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Playing Basketball On A Tennis Court

Updated: Mar 4

Often we think of challenges in life as something to overcome. Or as I've come to notice is that there is resistance in our life that needs attention to ensure we spend time focused on the activities that bring us joy and add to our collective experience. However, there is another factor that we need to address. This factor occurs when the previous conditions don't allow us to apply new skills. Let me explain.

Imagine you are a tennis player and you have a tennis court. You progress your skills in this area, becoming capable and flourish in the nature of the activity. After a period of time you decide that you would like to try basketball. You set up a hoop at each end, however continually find that there is an obstacle in the middle of the court. If you determine this is an obstacle to overcome, then you are making allowances to negotiate this every time you encounter it. The more the game progresses, the more you encounter this obstacle. Whilst the obvious point would be to remove the net, the court also still needs to function as a tennis court. Essentially, whilst we can take on the new endeavour based on our previous foundations, there is likely to be a limitation that prevents us from playing freely in this space. The obstacle is not merely a means for overcoming, we need a new playing court entirely to work from to allow us to function meaningfully in the new sport.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who specialised in childhood education approached this through the ideas of assimilation and accomodation as well as the idea of a schema. The schema is essentially the basis on which we attach new knowledge, formed through our previous experiences and allowing us the ability to grow our understanding of topics. Assimilation works on the basis that we are able to sculpt new knowledge to fit into an existing framework. For instance, if our tennis court is the schema, then any new skills we learn in tennis fit within this and can be grown through this experience. For the most part, the basis fits the new knowledge that we encounter and there might be small adjustments to allow this to work. Accomodation is where the new knowledge doesn't fit onto the schema, and requires us to develop a new or review our framework on which this will sit. This would be an acknowledgement that we need to move our basketball game from the tennis court to the appropriate setting. Whilst this is a simplification of the process, each of these are based on adaptation of the new knowledge and the consideration required for this to fit in with previous experiences. This description was focused on cognitive development in the first 12 years of life, however, there is a relevance that still applies at any age for us today.

What happens when we take on something entirely new? Existing schema might be useful, and we might consider that our skills will be transferable in some way. However, we are more likely to find that when new knowledge is presented that this creates a distinct challenge for us. In reality it would be like wanting to play basketball but not knowing that basketball courts exist. This is often where we encounter what I have called the "start with knowledge paradox". When we take on this new endeavour, we don't have the underlying foundations to be able to attach the new knowledge and skills. The two interpretations of this phrase are to have the knowledge you need before starting (which you don't know if this is relevant to your situation due to no existing framework), or that the first step of the process is to acquire the knowledge (which is problematic if you don't have the right framework to build this on). In each case, so long as you start with a clear understanding that this will be the case, then you are ready for the disruption and challenge that this will bring. We attempt to mould these to what we know already, yet will find a steep learning curve in this process. This can be a frustrating process and lead to being disheartened about something that you were excited to take on. The knowledge we need only comes after attempting the endeavour although this process can be accelerated with the right guidance.

A personal example would be the shift from table tennis to tennis. Having spent a lot of my younger years playing at a table, the shift to tennis was more difficult due to the framework I had established. I was used to wrist movements and slicing shots to gain an advantage. On the tennis court, I found that my instincts were to slice and cut through shots meaning I was not be able to hit them cleanly in a manner that the sport determined. It required focus to maintain a more steady approach to this however I continued to find that I reverted back to the a former system that wasn't adequate to play the sport as intended. The stronger the initial framework, the greater the challenge it is to layer a new idea on top of this. And yes, the argument can easily be made that table tennis and tennis are very different disciplines. Try telling my muscle memory when it I lean into each shot.

This could be applied to the Peter Principle as well. Developed by Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter, this describes how we often progress our careers into a point of incompetence. Essentially, we believe that previous success and knowledge will allow us to move to a higher level in the same way. Often this describes why people who are exceedingly competent as a technical executor in their role move into a management position and don't then meet the expectations that are put onto them. In reality, a different foundation is required to thrive in this new level. Success in one area is not guarantee of success in another. Again, we can see that there are elements of how our assumption of playing basketball on a tennis court is going to be met with resistance. We don't often recognise that that we aren't as equipped as we believe we are or understand the shortfall that takes place.

Shifting the underlying basis of our endeavour might be the better approach. It might not be the most convenient, or might require a movement to a different space to be able to enact this fully. Transformative Learning Theory requires a first step that is a disorientating dilemma to confront the individual into understanding that their understanding and expectation are different from the reality that exists. This is and will be uncomfortable. We need to move past an assumption that our skills are transferable into each new situation or that we understand more than we do. For example, as a driver if you move from a manual car to an automatic, then once the initial selection is made you will find the the process is very similar and you are able to thrive in your ability to drive. Reverse this process and we find a very different situation. Whilst an automatic driver might have an understanding of the gears, there is an application and practice that takes time to master. You can't simply (well, technically you could) stick the car into one gear and use that to get around your daily commute. The results will be less than optimal. You might get to your destination however the journey (and potentially your car) is compromised.

The biggest takeaway from this is to spend time to ensure that you develop the appropriate foundations for whatever endeavour you are seeking to embark on. When you encounter resistance, take the time to see what is causing this and consider the relevance of your assumptions and understanding. We like to protect ourselves and believe that we know best, yet there is plenty of room to grow in this space. Knowledge and application, think about how much more you will gain when you don't simply remove the net and instead find the appropriate court to play on. Put on your shoes and soar.


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