July 12, 2021


Sports Creativity Blockers and Stimulators

The multimedia artist Phil Hansen has explained in a TED Talk how he has created a widely recognized work of art, which surprises the audience due to the techniques he adopts. According to Hansen, the reason for his creativity is, exclusively, his limitations. When he was in art school, he developed a tremor that prevented him from drawing. He tried to employ different techniques, such as pointillism, but the problem persisted; he had hand tremors. One day, however, he stood in front of the canvas and let his hand tremble. Through his doodles, he created a series of shades that, from a broader perspective, traced the perfect shape of what he wanted to paint.

He just needed a change of focus. From there, he started painting with his feet, using blowlamps to darken wood or paper napkins stuck to a wall. He realized that by varying the scale of his work his tremors were not posing any problems.

His conclusion was that, in his career, he owed a great deal to the limitations he had faced due to his illness as it had made him develop his creativity. Thus, he learned that being creative within limitations is humanity’s best hope for transforming people, societies, and the world. Hansen stated that limitations should be understood as sources of creativity and that even though adversity was not satisfactory or comfortable, the only way to end the period of stagnation or to overcome a situation was to re-establish the categories and to question the established.

The same schemes that this artist proposes are present in sport, not from an artistic point of view, but rather from scientific investigations in the creativity of athletes. What drove the basketball player Magic Johnson to make passes without looking at his teammate, similar to what Michael Laudrup did shortly afterwards in football? Since 1967, these research studies have exponentially increased, even though there is still no concise definition of the term. The athlete’s creativity strongly depends on who is judging them, whether it is a crowd that does not know anything about the sports practice or an expert coach. Regarding researchers, some of them focus on whether it is an original teammate movement or interaction, in the sense that no one has ever tried it before, others focus on whether it is a new performance, meaning that the athlete had not previously carried out such action; while others focus more on the value of the performance, whether it is useful or has, in style, its rationale. In team sports, one obvious side of creativity is the desire to increase the unpredictability of the performance so as to gain an important advantage over the opponents.

The research studies that have been carried out so far agree on highlighting the fact that it is possible to foster creativity, but they differ when it comes to deciding on strategies for its development as many factors would influence this decision, such as the athlete’s willingness to play and the role of the coach.

A research conducted by the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport of the University of Stirling, the United Kingdom, about all the scientific literature in this field available so far, emphasises the importance of tactical creativity or the divergent tactical thinking. These are variable, strange and flexible decisions that play an important role in team sports, such as football, basketball, hockey or handball. A number of decisions that are not related to a divergent tactical thinking, i.e., the process that involves the adoption of the most effective solutions to a specific problem. On the other hand, creativity consists of producing different solutions to a same problem.

In human beings, we can distinguish two brain cognitive systems when it comes to being creative. The explicit brain system is in charge of the detection and resolution of complex problems and can be verbalised, while the implicit brain system is related to neuromotor skills and cannot be verbalised. In sport, creativity is generally developed through actions, not over actions. It is about intrinsic and motor stimuli of a systemic nature, that is to say, they are not performed by the athlete because they have certain characteristics. They come from the interaction of these characteristics together with the possibilities created by the game context and, more specifically, how the athlete perceives this environment. New ways of action, of an adaptive nature, in new situations. In this way, the emergence of new ways of movement would require a system that, in the face of new conditions or limitations, can create different behavioural structures.

Specifically, in team sports, a reaction and adaptation are required based on a set of sources of information from the environment, which are always different, through the perception-action cycle, and the ability of an athlete which depends on his capacity to detect all the information coming from that environment. It has been proven that the most creative athletes are the ones that are in tune with the surrounding reality. By having a broader and wider perspective on what is happening on the pitch, the athlete can acquire information that can initially be irrelevant. Therein lies the popular cliché of seeing what others do not see. And this happens unconsciously—as it is shown by great players who, when asked about impressive performances, they cannot explain how they managed to do it.

There is a close relation between the athlete’s creativity and their capacity of visual search. The Creative decision making and visual search behaviour in skilled soccer players research conducted in Italy in 2018, with an eye movement recording system, has found that football players who paid more attention and had more opportunities to look around were more creative. In addition, they were more aware of which teammates were unmarked, so it was easier to pass the ball to them.

Similarly, at the 2020 Sports Tomorrow Congress organized by Barça Innovation Hub, the French coach Arsène Wenger talked about the results of a study with the same characteristics, which was conducted in England. They measured how many times a player looks around within 10 seconds before receiving the ball. The average players looked around between four and six times. The best ones did so between six and eight times. Outside the measured range was Xavi Hernández, from FC Barcelona, who looked around an average of 8.3 times. He was already known as the best player in the world in his position when analysing the sample.

In case studies, it has been demonstrated that only changing the material, shape and size of the ball and using different parts of the body to play with, it opened up new opportunities of creative expression. In recent years, it has been common to find veteran football coaches who miss having players who come from playing on the streets, without sports facilities, due to the experiences the player learned as a child on a rough terrain with obstacles of all kinds, including traffic.

It has also been proven that more experienced athletes develop cognitive flexibility, as well as those who participate in more sports are extremely more creative than the ones that play only one. Thus, the interest shown by the world champion Salvador Bilardo in other sports may have made more sense than what the media thought, but, at that time, it was an anecdote. He studied the tactics applied in field hockey and water polo.

In the same way, in studies performed with handball players, it was found that, with video exercises, 45% of players did not realise when a player was unmarked. However, if they were given instructions, the percentage decreased to almost 17%. In studies performed with children, it was also found that the ones that undertook a specific programme to gain more attention were, then, the most creative players. Therefore, the team was divided into two. The first team was given instructions during the game by the coach, who corrected their passes, and the second team was only given instructions before the game without a coach during it. The second team significantly improved their creativity.

Other studies suggest that the role of the coach is also decisive as it enables risk taking. In order to be creative, the risk cannot be penalised or reprimanded since it is a sine qua non condition. From a social point of view, some football players have shown more creativity as they approach the game as an aspirational promotion, and those who approach it in a preventive, more duty-oriented way. Even though, it should be noted that the scientific evidence suggesting that creativity can be acquired usually refers to early stages of life. However, too much pressure to succeed may be incompatible with the intrinsic expression of creativity and the pursuit of results would lead to more subordinate attitudes that block any kind of impulse towards experimentation. As it is stated in Exploring the multifaceted role of creativity in an elite football context, in team sports, there is no victory without strategies based on the athletes’ creativity.


Xavier Damunt



TED Talks: Phil Hansen Embrace the shake

Defining, assessing, and developing creativity in sport: a systematic narrative reviewdoi:10.1080/1750984x.2019.1616315

Play and practice in the development of sportspecific creativity in team ball sports.


Exploring the multifaceted role of creativity in an elite football context.doi:10.1080/2159676x.2019.1625809 





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