Let’s begin with a brief discussion on technique and perceived affordances. Contrary to popular belief, no repetition is ever the same. Each repetition will have some commonality and stability of movement in it, but no repetition will be exactly the same. The famous tennis player Rafael Nadal mentions that no tennis shot bounces the same way, spins the same exact same way, the external conditions are always changing, so you must adjust the way you hit the ball for each individual shot. The action itself becomes a real-time feedback loop, where variability is always present. It is important to have some core stability to the movement itself, this is the comfort zone of the athlete, and why you notice similarities in the technical execution of successful repetitions. The comfort zone in the stability of the movement is a good thing, but also a bad thing in terms of exploration. It is a good thing because it keeps the basic consistency in the movement, while still being able to make adaptions, which hopefully provides a consistently successful outcome. On the other hand, an athlete that sticks too close to their comfort zone limits their ability to explore new movements. Each time the athlete steps too far out of their stability zone, they revert back to their stable area and movement patterns to accomplish the task. One possible reason Tim Tebow did not make it in the NFL for long but was a great college quarterback came down to the time it took him to release the football when throwing. Tebow simply took too much time to release the ball compared to top NFL quarterbacks, and to fix that problem would prove very difficult, because of the tendency to revert back to the stability of the movement he learned for so long, primarily in his elbow positioning of the throwing arm. It is also important to understand that there is no fundamentally correct technique, especially for all players. Each person is built different, arm length, leg length, center of gravity, flexibility, height, weight, and so many more factors make us all unique, there is no way one way of executing a technique can fit everyone. We are probably better off giving very limited feedback to players, in terms of what a perceived “fundamental” in executing the technique would be. If we give too much in terms of how to execute, it can disrupt the natural flow of the technique, and the ways the person needs to adapt to the skill in their own way. There are no fundamental rules when we consider every repetition is different, and every person is different.
Before I connect creativity to the discussion I want to briefly mention perceived affordances. An affordance is an action a person is capable of executing. If a player knows how to do a bicycle kick, they will look at a crossed ball, and have the option to perform the bicycle kick. If the person doesn’t have that skill, they will look at the crossed ball, and not perceive the bicycle kick as even an option, it’s the same crossed ball, but the perception for action capability is different. Another example of perceived affordances would be a rock climber that has great hand strength, they might look at the mountain and perceive a climbing path based upon smaller hand holes, but if the climber had to wear mittens that perceived path of affordances would change. The mittens would serve as a constraint and the result would potentially be twofold, first, the decision-making process would be altered, and second, the climber would be forced to explore new options and techniques for climbing. They may need to rely on footholds much more, or a combination of footholds and less demanding handholds. This process is de-stabilizing, to both the technique and decision-making process. This type of constraint-based environment is what creates unique skill sets both technically and tactically, this is what creativity means to me. Creativity is fraught with constraints, constraints are the seeds and catalysts of creativity. When coaches say we need to produce more creative players, I hope they are using tons of constraints, unstable training environments, and variability.
I know I have spoken about this numerous times in the past, but creativity in soccer comes from futsal, beach soccer, cage soccer, and many other constrained environments. The best part is the decisions and skill sets that are developed in these environments transfer to the 11 v 11 game. Players from these environments have different skills and decision-making abilities due to their experience in these unstable environments that they explored playing in. The environment is the teacher, in this case, the learning is not coach-directed like a classroom math teacher. However, as coaches, we can add constraints to training sessions in a million different ways to help our players develop. There is great value to changing the players perception and affordances in sessions.
I will leave you with this last piece to the creativity puzzle. Generally, keep your sessions game representative, keep it whole instead of separated, dribbling through cones is not the game, hitting from a batting tee is not the same skill as hitting, scanning to yell out colors does nothing really, variability is essential, constraints develop unique skill sets, and theory needs to be connected training design. People don’t become creative players by sitting back and thinking about new ways to beat a defender, they become creative when the environments are fraught with constraints.