Practice Design Uncategorized

Improve creativity by applying the principles of differential learning

Creativity is an elusive topic in sport. Every sports fan enjoys watching a player do something out of the ordinary. But how can we train players to be creative (and successful!)? Is it even possible?

The concept of differential learning is well suited to creativity. Differential learning refers to practice whereby the performer explores as many movement solutions as possible – even if the solution seems too extreme and impractical.

This type of practice allows the performer to explore the limits of their capabilities. This is thought to benefit skill acquisition as the performer might discover effective solutions for performing various tasks.

From a creativity perspective, differential learning encourages performers to discover new and unique methods for performing a skill; hence, this should facilitate the development of creative behaviour.

Sara Santos and colleagues investigated this issue in youth soccer players.

The Study

40 youth soccer players participated in the study. 20 players were from an under 13’s team and the other 20 players were from an under 15’s teams.

Within each age group, participants were divided into 2 groups:

  1. Differential learning group
  2. Control group

Both groups played small sided soccer games for 5 months during training. However, training program for the differential learning group was different to the control group. The differences are outlined in the figure below.

Differential Learning Training.png
Extracted from Santos et al. (2018)

Participants’ creativity was measured before and after the training program. Creativity was measured using the “Creative Behaviour Assessment in Team Sports”. This assessment tool measures player’s performance based on originality, versatility, and fluency.

Participants positioning during matches was also assessed before and the training program. More specifically, the authors wanted to know whether the team was moving more in sync with one another following the training program (also referred to as interpersonal coordination).


The differential learning group displayed a number of improvements greater than the control group following 5 months of training. These included:

  • Increased originality of actions
  • Increased versatility of actions
  • Fewer errors
  • More regular positional behaviour

Notably, the benefits of differential learning were greater in the under 13 group than the under 15 group. The authors speculated that this might be a reflection of younger players being more creative.

Take home message

If developing creative players is a focus, coaches should consider applying the principles of differential learning during training.

Additionally, as the authors state: “coaches can use differential learning approaches during their training sessions to foster players’ adaptive behaviour to unpredictable situations”.

Finally, the finding that differential learning facilitates more regular positional behaviour (i.e., players learn to adjust their position in accordance with the movements of other players and/or the location of the goals) suggests that players become more tactically aware as a result of exploring novel movement solutions.


Santos, S., Coutinho, D., Gonçalves, B., Schöllhorn, W., Sampaio, J., & Leite, N. (2018). Differential learning as a key training approach to improve creative and tactical behavior in soccer. Research quarterly for exercise and sport89(1), 11-24.


  1. “the benefits of differential learning were greater in the under 13 group than the under 15 group.”

    I suspect the reason is the 15s have simply undergone 2 additional years of filtering. They are better players and therefore will benefit less in a raw sense from differential learning.

    Flip side of that is the marginal improvement of a 15u player has greater financial value because he is significantly closer to becoming a financial asset than a 13u.

    1. Or could it be that the 15U’s were more adapted to the constraints and defaulted back to their training instead of improvising in novel situations? Not an argument just curious.

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