Basketball star Kobe Bryant once took up tap dancing to improve his game. Research shows he was on to something: a willingness to look outside one's field can lead to fresh solutions to common problems.
During the 2000 NBA Finals, then-LA Lakers guard Bryant sprained his ankle. He'd sprained his ankle before, but this time was different. This injury was "the worst sprained ankle of my career," he wrote in his new book "The Mamba Mentality: How I Play." While he could usually play through any pain he felt, this time he'd need to sit the next game out.
The Lakers would eventually win the championship, but the injury was a wake-up call for Bryant. He realized he needed to strengthen his ankles to avoid another injury. "From there, it was on me to figure out a way to play and be tactical," wrote Bryant.
After careful research, he found a way: Bryant took up tap dancing.
Tap dancing, wrote Bryant, would build his ankle strength while improving his foot speed and rhythm. Bryant hired an instructor and started going into a studio. "I worked on it all of that summer and benefited for the rest of my career," Bryant wrote.
To be sure, Bryant continued to suffer from ankle injuries throughout his career. After all, ankle sprains are some of the most common injuries NBA players face, according to some studies. But Bryant came to understand how stiff ankles could create problems throughout the body, including the knees, hips and back. Tap dancing was one of a number of ways that he ensured his ankles were "activated and moving" in an effort to prevent injuries elsewhere.
It was a strong choice, according to Barry Blumenfeld, a Dance Education professor at NYU. Tap dancing's quick movements strengthen the ankles while working the many muscle groups that support and strengthen the joint. The discipline, like many forms of dance, offers other benefits, too. "It's a fine motor movement. It requires a lot of control," Blumenfeld said.
Bryant isn't the only athlete to work dance into a training regimen. NFL player Steve McLendon said ballet helped him stay agile and prevented knee and ankle injuries. NFL running back Alex Collins practices Irish dancing, and said the fast footwork helped him improve on the football field.
The image of 6-and-a-half-foot tall Kobe Bryant tap dancing in a studio might seem amusing, but it highlights an important point, one that's supported by research: reaching out to experts in other disciplines is a proven way to find new solutions and boost innovation.
This strategy works, in part, by tapping different pools of knowledge. People in different fields aren't often held back by one industry's accepted solutions.
There are a variety of ways to maximize outside expertise, according to research. One approach is to seek out experts from a field that's different but still shares some key similarities. "There's great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level," researchers Marion Poetz, Nikolaus Franke and Martin Schreier wrote in Harvard Business Review.
In Bryant's case, dancing and basketball have a lot in common. While they have different goals, both require balance, careful footwork, stamina and concentration. Many of the movements are even the same, such as pivoting and jumping.
For the the most creative ideas, researchers suggest you seek out experts from distant fields. For instance, one study put carpenters, roofers and skaters together to brainstorm ideas to make more comfortable safety gear for all three industries. These groups were better at finding unique solutions for other fields than for their own, according to the researchers.
Bryant has also looked far outside his field for expertise and solutions. In 2008, Bryant called the composer and conductor John Williams, seeing parallels between how musicians and athletes perform independently, but work together to create something unified, he explained in an interview with The HoopsHype Podcast.
They eventually met and Williams told Bryant that when he hears something is off, he's learned to ask the musicians what went wrong even though he could readily give his own answer. Williams told Bryant that he'd found it was better to ask questions of his musicians since the answer he gets back will be better than the one he had.
This conversation was held after the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. Bryant said the talk helped him become a better leader and that he took some of Williams' ideas into training camp for the next season. "I felt like there were a lot of similarities between what [Williams] does and what I have to do on the basketball court," Bryant said. "And some of the things he said to me were fascinating."
Seeking outside expertise is one of many ways Bryant built his game "to have no holes," wrote Bryant. He wrote that he constantly studied teammates and opponents during games and workouts. He cast a critical eye to his own play as well, assessing his posture and stance when reviewing photos and tapes of his plays. "What separates great players from all-time great players is their ability to self-assess, diagnose weaknesses and turn those flaws into strengths."
Mostly, Bryant was not afraid to ask questions regardless of who he was with. "I was curious. I wanted to improve," he wrote in his recent book. "No matter the situation — game, practice vacation — I would fire away with question after question."
"My approach was that I'd rather risk embarrassment now than be embarrassed later, when I've won zero titles."
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