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Let the creative sparks fly: The ‘C’ system, chapter two | Coaching Children (Ages 5-12) | ConnectedCoaches

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Let the creative sparks fly: The ‘C’ system, chapter two

Avg: 4.89 / 5 (2votes)

In my previous blog, I paid homage to the ‘C’ system as a highly effective framework that coaches can use to encourage the development of the whole child, and focused on the elements of connection, confidence and competence. In this follow-up with  Richard Cheetham, we explore the importance of creativity and curiosity, and allowing children freedom of expression.

ConnectedCoaches Content Champion and Senior Fellow in Sports Coaching at the University of Winchester, Richard Cheetham, talks about what makes a good coaching session and why it is important to be a creative coach. One of his students demonstrates an innovative way he has devised to help tennis players practise their forehand technique. 

  • Like baking a cake, the individual components of the ‘C’ system represent the ingredients you need to develop the whole child – creativity is the icing on that cake.
  • Tap into a child’s inner creativity and curiosity by encouraging your athletes to take ownership of exercises or sessions.
  • Failing to do so is like looking a gift horse in the mouth.
  • Repetitive, regimented routines will only defuse enthusiasm. 
  • Drive home the message that they should not be frightened to experiment.
  • Make training sessions a safe place to fail.

Coaches are sitting on a gold mine of untapped potential.

There are still too many sport educators who feel the only way to establish improved performance among their young charges is to drill them on tactics and technique through a clever array of exercises gleaned from textbooks, shared on website forums or pinched from their own playing days.

They may have tried and trusted training workouts they have used season after season that they believe deliver the intended result. They may well do. But they are missing a trick – and missing the point.

Refusal to deviate from the same methodical, unchanging routines can make for boring sessions – which is bad enough. But it also serves as an impediment to unlocking inner creativity – and that unwitting inattention to detail means coaches are letting their players down.

Richard has some nuggets of advice on tapping into the innate curiosity of children that can help coaches strike gold by accelerating their players’ progress much faster than strict adherence to repetitive practice.

Now you’re cooking!

In the first blog – A coaching system that will help you C the light! – I paid homage to the ‘C’ system as a highly effective framework that coaches and coach educators can use to encourage the development of the whole child.

We learnt how too much emphasis is placed on physical and technical instruction.

The holistic model of child development incorporates the physical, technical, tactical and psychological, along with personal and social aspects.

We focused on three elements – connection, confidence and competence – and made passing reference to a few other Cs, caring and compassion, feeling comfortable and creativity. 

Think of them all like the ingredients needed to bake the perfect cake. If you were missing one of the core constituents of a chocolate cake – the eggs, flour or, indeed, chocolate – the finished product wouldn’t taste quite the same and would fail to win a prize in your local bake-off competition! 

The cake metaphor is a good one as coaches too are looking to create a wonderful finished product, in the form of a well-rounded human being. The individual components that make up the ‘C’ system are the ingredients you require in your coaching sessions to do just that, with creativity representing the icing on that cake.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Richard is a Senior Fellow in Sports Coaching at the University of Winchester, and creative coaching is his area of speciality. 

He explains: ‘There are a whole host of people working in many different areas where psychology in coaching is concerned. Creativity is spoken about a lot, but nobody has really grabbed it by the horns and wrestled with it. What does it look like in applied practice?

‘Creativity is a big part of my role, asking how it can work and why it is so important – not just in coaching practice out on the field, but also thinking differently about how you give presentations and how you teach.’ 

Richard’s enthusiasm for his job is infectious, having delivered workshops on the subject for sports coach UK, British Cycling, the ECB and in his role as an RFU coach educator. 

Little wonder, then, that our conversation on fostering children’s creative potential and creative expression lasts well beyond the 30 minutes we had both anticipated. 

‘When I began coaching, I would ask myself how I would I like to be remembered, how I could engage players and provide sessions that are different and go off script – because I didn’t like it when I was always on script as a player, I found it quite tedious, this learning by rote,’ he says. 

Richard recalls one trip abroad when the team’s conditioning coach did the same warm-up every day for three weeks. ‘Players were switched off, there was no spark,’ he says. ‘I’m sure it was a contributory factor when it came to the performances.’ 

Don’t put a cork in the creativity bottle. Start as you mean to go on. 

To emphasise this point, Richard uses the adage of James Bond, and how the beginning of a Bond film always starts with the end of the previous mission so the viewers are immediately engaged.

A safe place to fail 

The onus is not just on the coach to think up innovative techniques that help the athletes develop their creativity, it is also about the athletes themselves taking ownership of exercises and encouraging them to devise and adapt session plans and games. 

The athletes become more creative as performers if a coach transfers some responsibility on to their shoulders, using their imagination and inner creativity. Over time, these simple decisions will benefit their physical, technical, tactical and mental development. 

The message the coach should underline is not to be frightened of failure as there is no right or wrong answer. Experiment, and there will invariably be something there the coach can build on. 

‘My students, when they enrol, come to my sessions expecting to be given some information, told the task, then shown how to do it,’ explains Richard. ‘But I’ll say, “Here’s the information, this is the task. Now, you go and produce something; take ownership of it.” They aren’t expecting to be thrown in at the deep end. The outcomes are always fascinating though, as they come up with some great ideas.’ 

The fact it always comes as such a shock, you could interpret as a sad reflection on creative coaching methods in this country. 

Creating a problem-solving environment for young people allows them to create their own tactical solutions. 

Failing to tap into children’s high levels of curiosity is denying them their opportunity to explore and be creative. 

‘I work on three stages: discover; develop; consolidate,’ explains Richard. ‘I say, “Here’s a ball, here’s a racket, here’s a room. Just go and see what you can do with both. See how the ball rebounds off the wall, see how high you can throw it and control it on the way down.” They come up with some interesting activities. 

‘When you try something as a child, you may get one nugget, one gem that worked that you hadn’t expected. It’s very much about creating an environment that is a safe place to fail. That develops confidence to “push the boundaries” and challenge the individual while making sure it is fun and enjoyable at the same time.’ 

Richard remembers one session he attended with StreetGames’ Justyn Price, the 2013 UK Coaching Awards Coach Educator of the Year (supported by Coachwise), that stuck in his memory. 

They asked the students to travel from one end of the sports hall to the other with a ball but wanted them to think of the most imaginative way of doing it. 

‘There were wheelbarrows and various different things,’ says Richard, ‘and one girl did a one-handed cartwheel, with the ball in her other hand. I was aghast.

'The point is, if we hadn’t given that licence to show their expression of creativity, we’d have never realised what they were capable of. It would merely have been an extension of our instruction to maybe travel on one leg with the ball in both hands – good conditioning, good practice but not challenging.’ 

And, furthermore, no opportunity for curiosity, no creativity, and no confidence built up on the back of having to think for themselves. There’s a cornucopia of Cs in one fell swoop! 

Robotic thinking 

Richard adds: ‘Mistakes are OK because the playing environment should allow you to try things. So it’s about the coach not being on the tracks all the time, or too linear. What you are trying to do is help the children discover how to succeed and build their level of interest. 

‘By encouraging an environment where they have made mistakes but have learnt from them, you are making them more robust and resilient.’ 

Richard says he recently spent a £15 voucher handed out to tutors on a book called How Non-Conformists Changed the World. One quote leapt out: ‘Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes; art is knowing which ones to keep.’ 

So, what have we learnt so far? Coaches block creativity and curiosity if they stick to regimented routines. 

And not all coaches have bought into Richard’s argument, it seems. Old habits die hard. 

Richard explains succinctly why some coaches must change their suppressive ways: 

‘If you hold a coaching session that is very prescriptive, with drills and line-ups, when they go on to the pitch and something happens that is off script, they can’t cope because they haven’t got a vocabulary of experiences to prompt them what to do in that situation.’ 

Copy, repeat, copy, repeat; treat children like robots, and they will act like robots. Give them the opportunity to find their own solutions to problems, and allow them to think for themselves, and then marvel as they develop new skills. 

Or, to put it another way, as Marcus Mumford from the band Mumford & Sons wrote about professional development in a recent newspaper interview (and referenced by Richard on his Twitter feed the day we spoke): ‘You grow up and change. We are not dolphins at SeaWorld doing the same tricks.’ 

I also like the quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author and international consultant in child education Fred Donaldson: ‘Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.’ 

The ABCs of coaching 

Richard gives another example of how creativity trumps repetition every time. 

‘It’s like learning the alphabet. If you reel off the letters one by one, that’s just rote, there is no context by just learning the letters in order. 

‘In primary education now, teachers will give children three letters, say S, I and P, and from that, they can make a word. Then they will add a letter H, and they can make more words: sip, ship. So as they learn the letters, they learn how useful those letters are and the purpose of that letter. The more letters they learn, the more words they can make.’ 

In my blog, The importance of making your sessions fun and engaging for 5–12 year olds, sports coach UK’s Development Lead Officer for Children, Schools and Safeguarding,  David Turner , who is a UK Athletics Lead Coach for javelin, explains how a child has a gift for creativity.  

‘If you ask them to write down 1000 uses for a brick, they’ll think of far more uses than an adult,’ he says. ‘As a coach, I’ll say things like “Go into the storeroom, you’re allowed to pick five things, and from them, I want you to devise a warm-up that includes everyone, gets you active and mobilises the body parts you’ll be using for the rest of the session.”  

‘They look at you and say “What?” because they aren’t used to being given that freedom. We need to empower children to make their own decisions. You might say they are being spoon-fed too much. We’re stamping that creativity out of them by sticking to session plans too rigidly.’ 

Feed the hungry mind 

But let’s not be too hard on those coaches who have a regimented training structure. I argue that it must be incredibly challenging, having to think up innovative ideas and manage a constantly changing constraints-led system of coaching. 

After all, you don’t want to overstretch children, and every child is different, in terms of physical maturity, their decision-making skills and ability to problem solve, and also their confidence levels. Plus, what might work with one age group might not with another. 

‘I talk about success being an individual measure,’ Richard says in response. ‘So, within an environment where children are being creative and trying things, no one person succeeds more than somebody else. It’s not a comparative measure, it’s an individual measure. The challenge for the coach is to recognise that. 

‘Children should be left thinking: “So, what can I do now that I couldn’t do before?” or “What have you shown me that someone else hasn’t shown me?” 

‘As I’ve said, if you make it too rigid, there’s no curiosity, they just follow the instructions. That’s why I pass the ownership on to the children.’

You also learn more about the individuals in your group or team by reflecting on how they approach these challenges. 

And children can derive a wonderful sense of achievement and confidence from knowing they have come up with an off-the-wall, original idea or solved a tactical dilemma through experimentation and a healthy dollop of divergent thinking. 

So let’s play to their strengths: creativity and curiosity. 

‘Direct instruction equals less curiosity,’ says Richard. ‘And children are curious about their environments – they want to explore. That means explore with the ball, with the water, with the gymnastics equipment. Make sure it is safe, that’s the priority, but let them explore and feed this inherent curiosity.’ 

It may have killed the cat, but curiosity can be the making of us humans. It just needs stimulating. 

Join the debate by leaving a comment below. 

Next steps

If you are interested in learning more about the ‘C’ system to improve your soft and personal skills, sports coach UK has a number of workshops that go into more depth, including:

Visit the sports coach UK workshop finder to find a workshop running near you.

Richard has also posted a 'Creativity and coaching' blog which includes a framework to help guide you through the process of introducing new ideas. This is also available as an infographic here.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including iTunes. Listen here.

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Comments (5)

Excellent as always - this is something RIchard and I share a passion about, and a key area we are both researching and developing. Watch this space for more developments......
Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)
I'm a cricket coach who runs sessions for primary school children (ages 8-11). I play a popular game with my group where batters are told they can hit the ball 360 degrees and fielders are told they have to get the ball to a certain place to get the batter out. Would you say because I have told them what to do but not how to do it that this game is following the ideas of this blog? I usually leave the group to figure it out for themselves and only offer (partial) guidance if they are struggling.
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Hi Jack, the game sounds great and a different approach. Guidance over 'telling' is always more favourable as well as encourage them (in this case the fielders) to develop 'strategies' - what is the best way to get the ball to a particular base? Give them options and ask them why. Recently played a game on a court of human noughts and crosses and then asked the group to change the game - how could they make it better, what new rules or challenges would they add. They had much better ideas than me! Guidance came in only to ensure it had purpose (what are the aims) and was safe. I posted a video of it on Twitter (@twowheelprof
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Hi Richard, many thanks. I think I have just viewed the video - is it the one 'try scoring tic tac toe'? I've retweeted it because it looks like a brilliant game!!
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Readers of this blog might also find useful the ‘10 ways to develop creative youth players’ infographic that has been shared in the Coaching Youth 13-18 group https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/18/coaching-youth-age-13-18/photo/robertkmaaye/believeperform-coaching-youth/247
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