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Part 2: When “The Practice” Allows Creative Space

In the previous post, I expressed gratitude for the twelve coaches who guided me throughout my athletic journey.

Creative Hands (Wix Media)

These mentors gave me the freedom to explore, take ownership of my participation, and respect the autonomy of my body. In contrast, a classmate in my Master's program recounted a less favourable experience with her coaches, stating that there were several she would not seek to emulate. While some variances in our experiences can be attributed to the differing nature of our sports—running versus gymnastics—there is likely a deeper influence from the specific environment of the sports club, as well as the atmosphere cultivated by each coach.

During my youth, I played organized hockey as a young athlete; however, the vast majority of my hockey playing (practice) was unstructured. My brothers’ and I spend hours playing hockey—in our driveway, basement, outdoor rinks, and ponds. This unstructured practice was daily, and in the spring, we switched to baseball, football, and track and field. We created multiple games for three players with an age gap of nearly five years. My brothers and I  took our creative, playful practice approach to our organized teams. We immersed ourselves in hockey. We watched the NHL and mimicked the play of our favourite players—just like in Roch Carrier’s children’s book, The Hockey Sweater. So, potentially, I was inoculated against any coach’s attempt to direct my play mechanically. I approached sport with confidence, eager to explore, fail, and then emerge ready to take on a new challenge. When I eventually transitioned from hockey to running, I maintained this same level of discipline and creativity, and my coaches supported further developing these traits.

Carleton U women's relay teams perform at OUAs 2023.

In contrast, I know that many sporting environments have an atmosphere where expertise resides with the coaches. Often, these coaches feel their role is to transmit their knowledge to athletes through a linear, one-size-fits-all plan. This reminds me of an incident from several years ago at a cross-country ski club. In the “Learn to Train” group (ages 10 to 12 years old), one of the program’s objectives is to introduce athletes to racing. The program leader explained to me that a race date was set for an evening practice. The short 2.5 km race would take skiers between eight and twelve minutes to complete. In preparation for this race, the coaches used the practice the week before to “pre-ski” the course. During this session, the coaches instructed the athletes on how to race the course—which techniques to use in specific areas, how to approach corners, and how to pace the race in order to sprint to the finish. I asked the program leader how the event went. They said that 100% of the skiers enjoyed the race. 

This evaluation—100% enjoyed the race—was disturbing to me. I shared this story with a coach friend of mine and asked him how it made him feel. He said it made him angry. I asked, why does it make you angry? It had also made me angry. He said, “It stole the fun of exploring how to race away from the kids.” This coach-directed race experience is well-meaning and perceived as a supportive way to introduce young skiers to racing. However, it took away young skiers’ opportunity to explore, test themselves, be creative, maybe fail, and learn and develop their confidence. 

Potential: Winter trail (Photo Alex Maycock, Nipissing U)

In his book, Do Hard Things, Steve Magness talks about sport being a setting where people’s basic physiological needs must be met for them to engage in their environment. He wrote, “We don’t get to this place through control; we get there through belonging, acceptance, and being allowed to be who we are” (p. 252). As my grad school supervisor stressed, we “need to help coaches create practice and training environments that are challenging and empower athletes to take more responsibility for their improvement and hopefully enjoy their sport more.” This type of atmosphere allows for innovation and creativity. It invites engagement and enjoyment and maintains ongoing participation in sport. Expertise also lies in the hands and brains of the athlete. When “The Practice” allows creative space, we will be awed.

Do you have a sports story about creativity blocked or creativity supported? Please comment below. If you want to read more in this series, subscribe below.

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