Creativity Sounds Important…but at the Elite Level, How Valuable Is It Really?

Whether in football, basketball, or soccer, displays of creative playmaking and shotmaking draw lots of ooh’s and ahh’s from fans, and booya’s on ESPN’s plays of the day (or at least it used to, when booya was something people still said). 

All of which is very exciting and entertaining, of course. And it certainly makes intuitive sense that creative players and playmakers would be valuable to a team’s success. 

But is this actually true? Is there any data or evidence that creativity leads to more wins?

Similarly, does creativity on stage lead to more success in auditions and competitions? Or is it just about execution, plain and simple?


A pair of German researchers decided to take a closer look at how goals were scored in FIFA World Cup (2010 and 2014) and European Championship (2016) matches, to see what sort of role creativity actually played in the outcomes of important, high-stakes soccer matches. 

They compiled video of all 311 goals scored in open play over the course of 153 games1, and included the last 8 actions leading to the goal (where action #8 was the shot on goal). 

Umm…why 8? Well, previous research suggests that about 84% of goals are scored after just 4 passes, and 95% are scored within 8 passes, so this covered the majority of goal-scoring situations. 

Creativity ratings

Each of the 8 actions leading to the goal (e.g. dribbling moves, passes, crosses, headers, etc.) were rated by three soccer experts, using an established 1-10 creativity scale that they were trained to use. Where 1= way below average (marginally creative), and 10=way above average (highly creative). 

The three judges’ inter-rater reliability was high, so we know that they agreed (more or less) on the creativity level of each move. 

And did creative playmaking lead to more goal-scoring?

Which actions were the most creative?

Well…the short answer is yes – but the interesting stuff (as is often the case) is in the details. 

For one, the creativity of each move in the sequence tended to increase, the closer each action was to the shot on goal. 

And on average, the most creative action of all was not the shot on goal – but the assist, the final action which made the successful shot on goal possible. 

Overall, the last three actions – the so-called “hockey” assist, the assist, and the shot on goal – tended to be significantly more creative than any of the actions that came before. 

From Kempe, M., & Memmert, D. (2018). “Good, better, creative”: the influence of creativity on goal scoring in elite soccer. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-5.

But did creative playmaking lead to more wins?

And when the researchers divided up the teams into multiple tiers – the most successful being those who made it to the quarterfinals, then those who made it to the second round, then those who did not advance out of group play – they found that the more successful teams were indeed more creative in their goal-scoring. 

Though creative goals actually tended to be a relatively rare phenomenon, with only 46% of all 311 goals in the tournament containing one or more highly creative actions, the most successful teams’ percentage of creative goals was much higher, at 63%.


This data suggests that in sports like soccer, where the margin between winning and losing is razor-thin and often comes down to a few plays here and there, creativity can be a significant asset, and is absolutely worth integrating into training at all levels. Because even though execution absolutely matters – it appears that the great players and teams may be more successful because they are not only technically adept, but are creative in their playmaking as well. 

Hmm…can we generalize these results to music too?

Well, it’d be a lot clearer if there were a similar study on the impact of creativity on audition and competition results (and maybe there is something out there like this that I’m not aware of?). But I’m inclined to think that the takeaway for musicians is probably not so different than that for soccer players. 

Because sure, technical execution matters, and the need for good sound, rhythm, and intonation is a given. But I think most would say that this stuff, while necessary – is not sufficient. That there has to be something beyond good, clean playing that grabs your attention and makes you want to be that person’s stand partner or colleague. Much as Met principal timpanist Jason Haaheim describes vividly here (with a great example): “I LOVE YOU!” should sound different from “and NOW YOU DIE!”

And heck, even when it comes to the “basics” like sound/rhythm/intonation, creative fingerings and bowings, nifty warmup exercises, and inventive practice techniques can all come in pretty handy too. 

Take action

So how exactly does one cultivate more creativity in daily playing and practice? 

Well, researchers at the University of Cambridge found four ingredients that seemed to be key to more creative expression both in practice and performance: “freedom, flexibility, a sense of being “in the moment”, and a commitment to “giving” the music to an audience – even if that audience exists only in their imagination while they are rehearsing, or even just thinking about performing.”

In essence, much as the German researchers recommended for soccer players, a lot of creativity in practice seems to come down to experimenting with new ideas and solutions and trying them out – even if they ultimately don’t work. As opposed to fixating on doing things “perfectly” and making the avoidance of mistakes one’s highest priority. Or feeling too constrained by the score and being afraid to risk deviating too far from the composer’s presumed intentions. 

After all, isn’t part of the fun of practice trying new things, and experiencing that tiny little spark of joy when something we do on a lark unexpectedly works out?

So if you’re feeling a bit adventurous this week, consider making it a goal to try at least one thing each day that might not work – but would be pretty cool if it actually did!

Additional reading

A little more about the 4 key ingredients for creative expression:

Music in the making

This article talks about creativity more in the domain of improvisation, but cites interesting research which suggests that creativity is something that can absolutely be trained:

Creativity is a distinct mental state that you can train


  1. Ok, so if you’re a hard-core soccer statistics nerd, you might be thinking “hey, wait, weren’t there 166 games?” And you’d be totally correct. However, no goals were scored in 13 of them, so they were dropped from the study…

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One Response

  1. As someone who focuses on playing jazz and improvisation creativity is a high priority and I often will try out new things on gigs or when I am practicing as a way to keep myself on my toes and then later on refine ideas or arrangements. This ultimately depends however on how present I am when I am doing this and being in the moment. This can be difficult to do in a noisy environment like a busy restaurant at brunch but I have found that over time it’s gotten easier.

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