What is creativity in soccer?
Creativity is used a lot to describe the better soccer players. And many of us probably recognize it when we see it during a youth or pro game. I have posted many times about the importance of encouraging creativity in our youngsters, most recently an article on the lack of top midfielders in our country and a post about risk-averse defenders.
The impact of creativity cannot be underestimated. It massively impacts the quality and entertainment of every soccer game across all age groups and levels. It’s as relevant for lower-level U9 games as it is for elite pro games.
And a lack of creativity isn’t just an issue here in our country. For example, it’s arguably the single biggest reason for England’s relative underperformance on the international stage (and until recently, but to a lesser extent, also in the country where I grew up, Germany) and why the English Premier League is so dominated by elite foreign players. (English teams have the resources to buy talent from all over the world because more than in any other country England focused heavily on the business of sports these last two decades. So the English clubs and the League are doing well, but not the English national team.)
According to one English youth soccer coach: “So many England internationals from the past 30 years have grown to become more functional than creative, and the fact that I have to hark back to players like Hoddle and Gascoigne to remember truly creative, unpredictable, England players is a concern for English football. This rigid, predictable footballer is a product of the coaching they received when they were young.”
But what is ‘creativity’? More technical elements such as dribbling or super skills? Or more team-based elements such as pass-and-move patterns? Or something else?
Before I suggest a definition of ‘creativity’ let’s take a step back and read this excerpt from a recent article on how U.S. Soccer is attempting to improve coaching quality (slightly edited for clarity and brevity; blue font is my emphasis):
“Soccer is a player’s game. The 22 people knocking a ball around a big field are bound by few rules. Predictable patterns rarely occur. As a result, coaches can’t succeed by designing plays and ordering players to execute them, as they can in, say, football. Players have to make judgment calls in the moment, on their own.
This means that rote skills, while essential, are not in themselves adequate. The thing that makes better players is decision making. They need to integrate not just how to do something but whether, when, and why. There are parallels to the difficulty many students have solving problems independently. If you give kids a math problem and tell them how to solve it they can usually do it. But if you give them a problem and it’s not clear how to solve it, they struggle.
Jürgen Klinsmann, a former German world soccer star, World Cup winner, coach of the German National Team, and currently coach of our U.S. men’s team, has remarked that it’s hard to get Americans to see that a soccer coach cannot be “the decision maker on the field,” but should instead be a guide. “This is a very different approach. I tell them, ‘No, you’re not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field.’ ”
Outside the U.S., most soccer players learn to play independently very early on. We don’t have a lot of unstructured play where kids can develop creativity. It’s a lot of tournaments and pressure and sideline parents and trophies.”
So with that background in mind let’s turn back to ‘creativity’. When you break down a soccer game into its smallest, most fundamental elements it comes down to this:
Players are faced with an endless series of problem-solving micro-moments during games.
These micro-moments could last anywhere from a split-second (for example, controlling the ball in very tight spaces or a goalkeeper reacting to a sudden shot on goal) to a handful of seconds (for example, a midfielder moving with the ball looking for passing options).
Some of these micro-moments repeat themselves over time and youngsters simply learn from experience what to do in those moments.
But many of these micro-moments are new or different and force a player to make immediate decisions about how to solve them. And as the standard of play increases the player has to use increasingly creative ways to deal with these micro-moments.
For example, simply physically shielding the ball against a physically inferior and ‘simpler’ player won’t work against clever/crafty players (physically inferior or not) because they know how to fake you out and poke the ball away. Or clever players know how to use teamwork to double up on you and take the ball away.
Another example is that athletic youngsters can have much success simply touching the ball into space past a defender and then sprinting past them toward goal, especially when they are younger and/or playing against inferior players.
That’s certainly one way to repeatedly solve those how-do-I-get-past-a-defender micro-problems. But this won’t work anymore when matched up against athletic defenders and a defensive team working well together to cover each other. So now what? Is this athletic youngster able to get past the defenders other than through speed and/or physicality?
Often ‘unpredictability’ goes hand in hand with creativity. In general, the more unpredictable the way the micro-problem is solved the more likely it is that he or she will outfox the opponent and succeed.
And, just as important for the longer-term growth of the game in our country, the more entertaining it is to watch the game across all levels and age groups.
And what does a youngster need to creatively solve those micro-problems?
Soccer IQ – a fundamental understanding of the game, including the relationship between the ball, the players, space and movement;
Large toolkit – broad and deep technical skills, ball control and touch, accurate passing, ability to shoot, ambidexterity, off-the-ball movement, etc.
Mental agility – is the youngster constantly paying attention and reading the game, processing split-second decisions, coming up with clever solutions, imagining a couple of moves ahead;
Confidence – especially with the ball in tight, pressured situations in your own defensive third; does he or she have the confidence to do the unexpected and experiment with new solutions or is he or she worried about making mistakes?
So ‘creativity’ is not just one thing. It’s not just dribbling skills or accurate passing movements or sprinting or great shots on goal. It’s all of the above (and more) applied at the right moments to solve the endless series of often unpredictable micro-problems players face during games.
And the earlier and more often our youngsters attempt to solve those problems creatively the sooner their conscious thought (which is measured in seconds) becomes instinct (which is measured in a second or less), further speeding up and improving the quality of their game.
And it’s the coach’s job to help his youngsters develop as large a toolkit as possible and the positive mental attitude to become smarter, more creative players over time even if that means losing many more games.
Encourage that eight, nine, or ten year old defender to dribble past an attacker even if your team is more likely to lose possession.
Celebrate the attempted Maradona move by the midfielder even if a simpler touch past the opponent would have had a higher chance of working.
Applaud your speedy attacker for working with his teammate on a series of two or three wall-passes instead of simply using his or her speed to leave that obviously slower defender in the dust.
Admire a beautiful sequence of one-touch passing movements even if two touches would have retained possession for longer.
The list is endless.
For the good of this beautiful game, coaches and parents, please teach, encourage, and celebrate creative problem solving across all age groups and levels. Coaches will develop better players, parents will be more entertained during games, and our youngsters will enjoy playing more and for longer.
And then one day in the not too distant future we will bring the World Cup trophy to our country.