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Creativity -- The X Factor

A Soccernet piece by Andrea Canales draws attention to the importance of creativity in performance. Her specific target is Justin Mapp and his nearly single-handed contribution to opening up the Denmark-U.S. friendly. Going beyond the specific game, she writes

What isn't evident is if the U.S. has yet been able to figure out a way to integrate players with such an unorthodox approach to the game -- those who don't always follow the expected norm of hardworking and blue-collar play that has often characterized U.S. soccer. There are always those few who simply don't plug away industrially, who don't take the standardized route, who become more dangerous on the field precisely because they are so unpredictable. Mathis was one. Mapp is another.

I was a big fan of Mathis for exactly this reason. Such creativity may not be very apparent or matter much in games where steady play can dominate the other side, but when facing equal or better talent, it becomes all important.

At the player level, creativity may be more critical in some sports than others. Soccer, hockey, or basketball where the run of play is continuous and set plays more limited may require more than in football, where creativity at the coaching level may matter more. Even in football, the ability to improvise and create distinguishes some QBs from others. Football does illustrate when creativity matters most -- if you can dominate the other team, little creativity from coaches is required. When teams are very equal, it begins to matter a lot as the Xs and Os don't work the way the do on the chalkboard.

Creativity is one of the most under-studied and under-measured contributors to performance -- mainly because it is hard to study or measure. Many (if not most) college basketball coaches pay no attention to it or its development. In contrast, Bill Walton praises John Wooden for actively encouraging and developing it. Duke's Coach K receives similar praise from others.

Beyond the sports world, creativity may be the most under-appreciated talent required for achievement in a variety of areas including scholarly achievement or impact. As in sports, other talents or elements matter to a point. For example, in disciplines like economics, a quantitative threshold probably exists separating those who can tackle the subject matter from those who cannot. Above that threshold creativity matters a lot more than 50 more points on the GRE Quantitative section. What separates Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy, or Steven Levitt from many of their graduate school colleagues is not their GRE-Q score but creative ability, yet econ grad schools now reject applicants with high absolute GRE-Q scores (the relevant threshold) because the relative score is not quite high enough. (Here's Levitt's blog on whether he could get into Chicago's econ program).