April 14, 2021


Sparking creativity in sport

In 1968, Dick Fosbury wowed the world with a brand new high jump technique at the Olympic Games in Mexico. Until then, the world record had been held by Valeriy Brumel of the Soviet Union, who jumped using the spin-roll technique, attacking the bar head-first and clearing it with the traditional straddle movement. Fosbury broke all conventions with his curved run-up and diagonal back-jump, but he won gold and set an Olympic record. The crowd, for the first and only time, did not cheer as the marathon leader entered the stadium at the very same moment, before they were all so enthralled by the extraordinary innovation in the high jump. Today, all jumpers use the ‘Fosbury Flop’. It has been debated whether Fosbury’s creativity was due to his imagination or his limitations, since the latter, whether intrinsic or imposed by the task at hand, are often a good source of creativity due to the need to adapt to the context. But one hypothesis is that it happened due to a fundamental change in the context itself, and which Fosbury viewed as a chance to explore new possibilities: the introduction of the foam landing mat.

This is what researchers Dominic Orth, John van der Kamp, Daniel Memmert and Geert J.P. Savelsbergh claim in their 2017 article Creative Motor Actions as Emerging from Movement Variability. Creative actions depend both on the characteristics of the individual and the environment in which they are to be carried out, an approach that differs from traditional ones that consider that the brain, from a higher hierarchical position, devises creative actions that can later be put into practice. This approach differentiated between the generation of ideas and their execution, when it has been shown that action is a constitutive part of creativity. Thus, creative solutions only emerge on the spot, during action, and not before. They are a product of individual, task-related and environment-related constraints. It would be incongruous to separate mental production from execution.

In its traditional conception, viewed as an exclusively psychological process, creative behaviour is defined by its originality, the unusualness of the decision taken, the flexibility, variety or diversity of actions, the fluidity, and the number of decisions generated based on the variability.

In the scientific literature of the 1970s, Joy Paul Gilford distinguished between two operations to solve a problem: convergent and divergent thinking. The former is based on the association of ideas to find a response, i.e. a rigid scheme; while the latter, in the presentation of a wide variety of responses to the same stimulus, is a way of thinking that is not based, like the former, on experience. Gilford claimed that creativity was the result of this divergent thinking. In turn, E. Paul Torrance, in the same period, separated thought from action and defined the creative person as someone who develops awareness of the deficiencies of a process and is thus motivated to formulate new hypotheses or speculations in order to modify that process. Both approaches synthesise an athlete’s learning and training.

Researchers Orth, van der Kamp, Memmert and Savelsbergh developed their theory from the idea that science has always been highly interested in understanding the source of creativity. It clearly plays a fundamental role in the progress and transformation that are achieved through human effort. Hence studies have generally sought to analyse how a person generates ideas to solve a problem. If creativity is viewed as the original but viable solution to a problem, it is thus concluded that creative ideas arise from the variation of possible solutions. So the greater the variability, the more likely it is that a creative idea will emerge. Something similar happens in sports.

There are researchers, like David Cárdenas Vélez, co-author of Neuroscience, Sports and Education, who consider that, in this regard, the role of the coach is decisive for fostering an athlete’s creativity, or otherwise inhibiting it, as tends to be commonplace with the use of methodologies that involve didactic strategies aimed at reproducing closed behavioural models that limit the degrees of freedom and/or design tasks with little variability.

Variability will always be determined by the contextual characteristics in which motor actions emerge. That is, they will be creative depending on the individual, the task and the environment. This ability, called motor creativity, is related to adaptability to the environment. It is a form of action adapted to new situations, and in the sporting context such situations arise all the time.

FC Barcelona’s youth football coaches design Preferential Simulation Situations (PSS) that support this motor creativity, which are a basic element of the procedures proposed by the Methodology Area (‘rondo’, positional play and situational play, mainly). All of these feature the intrinsic peculiarity of simulating highly specific open contexts. That is, players are not over-limited by their degrees of freedom being reduced, either due to the rules or to instructions issued by the coach, thus ensuring that the player has to adapt to a changing context and therefore foster motor creativity on the basis of flexible training methods. It is felt that flexible players will be able to adapt better to multiple game contexts, especially those that are most commonly experienced in training and in competitive contexts (Damunt y Guerrero, 2021).

In fact, in the practice session document, coaches are encouraged to think about whether their PSS designs are exploratory, oriented, or game-specific. Oriented PSS slightly reduce players’ degrees of freedom and/or introduce rules that guide or facilitate player decision-making. In this case, an optimal context for player creativity is not generated, but it can nevertheless be useful, for example, for getting players (especially beginners) thinking about certain sources of information that the coach considers useful, facilitating their perception, as well as their comprehension, of what happens in this context when performing a certain action, as this is more stable, and makes it more likely that certain actions will lead to similar modifications of the context in response to the action.

On the other hand, we have the aforesaid exploratory design. Here the player generally acts with greater degrees of freedom, thus increasing the variability of the actions and allowing for adaptation to the context in a variety of ways, according to the possibilities of action that emerge, and also in interaction with their abilities and capacities. However, this context of open practice is usually complemented with some constraint or restriction in a certain player dimension. As mentioned at the beginning, these restrictions are a good way to perturb the player so that, if they want to continue to be efficient in their game, they must adapt in keeping with the proposed limitations by performing unusual actions, i.e. creative ones.

Finally, as a mixture of both types of design, there is specific play, which retains the characteristics necessary for the player to develop with the necessary freedom to support creativity, but the exercise is slightly oriented because it incorporates the rules of the game itself (offside, use of goals and goal area, etc.) and, optionally and commonly, the typical demarcations and structures of a match situation that further orient the participants, in this case towards certain types of behaviour that are related to their role.

It is a good idea to optimise creative actions, since, first, they are an obvious sign that the player who performs them has the necessary skills to adapt to what might happen in a game, which is the basis for success in such an unpredictable sport as football and, secondly, because in certain cases, if creativity is not merely limited to new actions for the performer, but also those that are unusual or expected for opponents, they can generate an element of uncertainty and surprise.

Studies such as Executive Functions Predicts the Success of Top-Soccer Players have also observed that in football there is a relationship between creativity and performance. The players who got the most goals and assists in a season (male and female players from the Swedish league) were also the ones with the highest levels of cognitive flexibility. Similarly, Qualitative and quantitative change in the dynamics of motor learning found that, if somebody learning a sport has been able to discover and develop forms of coordination and control (concepts associated to the way an athlete modifies their behaviour during learning) this freedom is associated with improved performance.

In their study, Orth, van der Kamp, Memmert and Savelsbergh focus on types of training that use changes of distance to stimulate athlete creativity, such as moving the basket further away from basketball players or changing the position of a boxer’s punch-bag, in other words manipulating the constraints of a game or a discipline during practice. This leads them to conclude that methodological strategies need to shift towards the use of motor tasks that encourage participants to actively search for solutions. And that essentially means the development of exploratory design tasks.


Xavier Damunt – member of FC Barcelona’s Methodology Area



Damunt, X. & Guerrero, I. (2021). El entrenamiento sistémico basado en las emociones. FdL

Orth D, van der Kamp J, Memmert D, Savelsbergh GJP. Creative Motor Actions as Emerging from Movement Variability. Front Psychol. 2017

Vestberg T, Gustafson R, Maurex L, Ingvar M, Petrovic P (2012) Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top-Soccer Players.

Liu YT, Mayer-Kress G, Newell KM. Qualitative and quantitative change in the dynamics of motor learning. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2006

VV.AA (Wanceulen Editorial, 2018) “Neurociencia, Deporte y Educación)





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