Around 16 years ago the recently crowned Wimbledon Champion Novak Djokovic made a big decision: he wasn’t going to pursue his passion and build on his considerable talent. He decided that he would concentrate on his tennis instead.
The sport he decided to forego was skiing and by all accounts he could have made a very successful career out of racing down the slopes.
The loss to the skiing world was the tennis circuit’s gain and Djokovic is #1, and looks set to stay in that spot for quite some time.
The skills he learned and developed from the time of first putting on skis at the age of two might seem irrelevant in the context of tennis. But background matters and the ability to translate skills shouldn’t be underestimated.
Djokovic is frequently seen sliding around on court, reaching balls that others simply can’t get too and he does this with his knees and ankles at angles that other players can’t generate. These are the skills and the balance he learnt from skiing.
Sport is often used as a metaphor for other aspects of life, and it’s no wonder. The parallels are far too tempting to ignore. As the world number one, Djokovic works hard, really hard. He isn’t one for resting on his laurels, instead he’s constantly striving to improve. He has incredible balance which allows him to recover from otherwise compromising positions, and to soak up the stress to his body he works hard to keep his ankles strong.
For us mere mortals, balance is also important. As is hard work. The question is, can we take some of the skills that we developed in earlier life and re-use them in our current roles and what is our equivalent of strong ankles? The underpinning of success might be in your kit bag already and unleashing its power will doubtless come from re-awakening through training. But how can we uncover the experience and skills that might be used elsewhere, as Djokovic managed to do?
The answer lies in "mindful transfer". We often transfer our learning to different contexts without thinking, but mindful transfer is the conscious hunt for principles that can help in a new context.
Instructors can help with this. Researchers Mary Gick and Keith Holyoak wanted to find out if learning transfer could be encouraged when a learner deliberately looked for these principles. They found that "in all experiments subjects who first read a story about a military problem and its solution tended to generate analogous solutions to a medical problem, provided they were given a hint to use the story to help solve the problem."
In other words, people can easily apply background to new problems when they're prompted.
But mindful transfer is a habit too. Learners who acquire this habit are able to apply the cliche "thinking outside the box" when they come across apparently novel problems. They make a decision to reach into their experience and skills and see what lies inside that can be re-applied.
In this way, we may not all become the new Djokovic, but we can start to expand how we apply our learning in all sorts of unexpected ways.