How to Encourage Creativity in Young Players

In an interview in Italy's "Sette" magazine, Lionel Messi was quoted as saying "I do everything through instinct, I play like a child ... I think about myself on a small field, or in the street, I see myself with the ball in the same way as I am now. I have not changed at all. You must remember soccer is a game to have fun and you play for that. I don't plan or anticipate my play."

Young children are instinctually creative. They draw pictures without regard to perspective, they use crayons without any knowledge of whether colors match or complement each other. And yet, the finished project always seems to work out beautifully in the end.

Soccer follows the same trend. I see 5-, 6- and 7-year olds doing things with the ball, things I could never teach. As coaches, we often think we know better, and when we're not careful, we coach that instinctual creativity right out of them, eventually turning them into predictable and mechanistic players.

Next time you have the opportunity to work with a player, pretend you're watching them draw a picture. Don't over coach. Step back a bit and allow yourself to be amazed. Maybe if we take this approach early on, we'll end up with a few more Lionel Messi's down the road.

Wouldn't that be nice?


Paul Harbin is the director of harbinsoccer.com and creator of paulharbin.com. Following the 2010 season, Harbin retired from the college ranks where he coached at the NCAA Division I level (UAB and Mercer University) for 22 years; 18 as a Head Coach. Across his career, Harbin's teams have been known nationally for their skill, talent, and success on the field. As importantly, they've also been known for their many successes off the field, in the classroom and throughout their community. He has been directing successful residential, team and day camps for over 20 years and continues to do so today. As with his teams, the main goal of camp is to help develop confident and responsible young people in an environment that that is both challenging and enjoyable.

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