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Concepts for Coaches #2: Zone of Proximal Development
How the goldilocks principle will change your coaching
One of the most frustrating challenges coaches deal with is the perception that their athletes aren't learning.
There are a lot of reasons that this breakdown in learning might be taking place, but there's one, in particular, that's regularly misunderstood. Essentially, we think that athletes should be able to learn whatever we teach them.
Reality is much more complicated.
Enter: the zone of proximal development. This isn't a cure-all for coaching, but it's a way of more accurately assessing what your athletes (or any performer, really) are ready for in their learning and helping to make that learning accessible.
Learning and the Goldilocks Principle
How many times has a practice task you've designed:
Asked an athlete to remember/do 3+ things.
Required a skill that hasn't been rehearsed recently.
Relied heavily on recall or past coaching experiences.
These features are common in a normal sports practice, yet the task design makes several assumptions about what the athlete is capable of. The task that you designed that meets these criteria is HARD!
We need to back up a step.
Before we teach anything, we need to ask: Is this task too easy, too hard, or just right?
Assess task difficulty
If you had to guess how many athletes could readily perform the task you're asking them to do, what percentage would be able to do it right away? What percentage would not be able to do it at all? What percentage would have to work hard, but could get there?
If too many can do it right away, you'll get boredom.
If not enough can do it at all, you'll get apathy or worse, withdrawal and quitting.
You want to get it just right.
Numerically, just right looks like 70-80% of your athletes needing to put in some hard work to get it done. For the other 20-30%, your attention can be put on building the skills the athletes need to join the larger group or extending the existing task to a slightly harder level for those who would excel right away.
Understand the Zone
Based on an accurate assessment of what your athletes are capable of right now, you can build the scaffolding and steps to what you'd ultimately like them to accomplish. This requires deliberate planning and sequentially introducing concepts and skills, revisiting those concepts and skills often and spaced appropriately, and regularly gauging your athletes' sense of competence in their performance.
For the Zone of Proximal Development to work for you, you have to regularly assess the real skill development of your athletes. If they're unable to do something you're asking them to do, it's highly unlikely that they just "don't get it" or "can't do it." It's much more likely that there's a gap between what they can do, and what you're asking them to do.
The Zone of Proximal Development is about making that gap bridgeable. By understanding what your athletes are capable of, and having a clear picture of the progression of where their skills should go, you can effectively design tasks that keep them engaged and challenged, which makes the learning and skill-building stickier.
Remember your role as a coach
Teaching new skills can be one of the most exciting or one of the most frustrating parts of coaching. Typically, it's frustrating for coaches who over-identify with the progress of their athletes - they take their athletes' failure to execute personally.
Your job isn't to make it so that everyone succeeds - your job is to put everyone in a position to be successful. The athlete needs to do the work.
As a coach, your role is to guide the player from their current ability level to the desired ability level. You can't do the learning and the work for them.
What you can do is provide clear, specific feedback about what the athlete needs to do to improve and reach the desired destination.
You're bridging the gap between where your athletes are and where they need to be, which is the essence of great coaching.
Are your tasks too hard, too easy, or just right?
How can you better scaffold the skills you'd like athletes to learn?