needs require the coach to prepare the sessions without allowing a game with no criteria. Designing these representative training sessions will require more time and dedication. Likewise, they can use differential learning. Instead of avoiding mistakes, it tries to induce them – hitting the ball with raised arms in football, for example – although it should be used with caution if the players are young because it can slow down learning.
The controversy lies in finding the optimal moment for the player’s training to become specialised. There is no exact doctrine about the optimal age. The game without limitations to develop the creative potential and the exercise of different sports disciplines of the previous stages must be integrated with the beginning of the specialisation simultaneously. This research indicates that these two facets are not excluded. Specialisation does not necessarily drain creativity but is a sine qua non-condition so that players can later have solutions or develop them. These are two facets that must evolve in parallel.
In this way, their ability to perceive the game, the sources of simultaneous information they can perceive, and their sensitivity to the game circumstances will condition the quality of motor actions. The players’ reactions, in the end, do not come from their minds but from the perception and interpretation of reality. In all this process, the study concludes, there is only one way to know that you are on the right track unequivocally: to observe that players feel comfortable to think differently without fear of failure, taking risks, exploring new ideas, and being innovative during the game.