It must be an odd time to be a youth athlete. In one corner, there’s an abundance of resources, products, markets, camps, trainers, drills and offerings. Yet, burnout is at its apex, overuse injuries are skyrocketing, and free play is waning. In fact, waning so much that kids are becoming the puppets of social media marketing and celebrities starring in rehearsed social media drills.
So, while there’s no shortage of materials and products and trainers to go around for youth athletes, there’s a funky kind of backlash going on here: more stuff is causing distraction, a loss of focus, and lack of creativity.
More coaching cues. More equipment. More instructions. More equipment. More products. More equipment. More rules. More cones. More products. More flare. More flash. More products.
And while all of this embellishment looks super shiny from the outside, it is at the expense of less creativity and the ability for kids to be kids.
And it’s the truth. For one, Instagram is saturated with technical drills that look like choreographed music videos.
“Left foot here!” “Fast feet” “Open up!” “Shoot!” “Tap your feet” “Quicker feet!” “Go!” “Dribble!”
What’s crazier is, this commentary is being shouted over a soundtrack of Drake music, with a backdrop of agility rings, cones, hurdles, speed straps, and ladders. It’s disorienting, to say the least.
Where is the creativity?
Where is the problem solving?
Where is the spontaneous decision-making?
Where is the exploring and autonomy?
Where is the game carryover when you have to adapt and be unpredictable?
Kids need creativity now more than ever before.
Not only because our society is shifting into the age of distraction, where people think for themselves less and seek more things, more consumption, more guidance, more products, more coaches, more trainers, but also, the arts, such as composing, writing, photographing, painting and drawing, and creating are less and less lauded.
We all need to remember that sports are simple, yet spontaneous in nature.
And the more we can inspire kids to figure things out on their own, the more they tap into their creative power and rely less on the coach to hold their hand. Too, they will be better able to adjust to a new opponent, new style of play, and new environment each match.
So do this: take a deep breath. And be aware of what the hell is going on in the world of distraction and indulgence and more, more, more.
Just watch and enjoy the entertainment.
Because that’s what it all is. Entertainment.
Become aware. Very, very aware.
Ain’t nobody running on the pitch like a rehearsed robot, taking a fake step into an agility ring, or doing a 1-2-3-4 quick feet, then opening up, then another 1-2-3-4, hopping over a hurdle, 10 toes taps, tapping and ick shuffling through an agility ladder, and then shooting. Isn’t it ludicrous when I actually write out this parade of movements?
Anyway, let me ask you this: what are kids doing in the game?
They’re moving their bodies freely, reacting to external stimuli, anticipating their next pass, making a run based on the opponent’s defensive style, mixing up their runs so they’re less predictable, performing over 100 different runs and maneuvers because each game and each opponent is different.
And they are so in their right brains that all of this becomes in-the-moment, flow state type magic.
On a side note: I did nutmeg that girl in the above photo. Special shout out goes to my youth skills trainer who hammered me with 1v1s and me figuring out drills with minimal equipment. Just a ball, a pitch, and her facilitating the discovery process.
That’s creativity at work, my friends.
I’d be remiss not to mention, yes, structure is good when kids are learning technique, and repetition is the best way to accelerate the skill acquisition process. But once mastered, how are we inspiring our youth players to apply skills, think on the fly, and utilize these moves to dazzle the pitch with unpredictability and fun?
As Albert Einstein says, “creativity is intelligence having fun.”
And creativity brings back the fun in sports. It allows kids to try new things, make mistakes, and even, laugh at themselves.
Creativity is splashing the game with color and moments that make the crowd “oooh” and “ahh.”
Creativity is birthing the gems buried deep inside of us.
Creativity is accepting that we don’t have to be perfect.
A player doing a rainbow out of a double team.
A player back heeling a pass to a teammate.
A player doing a Cruyff turn out of pressure.
A player attempting a bicycle kick.
A player failing a bicycle kick attempt, yet proud of himself for even trying.
To that end, creativity has no limits, no rules, no judgements, no instructions, no ongoing commentary, no “right” or “wrong,” which is not only relieving for the youth athlete, but also, inspiring.
So what are you doing to bring back the fun in youth sports and inspire creativity?
Especially in your training sessions, are you coaching kids through every ring, movement, pull back move, and step, or are you setting up the drill so it allows them to apply their intelligence and solve problems on their own?
Adding on, I dare you to ask your players at your next technical session, “you guys come up with your own skill pattern. What can you create?”
You’ll be shocked that everyone cracks under pressure.
Though everyone stopped in their tracks at first when I did this drill, it ended up being a fun “break dancing” competition:
Or how about, “you guys find a way to get across without touching the ground?”
Or how about, “figure out a way to score in this 1v2 scenario.”
To that end, creativity is the missing piece to the player development pie.
It shows athletes what they are made of. It challenges them. It allows us them to fail. It forces them into mistakes. It encourages them to explore what works and what doesn’t. It inspires them to create and be less robotic, predictable players. It urges them to compete, yet still have fun.
Look: kids are barked at enough during school to “do this” and “do that” and “study this” and “review that” that they need freedom to think independently. Holding a kid’s hand throughout their development, namely during training sessions, is detrimental to building autonomy.
Seriously, rehearsals through a plethora of equipment are the furthest thing from the actual 90-minute match you’ll see:
Please do something else. Anything.
Pick-up soccer. Fun games. Barefoot soccer. 1v1 drills. Races. Relays. Tag. Small-sided games. Reactive drills. Or have them come up with their own drill. Anything.
Sure, you may not get followers on social media, but whatever. You’re training for the game, so who cares?
So with that said, stop rehearsing.
And start creating.