Why don’t we have creative players? Because we don’t like them.

The most exciting moments of soccer come from plays — and players — showing brilliant creativity. The unstoppable, weaving runs of a single-minded dribbler who beats several defenders to bury the ball in the back of the net is the stuff of legend.

Players who make unexpected passes are the darlings of the terraces.

Stories of once-in-a-lifetime moments of brilliance are repeated over decades and the number of people who claim to have seen them  in person grow beyond the capacity of the stadium.

You would think that every coach would cultivate creativity and love having magical players on the squad.

You would be wrong.

Creative artists drive most coaches crazy. Unsurprisingly the same thing happens in classrooms. According to a study summarized in a recent blog post,teachers don’t like creative students:

“One of the most consistent findings in educational studies of creativity has been that teachers dislike personality traits associated with creativity. Research has indicated that teachers prefer traits that seem to run counter to creativity, such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority. The reason for teachers’ preferences is quite clear —  creative people tend to have traits that some have referred to as obnoxious. A study described creative people as not having the time to be courteous, as refusing to take no for an answer, and as being negativistic and critical of others.”

It’s the same with brilliant soccer players. The two stars featured above, George Best and Garrincha, were chronic discipline problems for their managers and ended up drinking themselves to death. Romario, another famous Brazilian striker, continually had run-ins with authority. He wanted an exception from the team’s rule on cell phone usage. When Brazil won the ’94 World Cup in the US he tried to skirt customs returning to Brazil (I think he got away with it, too). He would disappear from Europe to return home whenever he wanted to. He failed drug tests. But he was never without an offer to play. This editorial in the NYT has more.

"participants who were primed to think creatively were more likely to behave dishonestly because of their creativity motivation and greater ability to justify their dishonest behavior"

Creativity also can bring dishonesty. According to another paper, The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can be More Dishonest, “We propose that high levels of divergent thinking and cognitive flexibility are likely to be associated with dishonest behavior when individuals are motivated to think creatively, either because of their own personalities or because of cues in the surrounding environment. Divergent thinking is likely to help individuals develop original ways to bypass moral rules.” in other words, when your mind continually allows you to see new possibilities and ideas, you may start to feel that existing boundaries are not important and not for you. That may help to explain one of the most infamous moments in World Cup soccer (see right).

There is also the case of Eric Cantona known for his violent outbursts, kicking and maiming several opponents and famously at least one fan. When criticized for his acts he replied, “It’s my nature to react the way I do,” he told L’Equipe, the French sports paper. “It’s an instinct, and to hell with people who are not happy about it.”

As a coach, especially a youth coach, the question is how to create an atmosphere of teamwork, with habits, practices and mores if you do not require all players to adapt to them? How do I convince each player that when it comes to the rules, all players are equal when in terms of skill and perhaps even brain chemistry, creative players are in fact not like their teammates? Since I’m coaching children should I reinforce team rules more, trying to teach life lessons, or is it my job to adopt my treatment of each boy to extract their best performances from each?

I have two players on my Hammer team who are outstandingly creative. One has the poorest attendance. Both are frequently late. They were both late today, although one explained “I was sitting in the car and didn’t see anyone.” One has a diagnosis of ADD and listens once in a while but often is lost in his own thoughts. The other, when I asked why he didn’t work harder, told me, “Because I’m lazy.” One has to be continuously reminded to defend, he lives only to score goals. The other plays in scrimmages making animal sounds while he runs. One showed up to futsal practice wearing his cleats. The other’s lost his uniform jersey and uses a teammate’s extra even though the name and number are wrong. Neither hustles much, often disappearing in games for long stretches of time.

If I had eighteen players like this, I don’t know what I’d do. I yell at these guys probably more than I do at the other sixteen boys combined.

But if I didn’t have any players like this, I don’t know what I’d do either. The team would be much poorer. The creative player inspires his teammates and shows what new concepts and tactics are possible. My two guys pull their teammates along, showing them innovative ways to dribble, pass and shoot.

Coaches of soccer and other team sports have an impossible riddle to solve. Professionals will tolerate a lot of rule-breaking in exchange for results. With kids, it’s a two-edged sword. At a meta level, it boils down to what you think you are doing as a coach. Do you believe that the sport teaches social skills, how to perform in a group, and to execute a role as part of a larger whole? If so, you should drive for obedience of the rules. If you find yourself with a truly creative person, it’s unlikely she will go on to make her living in such a setting, and maybe you are preparing her for nothing relevant except disdain of corporate life and other work settings where the individual subjugates herself to benefit the whole.

Because corporate life can be stultifying. Consider this dialogue from the (original version) of Rollerball. John Houseman is Mr. Bartholomew, a team owner who is attending an owners’  teleconference. His star player,  Jonathan E.’s (James Caan) is creating a sensation by leading his team to victory after victory. Houseman is far from pleased. In fact his success  threatens the core of the league’s reason for existence. He explains,”In my opinion, we are confronted here with something of a situation. Otherwise, I would not have presumed to take up your time. Once again, it concerns the case of Jonathan E. We know we don’t want anything extraordinary to happen to Jonathan. We’ve already agreed on that. No accidents, nothing unnatural. The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. And the game must do its work. The Energy Corporation has done all it can, and if a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose. I hope you agree with my reasoning.”

Does soccer exist to prove the individual cannot flourish or succeed outside the context of a larger group? Or can a moment of individual brilliance still bring victory to the team and joy to the fans and announcers?

And as a coach, how do I allow creativity without abdicating discipline and self-sacrifice in my team?

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One Response to Why don’t we have creative players? Because we don’t like them.

  1. Jen says:

    This is a good post and relevant to anyone working with kids–I work for an arts ed organization and we find this all the time, that some of our most creative students (and some of our most creative instructors/professional performers) are what a lot of us might tend to call…I don’t know. Basketcases? Generally, I feel like these kids get a lot of bad juju in school. The kid who told you “I’m lazy” has gotten that message loud and clear from somewhere (not saying it’s not true, just that he’s gotten the message). On a sports field or in an art studio (or music room or theater) at least creative kids have something to contribute that is understood to be of value. In fact, as you point out, they might bring something nobody else brings, and there is nothing wrong with pointing that out, even as you also push them to make the most of that ability and enforce whatever rules there are for behavior, organization, etc. I think you are correct that maybe “corporate life” is not the right real life parallel for a soccer team. Maybe it’s more like an entrepreneurial enterprise, a start-up business. You need to be creative and take risks, try to think outside the box. You also need to meet deadlines and get the work done, or you’ll be out of business pretty fast. It’s also true that rarely can one person embody all these ideas. Usually it’s a team of people who respect each other’s contributions, so in that sense I think you’re on the right page trying to get the kids to see the whole and not just their individual piece of it. But maybe it’s not even a business model…maybe it’s just about developing as people. I read once (I wish I remembered where) that kids need three things to get through adolescence relatively unscathed: 1) at least one adult they believe truly cares about them, 2) a group of peers where there is mutual respect (not just kids hanging together by default) and then 3) at least one activity where they feel competent. We tend to think more affluent kids do not need our help in this sense, but I’m not sure the third element is something all kids get. Being told you are “great” by your parents is not the same as feeling competent at something…helping these kids see that they may have talents their teachers and parents don’t understand could be important in how they come to see themselves (and you might or might not ever know it…I also think our impact on teens is often “invisible”…I’ve worked a lot as a tutor, and I’ve heard back from kids *years* after I’ve worked with them, telling me what a positive impact I had…and it’s *never* the kids I thought were my big “successes” who take time to do that. It’s always the ones I thought were hardly paying any attention 🙂 Anyway, thanks for the post!

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