top of page

Why coaches like drills and how they are killing creativity

Scott Barry Kaufman is one of my favorite scientists! Not only does he host the fascinating 'The Psychology Podcast' weekly where he talks to leading people in the world of psychological science but he also founded and edits one of my favorite blogs, 'The Creativity Post' as well as being the author of several books including my bedside ever present 'The Complexity of Greatness' and 'Ungifted: Intelligence redefined'.

In a recent article for Scientific American, Dr Kaufman reviews Anders Ericsson's latest book co-authored with Robert Pool "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise". Dr Kaufman makes a reference to a passage in Ericsson and Pool's book which he thinks is key. Dr Ericsson and Pool suggest...

"...the techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to "highly developed fields" such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation."

But Dr Kaufman feels that deliberate practice is best suited to specific activities that are limited in variability and require repeatable actions instead of creative ones.

"Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success."

As Dr Kaufman further argues, creative people "...are under constant pressure to surpass what they and others have done before, and it is precisely this pressure that drives them toward ever increasing originality".

He goes further by saying...

"Creative products, by definition, are the antithesis of expertise. This is because creativity must be original, meaningful, and surprising...

Original in the sense that the creator is rewarded for transcending expertise, and going beyond the standard repertoire.

Meaningful in the sense that the creator must satisfy some utility function, or provide a new interpretation.

Surprising in that the original and meaningful creative product must be surprising not only to oneself, but to everyone".

All this got me thinking...

Have we been looking at sport from the perspective of expertise when we should be looking at sport from the perspective of creativity?

If you look at sport from an expertise perspective then you will agree with Prof Ericsson's standpoint that Deliberate Practice is important as the rules of the game are fixed and the techniques are the techniques. Master the techniques or face the consequences later.

On the other hand if you look at the development of sports people as a creative endeavour then you would want to work to avoid providing technical information and allow techniques to emerge as an adaptation to problems presented by the ever changing and dynamic environment.

Witness the emergence of Dwayne Bravo's slower ball bouncer or Tilekaratne Dilshan's 'ramp shot' in T20 cricket or Christiano Ronaldo's dipping free kicks or Sonny-Bill Williams one hand offloads or Tiger Wood's 2 iron 'Stinger' as examples of originality that is meaningful and also surprising.

All of these techniques are being created by these great players as solutions to problems that are presented by changes to the rules, changes to equipment or changes to the nature of the way the game is played in order to find an advantage.

In other words they are adapting to their environment....

In this blog post the excellent Mark O'Sullivan talks about how this methodology works against the way human beings are designed to navigate their way through the world. He argues...

"Humans are not systems that behave like machines. They are dynamic, not static and not predictable in their behaviour. Humans (in this case as individual athletes and sports teams) are complex adaptive systems"

So the more we try to use methods that encourage players to behave alike and in predictable ways the more we are likely to produce players that cannot adapt to changes in the game effectively and yet it is precisely this adaptation that is at the heart of the creative process.

By looking at skill acquisition as a creative endeavour we force ourselves to design challenges that will challenge players to come up with ways of performing that will be original, meaningful and surprising.

Imagine a world where young people are given permission to create their own methods without being told by adults. Imagine a world where there is the freedom to try things out and fail again and again without fear of being given 'feedback'. Imagine a world where trying new things was applauded rather then met by side of the mouth whispers by arm folded tracksuits on the sideline.

This world sounds a lot like the world inhabited by kids in underdeveloped nations where access to 'coaching' is limited and facilities are sparse. This world also sounds a lot like a world inhabited by kids in nations that have adopted game based or constraints based coaching methods decades ago. The youngsters from these places are forced to adapt to their surroundings and work it out and then some of them mesmerise us with their abilities to do things that others can't.

The problem is I still see a lot of coaches who are using techniques and approaches that are clearly designed to generate automaticity and replicability. The very concept of a 'drill' that involves repeating a movement pattern again and again can only be used to create players that will behave in predictable ways.

I imagine that coaches feel that they can then establish a tactical game plan for these players who will execute effectively and with a good degree of consistency.

The irony is that these same coaches will go crazy when players do something that isn't in the game plan but they are then surprised when the players fail to react to something that the opponent does that is unpredictable.

I wonder how many coaches are out there using methods that are killing creativity without realising?

How long will it be before we wake up to this and change the way we do things?

Can we ever become a nation that goes from producing a lot of good players to a nation that produces' great players'.

Here's hoping!


If you liked this post and would like me to beam it straight to your inbox using my telepathic powers (regular readers of the blog will know what I mean) then please click here and subscribe to my newsletter so that you never miss another rant!

For those of you that are still waiting for the 'superpower series' don't worry it is still coming I just had to get this one off my chest before I exploded!

Recent posts

bottom of page