It is safe to say that we all know creativity when we see it; whether in a piece of art, in music, writing, or verbal expression.
It might also be safe to say that most folks know creativity in sports when they see it as well.
Whether it is LeBron James swirling his way to the basket through a myriad of defenders finishing with a slam dunk or Sydney Crosby stickhandling with exact precision and speed to leave defending skaters in his icy dust, and maybe in combination form with quarterback Tom Brady handing off to an end around running Julian Edelman who then passes downfield to Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown. Each of those represents a creative flair many times done instantaneously or by forethought. Nonetheless, each time we see it, we are left with not only a feeling of awe, but admiration of the ability to do something creative.
Now one would think that given the aforementioned acknowledgment of creativity, the sport of soccer as it has been and is currently being played here in the United States would have its own creative players. That is absolutely not the case. Aside from the potential of the young Christian Pulisic, we are nowhere near having a Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or going back a ways – Diego Maradona or the greatest of them all – Pele. On the women’s side, the dynamic is a bit different as we have seen our American women develop into extraordinary athletic players using those attributes to then solve problems on the field individually and collectively. And we have seen the likes of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and current stars, Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd among others showcase wonderful displays of creativity.
There are 5 prominent reasons for our void in creative soccer players.
1. The “Boot it!” Mentality
Since the object of the game is to get the ball as close to the opponents goal as possible and ultimately score, we too often have youth coaches who see the efficiency in just having their players knock it up field and then scramble to get a shot on goal with the hopes of scoring. Do it often enough and their team (allegedly) increases the chances of scoring opportunities. This is akin to every in-bounds play in basketball having the ball lofted down to the other end of the court since that is the fastest way to get it there. That would never be tolerated, but somehow that mentality has permeated into the game of soccer particularly at the youth level. U.S. Soccer has finally addressed the issue with mandates that require players to learn how to play out of the back forcing them to acquire the creative skills to individually and more so collectively play forward. This has been long overdue…long overdue. And because of that, we have had generations of players watching the ball sail over their heads from one end of the field to the other.
From the sidelines on any given weekend soccer day, shouts from parents to “boot it” or “kick it” can still be heard once play has permeated beyond a goal kick or goalkeeper hand distribution. The remedy for that comes in the form of parents learning and moreover appreciating the attributes of individual skill as well as collective as the ball makes its way up field. Again, just think how boring a basketball game would be if the ball was slung with regularity up and down the court!
Parents I believe would indeed be incensed over the fact that the players were not being given the opportunity to handle the ball whilst coming up the court. Well, soccer is no different. Are there times when the ball is struck long? Sure. There are indeed tactical cues which prompt that, but more often than not, it is having the ability and creativity at times to possess the ball on the ground. Soccer is not a linear game with a straight path from one goal to the other. The ball is played up, back, wide, diagonally, over, around, through all based upon what the defense is showing. Players who have quality ball handling skills can on their own manufacture progress forward as well as the necessary function of working with other players to do so. Remember as well, soccer like virtually all sports is a problem solving game. In the realm of creativity, we need to ask- does the player or even players in combination have the ability to improvise when needed to solve an existing problem they face when in possession of the ball? Parents can enjoy a whole new world of the idea of possession once educated about the beauty of all the nuances associated with the idea.
2. Winning versus Development
Ah yes, the age old cliché. My response when addressing folks relative to this issue is quite simple- “If you develop players correctly; the winning takes care of itself.” We must abandon the Vince Lombardi idea that says- “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” and appreciate the growth of players and their new found abilities to play effectively and creatively as they age. We must applaud those milestones as well as appreciate the many failed attempts to achieve playing success. If a child is learning how to read, we appreciate and applaud each word they master and page read, not just when they’ve read an entire book. Development and growth is a journey; children need to be supported in order to enjoy the ride.
Development in any sport is tied intrinsically to human development. As we develop physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and cognitively, our ability to perform the associated tasks relative to those traits becomes apparent. There is a clear reason why U6 players play 4 v 4 with training sessions that feature problem solving fun games. They’re 5 or 6 years old!! Conversely, a group of 16 year olds can be exposed to the most advanced methods of coaching, heightened developmental standards, and demands because as humans; they are structured for it. We coach relative to the competency of the players under our care. An emphasis on winning can be infused once the player understands the concept and can handle it emotionally and socially.
Fear. Players are afraid to try new and creative things because of the response they get from the coach and parents. If a player tries something creative and fails, too often the child hears the sounds of displeasure from the parental sidelines. “Awww!”, “What are you doing??”, or “Why didn’t you just…” The coach may show frustration and disdain especially if the situation cost the team the ball or (Oh my!), a goal. If a child hears applause and words of support when they try something; human nature has them willing to try it again. And that is what we want. Players need never be afraid to try new things if indeed the support mechanism is in place amongst the parents and coaches. Understand as well that trying new things means taking risks which is an important part of not only developing creative players; but players in general!
Where players need the most support is in the realm of taking on defenders one versus one. As noted in the opening with LeBron James and Sydney Crosby, we marvel at their ability to drop defenders like they’re standing still! With head fakes, shimmies, masterful ball (or puck) control, speed, and accuracy these players developed into wonderful one versus one athletes. Confidently taking players on, particularly in and around the goal is key in soccer and is a must relative to development.
3. “Go out and play.”
…or not; which sadly is too often the case. Showing my age here a bit, as a kid once I got home from school and my homework was done, my mother would warmly, but firmly tell me to “go out and play”. And I did! From there, my friends and I were left to our own creative devices to organize pick up sports games or made up activities just because we could and it was fun. Devoid of any “coaches”, we could be any sports star we wanted and would emulate their “moves” right there in our own neighborhood. No coach stifling the creativity we so enjoyed. In the world of soccer, it is appreciably called “street soccer.”
When on my own, I can recall getting on my bike and riding to the park, soccer ball under my arm and on my own dribbling and then shooting the ball against the brick wall of an adjacent building. I was in an imaginary stadium and the applause I heard was all for me as I emulated the many great players I saw on television or live.
Playing, but not watching. There is a wealth of opportunities to watch the game of soccer at a high level live and on so many media devices. Far too many of our kids enjoy playing the game, but fall short in taking the time to enjoy seeing the greats play. Parents can do a world of good here by highlighting creative players and collective play with displays of “wow” and then gently encouraging their children to go out (see above!) and try it. Gently as it can prove to be counter –productive to force or even give the appearance of forcing a child to head out and try. Does the child have a favorite player? A team? If so, this can lead to terrific opportunities to watch these players or team in action either live or on television or computer. Creative development often times is born from watching creative players.
4. The training environment
As parents, we expect our schools to have certified, qualified teachers who are not only expert in their subject matter, but in the methods needed to teach their students. A good educator creates an environment where his or her students are challenged and the idea of learning is embraced. The soccer coach and field are no different. The players are students, the field a classroom, and the coach; a teacher. The very same dynamics that contribute to an outstanding classroom must be the same on a soccer field. If it is not; the child is being shortchanged. A good coach, like a teacher, can masterfully facilitate the environment so that the child is the center of it all.
Does the coach encourage creative play? Does he or she create sessions that challenge the players to be creative both individually and collectively? Does the coach positively acknowledge the effort to be creative? Does the coach provide information that helps the player over the last hurdle in the effort to do something creative? Does your child enjoy the experience?
As a coach educator for over 25 years, I have seen my fair share of training sessions that I categorize as either “coach centered” or “player centered”. The difference is clear. “Coach centered” is the environment where we too often see and hear the coach. They become the center of the training session by over coaching, barking at times, and disrupting the flow so vital to any session from the youngest to the oldest. The “child centered” coach is the one who can deftly and even gracefully dip in and out when needed to make a coaching point or offer words of encouragement or instruction. Their time in the center so to speak is kept at a minimum because they have the expertise to effectively communicate the message and apply the appropriate methodologies within a short period of time. It’s artwork when done well.
5. The Power of Small Sided Games (SSG)
U.S. Soccer now features as a cornerstone of its developmental philosophy the dynamic of small sided games. The idea is simple and sound. Smaller numbers of athletes engaged in play increases the opportunity for individual players to handle situations in addition to the group as a whole. From a creativity standpoint, playing 4 v 4 allows a player to get the ball a whole lot more than if they were playing 11 v 11! That increased ratio now organically forces the player to solve problems either on their own or in combination. SSG used effectively can teach tactics as well.
So, there you have it; the areas where creativity can either be stifled or nurtured. Like anything, a well-informed person (in this case, parents and yes, coaches) who not only understands a concept, but with an open mind, appreciate it, goes a long way in bettering not only soccer, but life as well.