Go into the zone (of proximal development) in your coaching

The community aspect of physical activity is important for several reasons. Our sports communities provide support, reality checks, and useful information about appropriate behavior. And in particular, our community connections are also critically important to our actual learning.

Since I’ve been practicing Jiu Jitsu, from my very first, finest experiences until today, my teachers and training partners have helped me achieve more in partnership with them than I could achieve on my own. Nowadays, for less experienced practitioners, I do what my teachers have always done for me: use my knowledge to make them successful. For example, let’s say we drilled a triangle sequence in the tech part of the lesson. If my partner has significantly less experience than me during the rolling part, I can purposefully put myself into a situation where he can perform the techniques that we worked on earlier in class.

Sometimes the athlete sees the opening right away and takes advantage of it, sometimes I just ask, “What do you see here?” Does the trick, and sometimes it requires an open comment like, “This is where you can do the techniques we worked on today “, Accompanied by verbal cues at every step. So, depending on the athlete’s needs, I can provide assistance to help him achieve more than he would be able to without this help.

In learning theory, the role I play in this scenario is called the “Knowing Other” or “More Capable Other” and the mental and physical space in which the athlete and I interact is called the “Proximal Development Zone.” . ”In his seminal 1978 book Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, psychologist Lev Vygotsky defines ZPD (as it is known by educationalists) as “The gap between actual level of development, determined by independent problem-solving, and the level of potential development, determined by problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

So what’s that “so what” here? That probably sounds like what many of us are already doing as trainers and teachers, doesn’t it? We help our athletes and students so that they can do more with our support than they would otherwise be able to do.

Well, how many of you have had a coach-athlete interaction that went something like this: “Okay, Athlete X. I’ll walk you through this sequence of movements. Let’s start by placing your left foot on your partner’s hip. No, your left foot. Your LEFT foot. Left foot. No, your LEFT FOOT. No, YOUR left foot. Good relax I’ll take your left foot and place it where it belongs. AU! I know you didn’t mean to kick me It’s OK. Let’s take five. “

Sometimes, I hate to admit, I shook my head after such an encounter and wondered what on earth was going on with the athlete. Well the answer is: nothing. What is wrong is what I am asking of the athlete. It turns out that Brazilian jiu-jitsu is very demanding on a cognitive, neurological, muscular and emotional level, especially for beginners right zone with them.

When I’ve been teaching or coaching lately, the concepts of ZPD and the more knowledgeable / capable others have helped me understand that sometimes I can ask too much of someone even if I think I’m scaffolding them effectively (another term, the one with learning theory with the ZPD). Maybe they’re just not in that particular zone yet. That is neither good nor bad. It’s just useful information that can help me tailor my coaching to better prepare athletes for success.

Understanding the learning process in this way helps me as a coach in several ways. First, it allows me to be more patient than I otherwise could because I understand how it works. I know that the athlete is not dull and certainly not uncoachable. Second, it gives me useful feedback on how I can more effectively adjust my expectations and wishes for the athlete towards a more successful result. I can reposition the ZPD to make sure the athlete is sitting right in it. Finally, it reminds me of the nature of socially effective learning; If we want to make sure we are helping our athletes do more than they believe, we must believe it for them first and demonstrate that belief in every interaction with them.

How can you implement the ZPD concept for you, be it as a trainer or as an athlete? Post your observations in comments.

Photo 1 courtesy of Shutterstock.

BJJ pPhoto courtesy of David Brown Photography.

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