Ambitious Coaching Core Practice #8: Allow space for athletic exploration, creativity, and problem solving

by Emerald City FC coach David Smith

#Leadership  #Education


Core Practice #8: Allow space for athletic exploration, creativity, and problem solving

Athletic performance typically necessitates problem solving. If all training sessions are highly scripted or coach-centered, athletes have less practice with the innovation and resourcefulness often required in competitive situations. Further, athletes are sometimes capable of more self-discovery and joyful play in unconstrained environments. While much of coaching is about creating structure for learning, sometimes the coach needs to remove constraints to allow for athletes' exploration and curiosity. The specifics for this exploration must be safe, sports-specific, and age appropriate. The coach might identify moments during training when athletes or teams can enjoy pick-up style play, design their own training sessions, or simply practice without external feedback. The coach also supports the development of problem solving by pointing out to athletes the ways in which free-play or unconstrained effort impacts their performance.

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David Smith is a coach and educator who has worked with premier youth and professional soccer clubs in England and the United States. In this installation of the Leading Edge Ambitious Coaching series, he explains how any youth coach can ‘flip the field’ to allow space for athletic exploration, creativity, and problem solving.

Diamonds and Coal

“I don't believe there is such a thing as a 'born' soccer player. Perhaps you are born with certain skills and talents, but quite frankly it seems impossible to me that one is actually born to be an ace soccer player.”


Potential is nothing without the right environment.

I like to use a very simple analogy with my players and students. I present them with a diamond and a common piece of coal and ask them what a 2-cent piece of dirty, dusty coal has in common with one of the world’s most revered and expensive commodities. The answer, of course, is ‘potential’. Placed in the right environment for the right amount of time, the dirty, dusty piece of coal fulfill its potential to become a diamond. However, if the piece of coal is left to its own devices, it will forever be a piece of coal. Potential is nothing without the right environment.

This is an oversimplified example, but it does illustrate the notion that natural ‘talent’ needs to be nurtured and placed within the right environment to truly develop. The difficulty comes in figuring out what this environment is. With a piece of coal, this transformation is the result of simple physics and chemistry that is pretty much universal. Yet if we employ the same metaphorical ‘universal’ approach with athletes, it will be doomed to failure given the unpredictable variable of human nature. So how can a coach create an environment that is tailored to each individual player while also serving the development needs of the team as a whole?

One of the ways I try to solve this complex equation is by allowing players to do it themselves. Among the most cutting-edge and innovative approaches in teaching at the moment is the concept of ‘flipping the classroom’. This idea is based upon the belief that allowing students to investigate and take responsibility for learning and teaching one another through various methods is much more beneficial and effective than a traditionally teacher-centric approach. This is a tactic that I employ with great effect in my classroom – but would it work on the field? I was extremely interested to find out!

Reflecting upon the work done by the Ambitious Coaching Project and the 15 Core Practices it created, I was particularly interested in how #8, “Allow space for athletic exploration, creativity, and problem solving,” could be used to implement a ‘flipped soccer field.’

Abundant within U.S. Soccer circles is the tendency to over-coach and micromanage players and games. While this obviously serves to help educate and guide players within the moment, it often leads to sterile training environments and one-dimensional players. How can we still teach players the fundamentals of how to execute skills within a game, but do so without actually teaching them? This is where the “space” part of the equation comes into its own. Creating a space for players to explore solutions for themselves, take risks, and be innovative is something that is essential for self-discovery to take place. This isn’t necessarily something that is complicated or difficult to do. It doesn’t require hours of planning, nor does it require specialist equipment to execute. It simply requires meaningful and intentional time and space for players to ‘play’ and explore. Sometimes the best form of coaching is no coaching at all.


Core Practice in Action


I start by presenting my teams with a ‘topic’ to focus on for the session during our warm-up and session brief. This topic may be something as simple as focusing on the concept of ‘transitions,’ or something more technical or tactical such as ‘Numerical Advantage when in possession’ i.e. how to create or manipulate it, or what to do if there is a deficit. These session topics form the basis for what we do in our practices and help shape all of our training objectives and outcomes. However, instead of being a prescripted ‘paint by numbers’ approach, it serves as a broader topic outline that helps to narrow the focus of the players onto specific training objectives, while still giving them artistic license to experiment. Initially I will create the ‘space’ by providing a specific playing boundary, delegate teams, and give some very broad goals and objectives based upon our session brief. For example, if our session is on transitions in possession, I will pose a question or problem for the players as a challenge for them to solve.


For example:

Topic: Transition in possession
Area: 36 yard x 36 yard square
Teams: 2 teams (7v7, 8v8,+1 if there is an odd number)
Question stated to players: How can you maintain possession but use as much as the field as possible


By doing the above, players are then tasked with finding a solution to the problem that is not spoon-fed to them by a coach. In fact, the beauty of the session comes when players experiment with tactics and technical execution within the parameters above, independent from the direction of a coach. As a coach, I refrain from technical instruction at this point and revert to positive reinforcement that supports and rewards the concept of risk-taking, empowering players to be creative and take ownership of the game. I will often ask questions of players such as “why did you choose to do that?’ or ‘what do think would be a good solution here?” This is done 1-on-1 during the game or during stoppages; however, if I feel the question speaks to an important aspect of our training objectives, I will potentially stop the game and ask these questions in a team environment, all the time positively reinforcing their decisions and problem-solving skills – irrespective of outcome.

Being able to watch players actually ‘play’ the game is a very enjoyable aspect of coaching. While coaches are obviously heavily invested in their players and in the game in general, sometimes we find it difficult to appreciate what it is we are trying to achieve due to being blinded by our immersion in our own environment. Having the chance to step back and watch players in the moment assess their options, evaluate their environment, narrow down variables, and then execute solutions (whether successful or not), has made me much more appreciative of the game and has helped me create a better bond with my players. Having the opportunity to share and appreciate the players as ‘people’ within that environment and see them as much more than an athlete who simply regurgitates set patterns of movement has been very enlightening.

Once an initial game has been completed and players have been given ample time to experiment and problem-solve, I will lead the team in a brief reflection and evaluation on what they saw that was effective or ineffective, while brainstorming new strategies they can use to combat new problems their tactics created. I will then have players repeat the exercise with some further refinement of the problem. For example, instead of simply maintaining possession and using as much of the field as possible (as per their initial problem), I will ask the team to pay particular attention to some of the feedback that was given in our reflection discussion – for example, how to achieve this goal while paying more attention to the team’s shape and formation. The teams will then go out and compete within the same parameters as the previous game, but with an intentful focus on the shape of the team and the positions each player typically occupies. While not as ‘free’ as simply rolling out a ball and saying, ‘go play’, this exercise infuses an element of creativity to a more functional directed practice by creating a non-overbearing infrastructure for players to express themselves, but doing so with an element of guided direction. It’s as if I am giving my players an intended destination and a map; it is up to the players to figure out how to get there, but as a coach I am going to provide them with a tool they can use. It’s assistive rather than prescriptive.


The Importance of Creativity and Problem Solving

I have found this approach of allowing space for creativity and problem solving to be very successful with regards to training translation to the game field. Players are able to recognize and execute fluid and complex patterns of play without much guidance from the coach, and are able to assess and remedy issues they see on the field, given their ability to evaluate problems and highlight possible solutions in real time. This ability to be critical thinkers on the field allows me, as a coach, to focus on other aspects of the game without fear or the desire to micromanage every decision. The need for constant coaching is vastly reduced, as most of the coaching comes from within the field of play from teammates or internal feedback.


One of the benefits that this approach has brought to practice is a high level of ‘time on task’ for players. As the coaching points are minimal and broad in nature (simply posing questions and overall topics), there are few stoppages, so players are free to play continuously. This has created a competitive and fun environment where players love to come to practice. They inherently know they will get to ‘play’ a lot within the session and so I rarely ever hear the question, “Are we going to Scrimmage?” from my players.

High time on task also replicates the demands of the real game. As the session goes on, the players start to fatigue and replicate ‘real world’ problems such as lack of movement, slow movement, unforced errors, slower decision making, and more. These are all perfect variables to look at as they are exactly what will happen during games. This is not to say you can simply run your players ragged to induce fatigue and then start coaching. But what it does do is present a new dimension to the problems that were posed at the beginning of the session. Now, in order to find a new solution, the players have to first recognize the problem, and this is where the entire process comes full circle. If players are exposed to this kind of environment and coaching consistently, they will be able to recognize that there is a ‘new’ problem and be able to analyze it and implement a solution in real time.

Giving players the knowledge and tools with which they can manipulate the game is the very essence of coaching.

While this concept may sound basic and simple, when you see it happen during one of your sessions it is a fantastic experience as a coach, and something that is quite rare during games, from my experience. Giving players the knowledge and tools with which they can manipulate the game is the very essence of coaching. Seeing and being a part of that process is an extremely fulfilling experience and further serves to reinforce why we coach in the first place.


Experimentation is the Key

Creativity is an essential part of soccer given the dynamics of the game and how it is logistically structured. However, the concept of allowing space for athletic exploration and creativity can easily be transferred to many different sports. The core concept is simply to provide an intentional space for players to problem solve and express themselves creatively. A basketball coach could implement a very similar session as above; players are given a topic to work on with a specific problem to solve, such as how to create space for a low pressure 3-point shot. The players’ ‘space’ is then clearly defined and players are able to experiment in real time. A football coach could utilize the same principles by allowing players to solve specific problems in a defined space, like how to effectively create time for the QB to release a penetrating throw to a WR. Whatever the topic, whatever the sport, the concept is the same; ‘we’ as coaches define and create the space, pose a problem and then task the players to solve it and allow them to do so without fear of failure.

I am often reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and his reference to Anders Ericsson’s research around the 10,000 Hour Rule. In soccer and in other sporting environments, this is often interpreted as 10,000 touches or repetitions, but the more I reflect upon the notion of creativity and nurturing an athlete’s propensity for expression, I am more inclined to gravitate to Thomas Edison’s own 10,000 rule:

              “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”   - Thomas A. Edison

It is through failures that an athlete truly develops cognitive creativity and is able to establish more effective ‘real world’ game execution. If we are constantly in a mode of correction as a coach, creating a sterile micromanaged training environment where players are taught to simply regurgitate actions, players are simply unable to manage the fluid complex demands of a real game. The negative byproduct of this methodology is often fear, a fear exuded and felt by athletes around the peer group ostracization associated with those failures. Creating a space that not only encourages athletes to experiment and fail in the process, but allows athletes to embrace those failures as part of the overall learning process as a net positive, results in a meaningful learning experience.


I often compare coaches to scientists in that coaches spend their entire careers trying to avoid failures, often seeing them as standalone and isolated negative experiences, invariably finding something or someone to blame, whether this be the players, referees, the weather, the schedule, or whatever else. A scientist on the other hand sees the failure of an experiment as a net positive and part of an overall goal; it isn’t seen as a negative nor as an isolated incident independent of their hypothesis. And though they look for variables that explain the outcome, they are not motivated by external blame. Experimental outcomes are viewed as net positive feedback on performance and part of a journey towards a much bigger goal. The lessons learned in that experiment are then used to further enhance their investigations, in effect serving as a foundation for future experiments and decisions. Coaches enter competitions with the hope they will win, but also with an unhealthy fear of failure and all the negative connotations that come with it. Scientists start an experiment not with the expectation of failure, but with the knowledge that failure is part of the process.

How can coaches be more like scientists and create a safe environment for athletes to embrace fear and risk taking, while also maintaining technical and tactical development? It’s time to experiment!


David Smith is a coach and educator with extensive coaching and teaching experience in England and in the United States. He has worked as a coach for Emerald City FC, the premier select youth soccer club in Seattle, Washington for 10 years, and currently serves as their Technical Director. Prior to that, he spent time with Hull City FC, Hull University, Manchester United, Sir Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools, and the Maltese National Federation. He also holds a B.S. in Sports Science and an M.S. in Exercise Physiology, and teaches Health & Exercise Science at Seattle Preparatory School.
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