Sebastian Giraldo: Developing Creativity in Youth Soccer Players: Three Concepts from Research

“I do everything through instinct, I play like a child … I think about myself on a small field, or in the street, I see myself with the ball in the same way as I am now. I have not changed at all. You must remember soccer is a game to have fun and you play for that. I don’t plan or anticipate my play.”- Lionel Messi

The concept of fostering creativity in youth players is one of the hot topics in soccer development research (and something I am very passionate about).  This is not surprising considering we always hear coaches/trainers talking about the importance of having creative players that can break down a game or hear parents/spectators go crazy after a player demonstrates a flash of on-field brilliance. Soccer is an open skill sport that requires rapid, constant decision-making and one that values creativity (just look at who we consider to be the world’s best: Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi).

There is an abundance of information (both academic and non-academic) on developing creativity in soccer players. For the purpose of this blog, I will focus on three main concepts that I feel are important to comprehend in order to be more in tune with the notion of developing creative players.

1. Commonly misunderstood ideas regarding creativity

Let us first debunk the idea that soccer programs can take a player and make them creative. As a soccer professional, I hear daily claims about how Superstar Soccer (fictional program of course) can make your child a creative player with proper training. This rhetoric is incorrect and very misleading to the general soccer audience. Players are individuals and every individual is going to play the game differently. We must accept that some players will be amazingly creative players and others will not. Does this mean that some players will not be creative? Absolutely not. Just like other soccer competencies, players will fall on a spectrum of creativity, some very creative and others not very creative at all. If someone had actually identified and mastered how to constantly produce creative players, that person would be a billionaire and a god in the soccer world (note: It is hard to believe, but there are even some Brazilian players who are not very creative). However, through research, we have come to understand certain parameters that can foster creativity in players. This is important: we can foster creativity in players but we cannot create it. That is a fundamental difference and one that should not be overlooked.

In soccer, as in research, we run into the common problem of how to define creativity. Let us agree to not lose sleep over this. Studies in creativity are multi-disciplinary. Information and theories we have regarding creativity intersect many fields including behavioral, cognitive, developmental, economic, personality, evolutionary, and social perspectives (for the sake of brevity, I only provided a few). This means that creativity is complex and even experts have a difficult time staying updated on current trends. What we can take from these disciplines is ideas and input on how to foster creativity in soccer players. I view creativity in soccer not too differently than I view creativity within our soccer organization. Creativity for me is the ability to adapt and provide innovative solutions to newly emergent problems. On a soccer field, this translates to a player’s ability to find solutions to the multitude of problems presented throughout the game. We label players creative if in this circumstance they are able to present an unexpected, innovative solution to the problem. Let us use this definition for creativity in soccer players so we have a mutual baseline for our conversation (note: it is completely acceptable and valid to have another definition for creativity in soccer players).

2.  Environment is probably the most important key to developing and fostering creativity 

So this leads us to the most important concept in developing creativity in youth soccer players. ENVIRONMENT ENVIROMENT ENVIRONMENT. We need to completely step away from the authoritative, autocratic style of teaching the game. U.S. Soccer is well on its way to establishing a comprehensive Socratic, guided-discovery approach to teaching the game. Why such a drastic change in the way we teach the game? Because we want to make our youth players decision makers. Research is clear in that elite players in comparison to non-elite players have the ability to make quicker, more successful decisions on the field. We cannot develop these types of players if we are spoon feeding them what they can and cannot do on the field. One of the beauties of the game is that there are really no right or wrong decisions on the field. There are some decisions that in given situations might be better than others, but when you get down to it there is no right or wrong decisions on the field. An example that we like to use at GEF is the idea of playing a pass across the mouth of your own goal.  The most common instruction from coaches/trainers at the youth level is to tell their player not to play that pass because it is dangerous and you can get potentially scored on. Our perspective at GEF is that players must play that pass in order to understand situationally when that is an appropriate pass. This goes back to the earlier point that there is not really a right and wrong decision here. Rather in some situations, it is perfectly acceptable to play a pass in front of goal and in other situations it is not. However, we must understand that the simple command of telling players not to play that pass at the youth level can have significant impact on their ability to play the game openly and creatively. Instead of telling players what they should do, as soccer professionals, we should be asking why they made their decision and what other possible decisions could have been made. Simply, force players to think critically about their decisions. The elite trainers know how to ask the right questions to shape a better understanding of the game for the player.

This approach to teaching the game is not novel and has been used in many contexts for several years (most notably in higher education). There is a lot of learning theory that pervades this school of teaching soccer. We want the training and playing field to be a positive environment where players are nurtured, challenged, guided, and most importantly forced to make decisions. This might sound simple but in the face of club pressure and winning, these simple ideas are often sacrificed. This is why we need to spread knowledge on development research so the general soccer audience understands that more immediate goals that might seem important in the short-term like winning can actually inhibit the development of elite players. Creative players do not just happen magically, they are a product of the environment in which they play and train.

3. The role of play in creativity development

This leads to probably the most enlightening discovery of my doctoral education (thanks to my dear friend Dr. Matthew Bowers-University of Texas Austin). The idea of play and how it can be the missing link to producing creative, elite soccer players in the United States. This ties in directly to the importance of environment discussed in the previous section. Play is commonly defined as “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially for children” (Merriam-Webster).  This definition itself devalues the importance play can have on human development by associating it solely with fun and leisure (and also fails to capture the importance of play for adults). In reality, we have come to understood that play can have vast benefits in human development. Play has been linked to providing benefits in many different areas of a human’s life such as happiness, abstract thinking and problem solving, self-confidence, cooperation/sharing, conflict resolution, motor skills, concentration/focus, communication skills, and learning and knowledge acquisition (I could have continued with the benefits but I think we get the point).  Repeat after me: while we play, we learn. When learning is fun, there are myriad benefits gained for the individual.

Let us think of soccer as a game (how we saw it as kids), free of the club pressures of winning, management training etc. Remember how free we felt playing the game in the streets or in our backyard. There was little to no pressure from the traditional form of a yelling coach or parent and we explored certain skills, failed and tried again. There was no person telling us what was right or wrong, rather we were exploring and learning through our own initiative. No one was telling us the rules or dictating parameters so our minds were free to try whatever we wanted. The game itself became a learning system. Now compare that experience to the rigid, structured format of U.S. youth soccer. Are players told what to do? Are they allowed to fail? How many times are they allowed to fail before there is a consequence? Who is guiding the exploration? Just focusing on these few questions, we realize that youth soccer is vastly different than the unstructured, free play that occurs in the backyard. These differences are probably a good starting point for understanding why American developed players are so different compared to other players around the world. To be fair, the dichotomy I presented between the unstructured and structured setting is probably a bit exaggerated as there are also pressures in playing pick up and backyard soccer (e.g., peer pressure). But even in the most intense of pick up settings, creativity is valued and celebrated.

All over the world players primarily learn the game at the youth levels through unstructured play. Pick up games on the street, playing on a neighborhood dirt field, playing 1 vs. 1 against a sibling. What does this kind of play allow? It affords players the ability to explore through their own means. Discover what works and what does not. Explore what kind of player they are. Fail, fail, fail, and then try again. This is an environment that is conducive to producing players that are problem solvers. Remember how we defined creativity earlier. Creativity in soccer is the ability to adapt and solve newly emergent problems. The question is are we producing players in the U.S. that have been afforded the opportunity to develop as problem solvers? I would generally say that the answer to this is no. And one of the main reasons is that we do not appropriately value unstructured play as a major component of development. Play theory has obvious implications for soccer development that need to be understood and explored more thoroughly by soccer professionals. We must understand why there are changes being made to the way soccer is taught and not simply be content with conforming to the changes.

Creativity is a fascinating subject both within soccer and in our daily existence. I hope my thoughts generate discussion and encourage individuals to examine how we can improve our soccer development. I would like to leave a link to The Institute of Play which is leading the way in finding novel applications to using play and games to further learning in many different sectors. Remember that soccer is a game and inherently a learning  system. Let the kids play!!!!

Sebastian Giraldo

Co-Owner Giraldo Elite Futbol