Divergent learning experiences in sports enhance cognitive executive functions and creativity in students

Christian Büning*, Lara Jürgens, Hedda Lausberg

*Corresponding author for this work

Publication: Contribution to journalJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


Background: Studies have reported positive effects of physical activity on cognitive executive functions, such as inhibitory control and creativity. These studies predominantly compared scenarios of sports participation vs. no sports participation or reduced sports to simple aerobic exercises. However, whether the type or intensity of physical activity matters has not been clarified. Purpose: This study investigates creativity development in sports study programs, which fully capture the real- world physical and mental involvement of students, by comparing two study programs representing different approaches on how to accumulate knowledge and expertise in sports. In the divergence- oriented study program (DOSP), students participate in variety of noncompetitive sports throughout their studies. In the convergence- oriented study program (COSP), students focus on optimizing performance in a well-defined area of competitive sports. The hypothesis that divergent learning experiences in sports have a more positive influence on creativity than convergent learning experiences was tested. Method: Cognitive inhibitory strategies (Ruff Figural Fluency Test) and creativity (Figural Torrance Test of Creative Thinking) were compared in sport students from DOSP (n=33) and COSP (n=35). To examine the study period’s influence, students were tested at the beginning and end of their studies. Findings: Creativity scores of DOSP students significantly increased in four out of five creativity measures (fluency, originality, elaboration, and resistance to premature closure) within two years, while those of COSP students declined significantly. However, both student groups incorporated significantly more cognitive strategies to fulfill the tasks. DOSP students used these strategies to produce more responses (fluency), leading to original and elaborated responses, while COSP students produced significantly fewer errors. Conclusions: The claim that physical activity has a generally positive influence on fluency does not correspond to our findings. We, therefore, conclude that not physical activities per se, rather the divergent learning experiences in sports positively influence creativity. Since fluency only improved in DOSP, we predict that fluid thinking benefits vastly from divergent learning experiences. Furthermore, we found evidence that the mechanism of high fluency in the divergent study group is partly related to cognitive inhibitory strategies. Therefore, study program coordinators should redesign sport curricula based on process-oriented learning opportunities in sports. This includes a shift away from early specialization and toward broad-based education and versatility training to prepare students to better adapt to the ever-changing societal needs. To enable teachers to promote students’ creative potential, study program coordinators alongside universities must support teachers in receiving adequate training to shift from being controllers to facilitators in favor of promoting process-orientation and active, self-regulated knowledge construction in students.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhysical education and sport pedagogy
Number of pages16
Publication statusElectronically/ online published ahead of print - 24.08.2020