Does competition quash creativity?: Normal Saturday night dinner table discussion....

To start, let’s have a little insight into my home life…Saturday night is pizza night in the Mack household and while myself and Mrs Mack were eating pizza crusts, we chewed over the ideas and discussions of the negative effects of competition (or organised competition, albeit in schools or sports atmosphere). To summarise, Mrs Mack believes that competition stifles creativity with the focus on outcomes and measurement of pre-assumed goals. However, I argued that it was the external influence from others which creates a standardisation in expectations; for example, a mastery focus even in the face of competition should allow students or athletes to test their current abilities, adapt and collaborate where necessary or possibly encourage creative adaptations of skills or find new ways to overcome standardised issues. This discussion could have went for hours yet encouraged me to look further into the concepts discussed, reviewing research and earlier discussions as a result….

Let’s start this a slightly different way; as coaches or more experienced others, how do we or don’t we encourage and promote creativity in our environments such as competitive sports or learning atmospheres? Let’s start with some initial perceptions around these areas includes theories from people such as Sir Ken Robinson who suggests the cultural conditioning experienced within educational settings is partly to blame as we undermine creativity and foster a fear of failure:

Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status. Schools kill creativity…mistakes are stigmatised…and we don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.

These ideas are supported by research from Bocchi, Cianci, Montuori, & Nicolaus, (2014) who believed current systems of education reinforce redundant ways of thinking and organising, ill-equipped to solve the varied and complex challenges of the 21st Century. So again, how can we offer environments that encourage or promote creativity and squash these ideas of conformity within competitive sports or learning atmospheres?

Like I have previously written, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research looks at how creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability. Creativity resides in the playful state; therefore, we as teachers or coaches could create these deliberate play environments which “is closely linked to mastery or task focused climates that will ultimately foster motivation for sport” (Côté, 2009). I believe in a sporting context, when athletes are offered a focus on “how to play” with contextual, collaborative exploration with other athletes and performance outcomes are presented in game based activities or other forms of non-linear pedagogy, skill adaptability and attunement is recognised as creativity in action in a sporting environment.

How can we create these creativity-inspiring environments? Understanding how people are motivated will allow us as coaches, teachers or leaders to offer and develop relative creative and/or playful learning environments. Prof Cliff Mallet previously explained that “intrinsically motivated behaviours involve genuine interest and enjoyment in pursuing particular activities with natural tendency to seek unique challenges, explore and learn” (Mallett, 2005). These ideas are supported by research by Kasof and other who found that creative behaviour was promoted primarily by the self-direction value type (which is driven by autonomous thought and behaviour), supported secondarily by the stimulation and universalism value types. James Vaughan, whom has written a lot on creativity for Player Development Project, has previously discussed how coaches and players need to be immersed in environments founded on creative values of self-direction, stimulation and universalism. He stressed that we need philosophical alignment within sports teams and organisations whose practices embody these values in their daily working relationships; therefore, I believe part of this could be translated as coaches should have a better understanding of the motivations and intrinsic drive of their players and involve them in practice design or methodologies which is engaging and testing for all involved athletes or players.


How do coaches understand and facilitate self determination principles for genuine motivation of their players or students and encourage creativity? Tapping into athlete’s intrinsic motivation should effectively facilitate development, enhance player’s creativity towards learning and pervasively drive the athlete through enjoyment of tasks and challenges, searching for mastery. Vallerand and Mageau’s research has shown that intrinsic motivations and self-determined extrinsic motivators are necessary ingredients for athlete’s optimal function (Mageau, 2003). Deci and Ryan’s research investigated that intrinsic motivation is experienced as consequences of feeling competent and self-determined in one’s actions and decisions, offering the self-direction wanted that aids creative behaviours. Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting. Self-determined forms of motivation also result in optimal behaviour, resulting in peak performance and persistence (Deci and Ryan, 2008), all of which would facilitate and encoruage creative behaviours.

From my current research as example, my current belief is that rugby union player development and coaching has become algorithmic as opposed to heuristic in large elements. I believe through coaches’ desire of personal extrinsic motivators (both self-determining and non-self determining), use of extrinsic rewards, controlling feedback, adopted tactics and set instructions for reliably safe outcomes, we are acting against player’s inherent tendency to seek out challenges, exercise their capabilities and desire to explore and learn. I believe coaching environments need to adopt and offer players ingredients for genuine motivation; self-recognised competency or mastery, autonomy and purpose. These ingredients are echoed within research conducted in sports coaching involving study of self-determination theory, which addresses innate psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Mallett researched and explained that “self-determination theory underscores the role of environment in fuelling people’s perceptions of (autonomy, competence and relatedness) in contexts of sport” (Mallett, 2005). Amorose supported that “the more athletes felt autonomous, competent and have sense of relatedness, the more reasons for participating were self-determined in future” (Amorose, 2007).

How do we explore ways to offer these ingredients to our athletes or players? Autonomy in sports context can be offering players ability to have choice, input and empathsis onto their self-direction and development, allowing athletes to act on their curious nature while acting with choice. The art of autonomy is allowing people to be accountable of their actions and decisions; coaches should offer players control over their tasks, time, techniques and team around them (to a limited extent) to help them find accountability as control (or perceived control) is an important component of happiness. Players when adopting a mastery mindset shall be driven by constant and consistent desire to improve, focus on learning goals and have incremental theory towards sport specific knowledge and skill level. Players with mastery mindset will find intrinsic motivation and adaptable, creative drive for their pursuit. Coaches can fit into the equation by understanding player’s personal strivings, motivations and typical tendencies, subsequently offering consistent, critical yet non-controlling feedback and offer support and praise for effort, strategy and exploration of skills and abilities.

Can we as coaches develop and adapt our coaching methods to offer relatedness to athletes, offer perceived competency in their actions and player autonomy in game decisions and practice design? I believe we as coaches can support creativity by encouraging players to think through varied yet relevant situational challenges in playful or game formats that all participants enjoy or are collectively engaged in. I believe breaking the drill based, linear forms of coaching methodologies while allowing for and embracing collaborative exploration of talents and interests within sports or practice designs shall step towards mastery mindset and away from standardised measurements of practices or involved sports methodologies. I believe the development of compassionate and democratic environments through autonomy supportive behaviours, athlete centred practices and more organic view towards development and methods of skill acquisition shall allow athletes to maintain engagement with creative and collective developed diverse talents, according to their interests and current skill levels.

Wonder what next week’s thin crust supreme with extra jalapenos shall bring on……(just throwing my order out there in case anyone wants to join!!)