Coaching better with creativity: framing the next practice with creative design

New Zealand based Coach and AFC/FFA Pro Licence holder, Stephen Cain, shares his experiences on a recent webinar that aimed to reframe the way we approach creativity in practice. 

The presenters investigated how we move from best practice in our coaching, something we all strive for, to designing “next practices.” The aim here is to optimise creative tension. This involves many interacting elements. It is a holistic approach to encourage the development of creative elements such as cognitive flexibility, tolerance to discomfort and interpersonal trust in coaches. The bottom line is a different approach to the science and inspired practice that then underpins a programme to help coaches reflect and gain a deeper perspective into their coaching behaviours.

Basically the approach is to provide strategies to expand our mental models by questioning the status quo. In this context this means becoming a designer of problems, in effect pursuing discomfort. The overall aim is to develop tools to help us as coaches produce a risk-free environment for players so they can fulfil their creative potential and achieve optimal levels of performance and wellbeing.

Coaching with creativity involves framing sessions with creative design. The question we need to ask here, as coaches, is what is creativity? Many of the responses will include aspects such as problem solving, finding solutions, keeping an open mind, and reflecting on what we do. But: how much creativity do we apply to our sessions? We need to ask ourselves how engaged we were last training session and where our creativity is coming from. Often in football it will come from colleagues or people outside our immediate coaching teams who have trusted opinions.

What does coach education look like in a creative sense?

To begin this process it helps to study or engage in various unorthodox activities at the start of a coaching session. This could include anything outside of our standard practice, asking the question what the objective is, what is the aim. Often improvisation is the key and the also the objective. Some of these exercises will make people feel uncomfortable but the goal is how to break down walls. Thus loosen up by trying something different; this can of course take any number of forms in a practical sense. This tends to work better when people do not know each other - such as a group of coaches on a course - as any perceived power dynamic is not there. However it can be applied to a playing squad with the relevant adjustments.

In a practical demonstration scenario it means that before a session the players do not know what they are getting into. The only instruction can be something vague such as ‘come prepared to move,’ Thus there is no background information, and this keeps things open and exploratory. A bit of ‘craziness’ in some senses with the aim of moving from best practice to next practice over time

Traditional coaching is holding back performance

The need here is to evoke new learning through challenging our ideas and assumptions. Do we want football to merely stay as it is? The game does tend to be generally conservative in many ways, especially at certain levels. It is therefore a good thing to disrupt coach education and stimulate improvisation to develop our approach and optimise the learning of our players.

In the context of this approach the purpose is to foster creativity in coaches and players by stretching their frame, giving them a bigger picture if you like. Become in effect a problem designer. Challenge the body differently to shape the mind optimally. The concept involves experimental learning, involving coaches in unfamiliar areas, away from what we already know.

Movement improvisation

One suggested way is through movement improvisation. This is designed to inspire creativity, to foster coaching creativity through movement. It has been demonstrated to have a real time impact on coaching behaviours. Something that could easily be part of a warmup routine for our players. Creativity is here defined in a practical sense as the interaction between players and their environment; the dynamic created by actions and opportunities.

This involves a synergy between both the individual’s sub system and the sub system of the specific environment. The individual player or coach sub system comprises affective attributes such as openness and willingness to take risks. The cognitive skills of flexibility, perspectives, and confidence. Physical expression such as movement and posture. The environmental sub system includes the material world – spaces and objects. Micro-cultural values like freedom and playfulness. Social interactions such as trust, vulnerability, and connectivity,

The likelihood of creativity will increase with interplay between these factors. The question now is how to build the optimal environment for something like movement improvisation. The rules need to be along the lines of:

  1. Leave judgement at the door, especially self-judgement
  2. There is no right or wrong; the only question is - is it good for you?


The aim is to inspire creativity through the unorthodox. It is a fact that a level of vulnerability or authenticity does inspire trust. The next step is to get our players and coaches to move away from the obvious. Open the mind to new possibilities. Why through movement? Because many adults have forgotten how to move freely, thus any system disruption allows coaches to move away from well anchored patterns.

Coaches will here enter a state of instability.  Of course loss of control is not something we are comfortable with and the attempt to reassert this control stimulates creativity and leads to an increase in social and cognitive skills. Expand the frame and thus gain the confidence to take this into the next practice. Disrupt to grow.  Then debrief, relate it to coaching. Reflective, formative activities will then follow.

The initial reception to this will always be mixed. As coaches we want to be good at what we do, and it is therefore uncomfortable for us. To begin with something like movement improvisation frees us from preconceptions which in turn produce uncertainty and scepticism. The next step is to integrate some of this strategy into our sessions.


The ‘comfort zone’

As coaches we need to ask what is our comfort zone? What do we avoid because it makes us uncomfortable, not because we lack the skills to deal with it? The question being what are we avoiding? Discussion of this will include aspects like conflict, difficult conversations with our players and the like. The answer? Tolerance of discomfort is a major step towards creativity. The movement improvisation example mentioned earlier is just one way. Any comfort zone is a huge inhibitor to growth and development both for us as coaches and probably even more so for our players. Familiarity will equal stagnation if we allow it to.

If we avoid discomfort, we will limit our approach. Our ‘frame’ becomes smaller. Finding the appropriate stimuli to help us explore our potential is one solution. Yes, it will be uncomfortable initially, but exposing ourselves in this way means either we become more comfortable, or we get used to it and tolerate the discomfort better. To support our players is the key; we will aid this by becoming uncomfortable being comfortable.

Building cognitive flexibility

We need to develop a toolkit here and this takes time. The bottom line is to disrupt the area or dynamic between the player and the environment. We can learn from our players here to adjust our approach. Again do not be a problem solver but a problem creator and advisor. Do not hunt mistakes, hunt opportunities. If we always provide the solution for them, we are limiting their growth and development.

When do we step in is a key question here? One answer is finding the cue for when our focus becomes being a problem solver rather than being a provider who encourages players to find their own solutions. We need to be willing to shift our mindset. An example here is to let things flow longer and do not interrupt. Encourage players to find answers and thus develop their awareness, independent decision making and problem-solving capabilities.

Note how players are interacting. Observe. Get them out of their ‘boxes.’ Train them how to adapt when they are not in their personal ‘square’ or comfort zone. Why do we do this? To encourage us to look at the environments we are working in, in order make them more adaptable, more comfortable being in what is unfamiliar territory.

There are generally two types of environments. The ‘messy’ environment involves novelty, ambiguity, unpredictability. The supportive one means no judgements, letting players choose, tolerating mistakes. Combine the two and you get the ‘risk free’ environment we are striving for, one that creates a coaching and playing mentality that will foster creativity and trust.

Key takeaways

There will be resistance if we as coaches try to develop creativity. Players will be uncomfortable initially so increased trust, even some vulnerability can mean the next session will work better. We ned to stretch our frame. Become a problem designer. Give players a supportive environment and help them develop the tools to maximise their potential. Mutual trust is key, in a sense balance chaos with support. Use the body differently to shape the mind optimally.

As previously outlined, this involves being a problem maker. Balancing the problems for players to solve themselves with the more traditional approach we are all familiar with. The conservative or historical approach can often stifle creativity. If we want our players to express themselves in a game, we need to encourage these behaviours during training sessions. Balance is once again the key.

One key question is this. Is controlling your environment with solutions that come from your players mistakes the best way of doing things?  Be holistic not prescriptive. Also be creative as a coach in the way problems are designed. Football as we know is hyper risk averse. However we can take this creativity on to the training and playing field and make it work if we are prepared to model it.

The result is cognitive preparation, improved performance and significant energy production. The key message is that it is okay to try things not knowing what the response might be – for players and coaches alike.

An old coach of mine, after I had an extended run of success and after a cup final loss, said to me: “you only learn when you lose.” At the time I did not appreciate what his message was.  We do learn more from our failures, however. In this context engineering a “failure” or breaking something is important, but we only learn deeply from that failure (or mistake, or problem) in a safe, positive, and constructive environment. Failing in an aggressive environment creates fear of failure and emotional anxiety. In a positive environment, solutions are created and the creativity to solve the problems happens. Challenging the process forces the necessary creativity to build it in a better way. This is a good way of forcing players to ask questions of their behaviour. As coaches we need to motivate them to find the answers to these questions. Solving the process changes and improves the mental process on the pitch and prepares them for the pressures of games and helps them find answers in match day situations.


Stephen Cain