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Creativity and Innovation in Coaching

My wheels have been turning for several years on the difference between coaching “action” sports and “traditional” sports. Much of that thinking culminated in my Trad[itional] vs. Rad[ical] sports presentation at the NCDA in July. When I returned from my travels to Japan, I kept thinking about this topic and specifically how coaches of all sports can apply some of the concepts of open ended sports into their daily coaching practice. Eventually, I expanded on the original “Trad vs. Rad” presentation and came up with a new presentation addressing HOW a coach can be innovative and creative in their coaching practice. I feel that when people hear the words innovation and creativity, the connotation is instant inspiration in an artistic sense. It’s when someone gets that “A-Ha” and creates something new. But that’s not the true essence of creativity. Creativity and innovation is the result of a process and deep understanding of one’s subject matter. Scientific discoveries rarely, if ever, come from a sudden flash of inspiration. They are the result of years of practice, knowledge and experimentation. Those flashes do occur, but only with the requisite background knowledge and understanding that comes from years of study. That is the process I wanted to present to coaches working with athletes of all ages. This is the outline of the process for how coaches can be creative and innovative in their daily coaching sessions.

#1: Find your Purpose

In order to come up with a new methodology or process, you need to know where you’re going in the first place. Essentially, determining the goal or intended outcome is essential to the creative process. Much like a scientist develops a hypothesis or an artist has a vision of what they’re creating, a coach uses his knowledge of the sport to identify a skill, technique, process or goal their athletes are working towards. Or in many action sports, the athlete has an idea for a trick or skill and the coach helps them develop the process.

#2: Know your subject…thoroughly

According to Bloom’s Taxonomy model, the highest level of learning is “Creating”. If a coach wants to develop creative and innovate methods or processes, they must first have a deep understanding of the subject matter they’re working with. This takes research, experience, practice and education. It also requires that a coach be open minded and objective in their intake of information to collect as much knowledge as possible. This allows the coach to determine what components can be used in each specific situation.

#3: Understand the Constraints and Parameters

A creative and innovative coach must also understand the rules that govern the skill, technique or goal. For example, if a coach wants to develop an innovative approach to shooting a free throw in basketball, they must know the rules that govern the free throw. The ball is a regulation size, the free throw line is a set distance away from the basket, the basket is a set height from the floor and the rim is a set diameter. Every sport has constraints and parameters. A coach must understand the walls that surround the box in order to think outside of it.

#4: Rewrite the Rules and Stretch the Constraints

Now the fun part begins! This is where the coach can apply his knowledge of the required skills and constraints of the sport to come up with new processes to coach their athletes. Again, take the basketball free throw as an example. The “typical” method of coaching the free throw might be to have an athlete repetitively perform free throws over and over again with the coach giving feedback on arm angles, foot placement, release techniques or literally dozens of other components of a free throw. But, an innovative coach might alter some of the constraints to achieve a higher level of learning. Maybe the coach alters the ball size and has the athlete perform the skill with a tennis ball. Or uses a smaller diameter rim or varies the distance of the free throw from the basket. This is also where a clear understanding of the purpose is critical. What is the specific aspect of the skill the coach is striving to enhance? How does the “innovative” approach work towards that goal? The more experience and knowledge the coach has, the easier is it to find the most effective method to coach that skill.

#5: Practice, Assess, Revise and Don’t be Afraid to Mess Up!

Implementation is now the key. There are a couple of factors to consider when helping athlete’s try a new process they might see as a little strange. First and foremost, the coach needs to have a strong relationship with the athletes based on mutual trust and respect. Absent that and the athletes may not fully embrace the new process. Second, the athletes also need to have an understanding of the sport, the skills and the constraints. The coach doesn’t need to explicitly explain exactly the purpose of new drill or exercise. But with well coached athletes, they should get the idea and “buy in” to the new technique. Once implemented and completed, the coach can change the focus back to the overarching goal and check for progress. Based on that assessment and feedback from the athletes, the coach can then revise and try it again. Most important is the willingness of the coach and athletes to try something new and to not be afraid for it not to work. Along with the willingness to try, modify and try it again, these methods can be a powerful pathway to quickly achieve a desired outcome.

Coaches are responsible for many factors in developing athletes. With practice and experience, each coach develops their own approach and philosophy of coaching. While not every coach is going to be the most innovative or creative coach, an understanding of the creative process coupled with a deep knowledge of their subject matter gives coaches the analytical tools to implement the most efficient and effective methods to train their athletes. When a coach follows the creative process, they may discover that the “traditional” method works just fine, but they may also discover a new method that helps their athlete progress at a more rapid rate. When a coach has a clear idea of where they’re going, has a deep knowledge of the sport, understands the parameters, is willing to try something new and is not afraid be wrong, they will serve the athletes to the best of their abilities.

Jon Casson Director of Sport Education U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association

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