C'mon Champ! Three lessons for creatives from the world of sport

On the face of it, the sporting and creative worlds share many similarities: They touch almost everyone, inspiring great passions, fuelling lifelong obsessions and offering an escape from the everyday. They capture our imaginations, giving rise to our heroes and defining our cultures. They both emerge from our earliest instincts to play. Yet, despite all that common ground, most of us tend to identify with one or the other - we're either sporty or creative, but quite rarely both. 

But I’ve always occupied the intersection of this Venn diagram. At school it felt unusual to be both arty and sporty. There were the kids who wanted to kick a ball around, and the kids who were into comics, indie bands and sarcasm, and they lived largely separate lunchtimes.

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Later in life, with dreams of a career in sport dashed by my almost complete lack of ability, I found myself around people in the creative industries, baffled at my willingness to make large emotional investments in what, to them, appeared to be an endless merry-go-round of overhyped and inconsequential running about.

When your inner monologue sounds like a pre-match press conference, its hard not to view your day job through the lens of sport. Sporting metaphors often spring to mind when I’m chatting to members of our team about our approach to projects.

For instance, when attacking a creative brief it’s easy to get too close to the problem and get stuck in a rut. My advice is the same as a coach might give to a tennis player or a boxer: Stay light on your feet, keep moving, give yourself enough room to see the challenge in front of you and get a good strike in. I might compare the successful execution of a brief to a judo throw: You use the expectations of your audience in the same way a judoka uses an opponent’s momentum, so that a relatively light shove, combined with an element of surprise, is all it takes to land them exactly where you want them.

I could go on, but I won’t. I know I have to use these comparisons sparingly with the less sports-inclined. I’ve seen eyes glaze over when I push it too far. (Slapping my colleagues around the chops and shouting ‘C’mon Champ!’ before they switch on their iMacs yields mixed results, too, I’ve found.)

But, whether you were glued to the Olympics or glad they're over for another four years, there are three big lessons that any creative can take away from the world of sport. 

Steely-eyed determination

Creative careers and sports careers begin in similar ways. You find something you’re good at, you enjoy it, and if you’re lucky you get encouraged to take it further. But when things start getting more serious, the paths of sport and creativity diverge.

At the point of becoming a professional, a modern athlete’s talent is a given. The focus is now on honing how effectively that talent is applied. They train every day to ensure that when the time comes to do the thing they’re paid for, they’ve given themselves every chance of doing it to the very best of their ability. The vagaries of form, technique, attitude and preparedness are ironed out as much as humanly possible, usually with the help of coaches who analyse every stretch and stride. The life of an athlete is an open book – or at least an open spreadsheet – to those entrusted with perfecting their performance.

This attention to detail has been taken to extremes in recent years by the likes of Sir Dave Brailsford, who, as performance director of British cycling, looked for miniscule opportunities for improvement across every tiny aspect of his teams’ performance. His forensic eye for these 1% ‘marginal gains’ ultimately added up to a huge stack of medals.

Similarly, Ben Hunt-Davis, who won a gold medal in 2000 as part of the Great Britain rowing eight, has talked and written about how an obsessive focus on the little things took them from outsiders to Olympic champions. The rowers applied the same question to every decision they made, from what to have for breakfast to whether to go to the pub in the evening: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ If the answer was no, they simply didn’t do it.

Creatives, however, are often more like the athletes of an earlier era. They show up, trust in their own talent and experience, and hope for a good day. Whether it turns out to be or not,  it’s unlikely there will be much rigorous analysis as to why.

I’m not suggesting people in creative roles need to be in bed by 8.30, trimming their fingernails to the micro millimetre and logging the foam-depth of their daily flat whites. They don’t need to start calling themselves ‘idea-athletes’ (though I bet somebody out there already does). But, while sportspeople recognise that success is just as much to do with preparation as it is execution, we creatives tend to move from challenge to challenge without placing anything like the same emphasis on the bits in between (if indeed we have the space or time for bits in between). Finishing the last job isn’t necessarily the best preparation for the next.

In the modern era, you could say sports people have started to shift their measures of success from external to internal ones. Whereas previously they might have asked ‘was my technique admired?’ or ‘did the spectators enjoy the game?’ they now ask ‘did I set a personal best?’ or ‘what was my pass completion rate?’ In the creative sphere, our measures are still largely external – ‘did the audience respond positively?’ ‘how many retweets did it get?’ or ‘did my client sell more soap?’

“In order to be creative, we have to learn how to prepare to be creative.” 
 

Obviously, we can’t ignore our audiences. Creative work is intended to be seen, appreciated and discussed. But so is sport, and a sports coach might argue that if you take care of the internal factors, eking out those tiny improvements all the time, the external factors like glory, success and appreciation will take care of themselves. And if you think about the attributes that a successful creative person needs - mental flexibility, problem solving, prioritisation, editorial decision making, knowledge of other fields, calculated risk-taking and so on - they can all be worked at and improved. There are marginal gains to be had. “In order to be creative,” says choreographer Twyla Tharp, “we have to learn how to prepare to be creative.” As someone working at the point where creativity and the physical demands of sport come together, she’s in a good position to comment. 

You have to know the rules

The second way in which sport can inform our creative process might sound paradoxical. We’re often told that rule-breaking is an essential part of creativity. The archetypal creative genius is someone liberated from the laws that govern others, wilfully indifferent to the boundaries that keep the rest in their place.

But while it’s true that it’s difficult to be creative if you’re tied down by convention, rules are every bit as important to creative work as they are to sport. Rules give sports their meaning; they make them watchable, playable and comprehensible. They provide the structure that allows a sport to communicate the dramas that play out within each contest.

Most creatives are in the communication game, so they also benefit from an underlying set of rules to provide a context in which their ideas can be read and understood. From the game-by-game rhythm of a tennis match, to the fourteen lines of a Shakespearean sonnet, and from the basketball court to the comic strip panel, rules mark out a framework within which to make sense of the action.

In both the creative and sporting worlds, if people can’t follow the rules, or detect any structure it rarely makes for a good experience. Frustrating, boring, baffling, impenetrable, pointless… to the uninitiated these are words that work equally well as descriptions of cricket, American football, free jazz or the work of James Joyce.

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And if sticking to the rules sounds stifling, it needn’t be. As anyone who has suffered creative block when staring at a blank page knows, restrictions can be very liberating. “We don’t believe so much in the idea of thinking outside of the box,” says superstar Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. “There is this misunderstanding that creative people should run wild. We always say: give us the parameters.”

Problem solvers welcome rules, whether that problem is designing a building for a tricky location, or getting a ball into the opposition’s goal. Limitations bring out the best in us, they encourage resourcefulness, improvisation and originality – the very qualities we enjoy the most in sport and in acts of creativity.

Rules don’t inspire ingenuity in everyone of course. For many they encourage patterns of behaviour that become deeply ingrained, ways of doing things so unquestioned they’ve almost become rules themselves. But that provides a huge opportunity for people who are able to recognise the difference between rules and conventions.

Fosbury's competitive advantage came not from thinking out of the box, but recognising there was more that could be done within it.

 

The most famous sporting example of this is surely that of Dick Fosbury, the man who revolutionised the high jump nearly 50 years ago by developing the ‘back first’ technique known as the Fosbury Flop. The method, ridiculed at first, quickly became standard after Fosbury came from obscurity to break the Olympic record. It was a completely different approach to the sport, but entirely within the letter of the law. His competitive advantage came not from thinking out of the box, but recognising there was more that could be done within it.

Revolutions have happened in team sports as a result of similar thinking. The received wisdom of setting up to play in a particular way has been blown apart by teams who suddenly decide to do it differently. In 1953 the Hungarian football team humiliated England with tactics unlike anything the English had seen before. The rules hadn’t changed, but the game itself was never quite the same again.

Similarly, those creative people remembered for ripping up the rulebook, were often, on closer inspection, just doing something radically different within it. Marcel Duchamp changed the world of art forever when he submitted a porcelain urinal for exhibition in 1917. But it was because that urinal adhered so precisely to the traditional rules for exhibiting art – signed, titled (‘Fountain’), displayed on a plinth, installed in a gallery – that made it such a provocative object. In the 1970s the Sex Pistols embodied the rebellious spirit of punk, but they were all the more provocative and controversial because they released singles and appeared on Top of the Pops like everybody else. They shook up the prevailing system but they didn’t turn their backs on it. Breaking the rules is not an essential characteristic of creatives. Playing within the rules, but outside of expectations is.

Be competitive

The last way in which sport can influence us as creatives is simple: we should get more competitive. Ali and Frazier, Prost and Senna, Evert and Navratilova - sporting history is littered with great rivalries. Fans love a grudge match. The tension is heightened to fever pitch, and once underway, every piece of action fizzes with extra significance. Every move, glance and glare is analysed for deeper meaning. But it’s not just the watching public that benefit when these rivalries develop.

Whether they like it or not, it’s often the case that they need each other. As far back as 1898, psychologist Norman Triplett discovered that a cyclist would always cycle faster when another cyclist was present. Competition is a powerful motivating factor and can push people to far greater heights than they can achieve alone.

 “No one ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”

 

Perhaps this is only to be expected in the adrenalin-pumped world of sport. After all, competition is what it’s all about. But there are plenty of creative examples of rivalry too. Pope Leo X obviously knew something about the performance-boosting effects of competition when he hired Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and his up-and-coming rival Raphael to design the tapestries to hang below it. Raphael apparently pushed himself to new heights, creating ten tapestries that were greatly admired by all – except, in the true spirit of rivalry, by Michaelangelo. Centuries later, Matisse and Picasso’s relationship with each other was hardly pally, but they studied each other’s work obsessively and that obsession drove these two pioneers of modern art forward. “No one ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he,” said Picasso.

I can attest to the power of rivalry, too. Soon after we founded Scriberia, our friend and former colleague hit upon some success by making the brilliant and much imitated RSA Animate videos. And when I say some success I mean hundreds of millions of internet views. For a while, to us at least, it seemed they were being shared more often than every cat video on the internet put together. Even members of our own families were forwarding them enthusiastically and asking us if we’d seen them. They became everyone’s sole reference point for the type of work we do, and about ten times a day we’d find ourselves politely agreeing with someone, through gritted teeth, about how great they were. There was always a potential client on the phone asking us to imitate them.

If we could have contented ourselves with aping his winning formula it could have been a great little business. Plenty of other ‘whiteboard animation’ companies sprung up on the back of the RSA Animate phenomenon and did very well. But instead, the effect of our former colleague’s achievement was actually to stir up a powerful sense of rivalry. We desperately wanted to prove ourselves independently. If he could have that success then so could we, and we’d damn well do it our way. We analysed his strengths and weaknesses and figured out the areas were we felt we had the edge, then worked like crazy to turn those virtues into a signature approach of our own – one that could genuinely give the RSA Animate style a run for its money.

I like to think it was a little like the intense rivalry that existed between Britain’s two great middle distance runners, Steve Ovett and Seb Coe - though perhaps, in our case, the obsessive competition was a little more one sided. Coe tells the story of coming in from a hard training session on Christmas Day. He was happy with his efforts, he showered and sat down for a well-earned Christmas dinner. But after dinner he started to feel uneasy, and thought: ‘I bet Ovett’s out there doing his second training session of the day.’ So, he got back in his kit and trained again. Years later when Coe told his old rival that story, Ovett replied: ‘Did you only go out twice that day?!’

So, we know from experience that competition is hugely motivating. We’ve done a lot of other work we’re very proud of that wouldn’t have existed if we’d settled for an easier life in someone else’s slipstream. It forced us to focus on what we were good at, and undoubtedly helped us become a leaner, fitter, more flexible creative outfit.

Rivalry doesn’t have to mean hatred, either. John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg’s rivalry was intense, but their friendship was always a constant. The ‘frenemy’ is as invaluable to a creative as it is to the athlete.

So, C'mon champ. It's time to bring your A-game!