Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Are We Stifling Creative Play?

An article posted on the website, Scientific Blogging, describes a talk given by speaker and author Dan Pink. A common belief is that extrinsic motivation in the form of rewards can improve performance. However, scientific research shows that incentivising a problem-solving task may stifle creativity and actually hinder the outcome. That is, the traditional carrot and stick approach seems to weaken problem solving abilities. Could it be that we are motivating players the wrong way? Is the reward system often used in training, limiting the players ability to develop on-field problem solving abilities?

Dan Pink emphasizes several research papers that look at problem solving in people who are offered incentives for their solutions. In these studies, subjects are given a task that requires them to formulate a creative solution to solve a problem. If the subjects are told that they will be rewarded for the fastest completion time, subjects actually take LONGER to solve the problem than when no reward is offered. They become focused on the reward and lose the ability to think creatively. Their reasoning capacity limits how they come up with a solution. If the subjects are left on their own with no reward, their intrinsic motivation drives the problem solving. They are then able to solve the problem in a shorter time period using a more innovative solution. In short, offering an external incentive as a motivational tool seems to prevent subjects from thinking outside of the box, so to speak.

Dan Pink presents this idea in the context of the business world and employees that need to solve tough problems. However, there may be implications for training soccer players. One criticism of US players is that they are not very creative in their play. Soccer requires a considerable amount of problem solving skill. Whether defending or attacking, players must “see the field”, think through a list of possible options, then execute. Only on set pieces can they “run a play”, so to speak. The question then is how to train players to think creatively. How can they be more creative on the field?

Many coaches often use a rewards system during practices. For example, the winners of a small sided match are often given a reward and the losing team suffers a consequence. It’s not uncommon for the losing team to run sprints while the winners take a break. Coaches have long argued that this sort of competition make better players. However, could this carrot and stick approach be stifling the kids’ creativity? In this system, are the players more focused on the incentive rather than solving the problem? That is, are they more focused on not running sprints rather than figuring out how to attack and defend as a team? If this is the case, might they be less motivated to play more creativity?

Compare this to basketball. Playgrounds and gyms are filled with kids playing pick-up games. Here there is no reward for winning or punishment for losing (other than personal pride). The players own intrinsic motivation drives their efforts. They are free to try a wide range of solutions without repercussion. Kids try all sorts of new moves, some of which work and some don’t. The bottom line is that they are thinking outside of the box in an environment that allows them to do so. The result is that US basketball players are the most creative on the planet. Is their success linked to an environment that fosters creativity?

As mentioned above, Dan Pink presents his ideas for the business community, not the sports world. Also, he is talking about motivating adults to solve complex business problems not a bunch of middle school soccer players trying to win matches. Whether this approach is effective with young athletes remains to be seen. However, these ideas are certainly food for thought. They certainly raise questions about how we motivate young kids to become better soccer players.

Scientific Blogging Article (click here)

Dan Pink's Talk (click here)