Author: Yann Daout

Yann Daout has a Master in Sport and social sciences from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He has been training parkour since 2011. He writes so he can stop thinking all that stuff.

Can we teach creativity ? (part 3)

After teaching a few classes on creativity, I’ve come across a few more ideas, so take this as a short addendum to my creativity articles. I might update it from time to time. This will be more focused on parkour, but the ideas might apply to other sports.

How can we make creativity less abstract ?

One question I’ve been asking myself is how to make creativity less abstract. If I want my students to focus on the creativity of their lines, rather than say, speed, using the shorthand « be creative » would be useful. The problem is that everybody understands what going fast means, but being creative is less clear. So how can we put more flesh on that idea ? One solution I’ve come up with is to start talking about emotions. Because being creative means novelty, it can bring negative emotions like the fear of trying something new ; but also positive emotions when you achieve that novelty. The most specific emotion seem to me to be surprise : surprise that something is achievable ; surprise that nobody has thought about that until then ; surprise that you can use this environment in that way. So let’s say you start instructing your students to create a line with the aim of surprising the other members of the group. That should be a nice emotional constraint. After a few times, there should be enough flesh on the concept of creativity to start using the shorthand.

Can we use more complex constraints ?

I think most practitioners would benefit from very simple constraints. But as an additional challenge, or just to add variety to training, more complex constraints can be used.

Maybe we can make more use of emotional constraints, like “do something that scares you”, “something that makes you happy”, etc. More generally we could invite our students to put themselves in the skin of a character to promote creativity. “Move like it’s the first thing you do in the morning and you’re not fully awake yet” or “move like you’re drunk” can end up creating pretty creative and funny parkour lines.

Elias Borrajo has talked about using patterns of constraints. Let’s say every second “move” has to be done with both hands, and every third move has to be done with only one foot. You’ll end up with a criss-cross of constraints, sometimes you need to satisfy one or the other, sometimes both at the same time, sometimes none.

I’m not sure who to attribute this idea to, but maybe it was Elias too: every time you use one hand, you need to turn left; every time you use both hands, you need to turn right. This constraint works both ways. It either pushes you in a region of the environment that you were not aiming to go to, forcing you to explore it; or if you have somewhere you want to go, you really need to think of the sequence of moves that will get you there.

Another interesting constraint comes from Sébastien Sevino and Tristan Bana. Take a set of obstacles, and create a line with a certain sequence of techniques. Once it has been memorized, just move to different obstacles, and try to do the same line, using an identical sequence of techniques, mutatis mutandis. This forces you to explore in order to find ways to apply the same techniques on very different obstacles, and requires to adapt and think outside the box.

As you can see, creativity is nested. In order to promote motor creativity, teachers need to be creative about the exercises, games and constraints they use. I hope we can make this part of creativity a collective endeavour, because I clearly have learned a lot from interacting with other teachers.

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Can we teach creativity ? (Part 2)

In the first part, I suggested that in the context of motor learning, it would be profitable to move aways from thinking of creativity as ideation, i.e. thinking new ideas that can then be put into actions.

Rather, these are fruitful ways of thinking about creativity:

  1. It can be defined as developing new functional behaviours, and/or acting in functional ways in novel situations.
  2. Constraints and randomness can be useful tools for creativity.
  3. We need to keep in focus the interactions between the body and its environment.

Maybe this is not the full picture, but I think it gets us a long way, so here are a few ideas to teach creativity, or at least structure classes in order to see the emergence of creative motor solutions.

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Can we teach creativity ? (Part 1)

We tend to think of creativity as the generation or apparition of new ideas, which can then be put into action. I call this “ideation”. This view of creativity is probably so strong because we take our paradigmatic examples of creativity in specific domains like scientific or technological innovation, writing novels or creating music. But when we focus on activities that are not usually framed as being purely intellectual, like parkour, this two step process, inventing ideas in your head, then applying them to the world, might not work that well. It misses the tight link between action and perception, the direct interaction of the body and the environment.

Here, I want to pursue this line of thinking, which is very relevant for teaching creativity in sports and physical activities. I will argue that we need to move a few steps away from the ideation approach if we want to understand motor creativity. Using the frameworks of ecological-dynamics, we can understand how using constraints can benefit creativity. In part 2, I will explore a few methods and principles to promote the emergence of creative motor solutions.

Dog catching frisbee

Can my dog predict the future ?

When I throw a stick, my dog starts moving before the stick even leaves my hand. How is that possible ? Does my dog know the future ? Of course, beyond the joke and the clickbaity title, this should not seem like magic. We usually admit that animals can anticipate by predicting the future, at least in some weak sense. I suppose we think of it like this: my dog has observed me throwing toys for years, so he has a mental model of where the toy will go depending on my movements. When I start moving, his brain uses the present information, puts it in the model, makes a few computations, predicts the trajectory of the stick, and starts moving according to this prediction. And sure, this is far from being Nostradamus. I can profit from this behaviour to easily fool my dog. I simply don’t release the stick, and my dog starts moving to the wrong place.

Why we need variability of movement

When it comes to producing skillful sport performance, we tend to think that we need to achieve a very consistent way of moving. In that perspective, less movement variability means better performance. This comes from a common assumption that consistent performance is an essential element of skill. But there are two components of performance: the movement, and the outcome. Traditional teaching methods focus on the movement, with ideal patterns that have to be learned, rehearsed, and reproduced. We therefore tend to treat deviations as errors, that come from some kind of lack of control. Here we will challenge these assumptions by focusing on the consistency of outcome. We will argue that variability is a necessary component of movement, allowing for better control, adaptability and learning. If we want consistent outcomes, we need variability of movement.

Self-organisation and attractors

In this article, we will be focusing on two key concepts of ecological-dynamics: self-organisation, and the attractor landscape.

As we have shown previously, ecological-dynamics understands our bodies as complex systems with numerous interacting parts (or degrees of freedom). Self-organisation means that the parts of the system have a tendency to adjust and adapt to each other1, creating patterns without the need for a hierarchical system of control, like the brain controlling every single part of our body. Order therefore is emergent, and does not require the micromanagement of all degrees of freedom.

  1. Davids K., Button Chris et Bennett Simon, Dynamics of skill acquisition: a constraints-led approach, Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics, 2008.[]

The dynamical systems approach

Dynamical systems theory is a branch of mathematics used to describe complex dynamical systems. These are systems with multiple parts that interact with each other and change over time. Examples can range from living things like a colony of ants to inorganic systems like Earth’s climate. Ecological-dynamics adds these mathematical insights to ecological psychology in order to understand how we control our movements, focusing on the interactions between the body and environment instead of reducing it to a top-down control from our brain. In this article, we will try to understand our bodies as complex dynamical systems, while not going into the details of the complex equations.

The floor is lava

You probably know the game called “the floor is lava”, where players must traverse space without touching the ground. Although it is a kids’ game, it is also popular among parkour practitioners, who use different obstacles, ledges, walls or rails to avoid touching the “lava”. Here, I will argue that this game is a great example of a “naive” version of the constraints-led approach. Different versions of the game might exist, so we will start discussing an unstructured case and then examine how different variations can be used to achieve learning goals.

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