I was reading a thinky article I found online about corporate culture, innovation and positivity, posted here on a site called “Bigthink.” It highlights the linkage between happiness, creativity and innovation, which is a key attribute for corporate survival and competitiveness. When asked what a corporation can do to promote happiness, Tal Ben-Shahar replies,
The first thing that an organization needs to do is to give space, place, for people to fail. Now, it shouldn’t give a blank check to failure, but it needs to identify the area where failure is not traumatic or terrible and give space in these areas, because that’s where people learn; that’s where people explore. An organization where people are afraid of failing every step of the way will not be an innovative organization.
This makes me think of soccer training. Sometimes I celebrate an error at practice. If a
player falls while trying an intricate maneuver, I’ll say “yay! someone here is really training hard.” Or if a player apologizes for making a mistake in practice I might ask “What do you call these sessions? Do you say ‘On Wednesdays I go to Soccer Perfect?’ Or don’t you call it ‘Soccer Practice?’ This is practice and this is where we want to make mistakes.”
But other times I rip their lungs out. Some mistakes if they are chronic, or the result of poor effort, I jump on hard. Errors of aspiration where the player tries something new, I try to support and celebrate, because they are the precursor of a breakthrough.
The article goes on to say that the second thing that’s needed to foment inventiveness in giving people recovery space:
It’s no coincidence that we get some of our best ideas in the shower . . . It’s no coincidence that the words creation and recreation are etymologically linked, because we need to recreate if we want to create. Organizations need to encourage their employees to take recovery times, . . . these periods in the long term actually contribute to creativity, productivity, as well as happiness.
So time off and play, walking round, disengaging, thinking about something else, all cultivates inventiveness. In soccer training I think this is where as a coach I need to find ways to distance myself from scrimmages sometimes. I don’t want to over-coach and make everything about performance anxiety. Sometimes, I make myself walk away from the action, picking up cones, soccer balls, or perhaps I’ll chat with one of the parents. Anything to combat my coach’s inclination to talk, comment and criticize. When we “play soccer”, sometimes we have to emphasize the soccer by teaching, explaining and demonstrating. But as the BigThink article reminds us, sometimes we have to emphasize the aspect of play.
I saw this Wednesday as we tried an idea I’d long-considered but hadn’t scheduled time to try. I asked the boys to scrimmage 6 v 6 in our alloted space of 30 x 50 yards. I stayed in the stands and tracked a statistic: each player’s “plus-minus” score. When they had the ball, if they made a successful pass, I marked a “+” by their name. If they were tackled or made an unsuccessful pass I marked a “-“. This is just difficult enough that it took all my attention to watch, see the result of a pass, find the player’s name on my paper and make the mark. I had no extra time to comment. Coach Kieran was able to provide some guidance, but I was not. One thing I notice is that the play got increasingly innovative. In fact Kavi scored a goal with a nice back-heel, a brilliantly innovative and audacious move. I wonder if he would’ve done the same if I’d been judging and criticizing throughout, as we coaches do? I doubt it.
As coaches our job is to teach the game. We have to show them the fundamentals of the game, but we have to do it remembering that players improve when they have room and safety to make mistakes, and to truly play, as they do at recess or vacation.
When I thought about this idea, it finally hit me why this pastime has acquired a cult-like following. It’s because it provides both freedom to make mistakes and an escape from the tasks at hand. It’s an instant form of recreation (and re-creation), and a safe laboratory for making mistakes. Hence its earth-shattering popularity.