Put your skates on!
As a keen ‘wannabe’, but not very proficient, ice skater, I have watched Dancing on Ice with awe and a small measure of envy. When celebrities take to the ice after three months of rigorous (and probably daily) training, I’m struck by their impressive feats on skates. I’m especially impressed by those who are ice skating for the very first time.
The first live show for the 2019 season screened in January, and some contestants were clearly further along their skating skill-development journey than others. One of these was James Jordan, an ex-Strictly Come Dancing professional. While many who commented on social media felt that his experience gave him an unfair advantage, he had never been on skates before the Dancing on Ice training period. However, he appeared to have learned enough core ice-skating skills to transfer his experience as a dancer and performer onto the ice. He delivered a performance that was near-professional standard.
I reflected that the skills he transferred were probably how to present himself (e.g. arm placement and facial expressions), responding to music, balance and weight transfer, and dealing with nerves associated with performing in front of a large live audience. Years of choreographing, learning and teaching dance routines would no doubt have given him an edge when learning the ice-dance routines.
Transfer of motor skills is one thing, but for this post I’m more interested in the psychological factors associated with learning and skill transfer. Dancing on Ice got me thinking about it in the coaching and facilitating work I do with individuals and teams.
What is it that enables people to transfer skills or learning? The answers could fill a book as this has been the subject of many research papers in the training literature. For now, however, I’ll keep my focus narrow.
Motivation and support
Research has identified motivation to transfer and social support as key components enabling the transfer of learning back into the workplace following a development intervention (Reinhold, Gegenfurtner and Lewalter, 2018). In the Dancing on Ice example, James talked about his determination to do well (and be top of the leader board). He also talked about the support he got from his skating partner and his wife (also an ex-Strictly professional).
An example from my coaching experience comes to mind. I recently worked with a high-performing executive whose organization was providing him with coaching so he could make the most of the next 3–5 years of his career. Coaching proved very successful for this client. What really stood out for me was that he actively wanted to apply his learning. He experimented with new behaviours and strategies between coaching sessions. His line manager, who had recommended coaching based on personal experience, was also incredibly supportive. Even now, a year after the coaching ended, he refers back to the coaching development plan.
Feedback and reflection
Research has also shown that for leaders attending formal leadership training, seeking feedback and practising reflection are especially relevant in the transfer of training. Transfer is highest when doing both (Sparr, Knipfer and Willems, 2016). While it would be a stretch to describe a coaching engagement as ‘formal leadership training’, the individual in the above example not only engaged in self-reflection during coaching and between sessions, he also instigated a process of seeking feedback from his direct reports. This turned out to be a rich and valuable source of data for him. It was also an opportunity to apply some of his insights as he engaged in the feedback conversations in a different way, adapting his style to suit the needs of different members of his team.
Conclusions on skills transfer
What are the top takeaways from all of this?
1. When learning a new skill or trying to transfer learning back to your day job, find your level of motivation to achieve in this new area or to make the required change. I often do this with coaching clients with a simple exercise. I ask them to rate their level of motivation on a 1–10 scale. If they come back with anything less than 7 or 8, we explore what would take it up to a 9 or 10.
2. Seek out support, whether it’s from colleagues, a line manager or a mentor, or friends/family. This support may be about staying motivated or it might be about creating a safe space as you practise and try to apply your learning.
3. Get feedback as you engage in your experiments, try the new behaviour or practise the new skill. Be specific about the kind of feedback you’d find helpful (e.g. do you want pointers about what you could do better? Or would you like to hear about the impact your new behaviour is having on others?).
4. Keep reflecting. Ask yourself things like: “How’s my motivation?”, “What’s worked well?” and “What can I learn from the setbacks along the way?”
Reinhold, S., Gegenfurtner, A., & Lewalter, D. (2018). Social support and motivation to transfer as predictors of training transfer: testing full and partial mediation using meta‐analytic structural equation modelling. International Journal of Training and Development, 22(1), 1-14.
Sparr, J. L., Knipfer, K., & Willems, F. (2017). How leaders can get the most out of formal training: The significance of feedback‐seeking and reflection as informal learning behaviors. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 28(1), 29-54.