Creative Autonomy

I recently read a great nonfiction book by Adam Savage called, Every Tool’s a Hammer: Life Is What You Make Of It. He’s one of the guys from the Mythbusters show. The book is a roadmap to making. Better yet, it’s a roadmap of what he’s learned over a decades-long career as a maker. 

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he talks about visiting his friend and movie director Guillermo del Toro on the set of Pacific Rim. Adam was amazed at the scope and depth of the worldbuilding and creation going on with the hundreds of people working on the set. That night at dinner, Adam asked Guillermo how he’s able to manage a large group like that into a cohesive vision. The director replied, “You have to give everyone complete freedom within a narrow bandwidth.”

Adam calls it “creative autonomy”. He expands on the idea in regards to creating successful teams. After you get the team’s buy-in on the larger vision, you need to strictly define their roles in the fulfillment of that vision. Once everyone knows where they’re going, then you need to set them free to do their thing.

Within a good organization, an effective leader lets people do what they do while keeping them anchored to the overarching goal. Creative autonomy may be properly suited to only certain endeavors where creativity reigns but it’s equally important in managing or coaching a sports team. 

Creativity, in the case of the sports team, is talent unleashed. It’s using your tools to solve problems. Just as in making a movie, publishing a book, or designing a factory, the sports organization is a team of specialists with the goal of using their individual tools to successfully achieve or create.

In the two sports I’ve had the opportunity to coach, football and baseball, establishing creative autonomy is vital. Vital not only for ultimate success but vital to have athletes who enjoy participating and enjoy doing the necessary work to be successful. A culture of creative autonomy lets athletes feel part of something, which I believe is one of the major reasons we are drawn to these activities. 

In today’s world of teenagers, making them feel truly part of something is a foundational coaching skill. There are too many other places and activities calling their name and 99% of those are much less demanding activities than sports.

Building a successful program through creative autonomy means work on the coaching end. Take football for example. The offensive and the defensive schemes we implemented had to be simple enough for all our kids to understand but variable enough to give us the tools we needed to face anything an opponent threw at us. We had to not only understand all the facets ourselves as a coaching staff but we had to understand the specific job of each position. Once the specific jobs were defined, then we could break them down into teachable bites for coaching those particular athletes. 

One of the most overlooked coaching skills is the ability to teach a player they need to do this one thing, this is how you do it, and then trust them to do their job. One of the things I feel most proud about from coaching football is the way we played defense. We had more successes than failures and most of those successes were because of creative autonomy. The schemes were simple, yet multiple. The athletes, for the most part, knew their jobs. They were allowed to play with a physical, aggressive style that became our hallmark. Alignment. Assignment. Attack. 

Young coaches getting started or a coach looking to turn around a program, never underestimate the power of creative autonomy. Establishing this culture and philosophy up and down the ladder of your program, from the incoming freshman to the top of the coaching staff, is a huge leap toward excellence. Plus, athletes have more fun and more joy from playing in an environment of creative autonomy. 

And at the end of the day, isn’t your athletes enjoying playing sports the ultimate goal?

Happy athletes are more fun to be around every day and get more work done. They just need to know where they’re going, what they need to do to get there and to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

Teach your athletes; trust your athletes. 

Every Tool s a Hammer  Life Is What You Make It

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