When it comes to learning, development or performance, what is ‘The Zone’? In this article, motivational researcher and rugby coach, Jonny McMurtry shares some ideas as to how we can help athletes get into the zone.

Driven by my on-going reviews of my current research and listening Coach Reed Maltbie’s recent podcast regarding Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximial Development, I wanted to look deeper into the theory, applying ideas against recent articles and incidents in the coaching world to highlight my perceived importance to this matter.

Firstly, what is the Zone of Proximal Development and how can it be applied to sporting environments or age-grade learning? Developed by psychologist and social constructivist Lev Vygotsky, ZPD refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner; thus, the term “proximal” refers those skills that the learner is “close” to mastering. Vygotsky believed that when a student or athlete is in the zone of proximal development for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task.


Vygotsky’s often-quoted definition of zone of proximal development is:

“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).”

So where do we as coaches, teachers or leaders fit into this concept and assist our athletes or learners get into and passed this described zone? To assist a person to move through the zone of proximal development, coaches are encouraged to take on the role of more knowledgeable other (MKO) and assist the learning process. I believe coaches as a recognised more capable other to the athlete should engage in contextual and collaborative learning relationships to ensure optimal psychological functioning for maximal sporting performance. However, being a more knowledgeable other refers less about title or stature; more so being someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept; never underestimate the power of peer-led practice or collaborative learning.

I believe coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions. As Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed, creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability. I feel the Zone of Proximal Development is an area that would be successfully applicable to positive youth development and specialising athletes in team sports such as soccer or rugby union. This theory encourages players to ask questions and adopt sub routines as part of their practice in development of mastery; therefore, the players are taking over the structure of tasks and practice while acquiring performance or transfer of performance.

This methodology allows coaches to act as mentors, supporting players to develop meta cognitive skills where the athletes are aware of and take responsibility of appropriate practices and thinking strategies. This supports the ideas of learning being a series of episodes; scaffolding, as developed by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) was defined as:

“A process that enables a child or novice to solve a task or achieve a goal that would be beyond his unassisted efforts. 
(Coaches should) control those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capability, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence”

Scaffolding is a key feature of effective teaching or coaching in my opinion, where the coach continually adjusts the level of his or her help in response to the learner’s level of performance (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). On the sports field or classroom, scaffolding can include modelling a skill, providing hints or cues, and adapting activities through ideas such as Constraint Led Approach learning. Scaffolding can not only produce immediate results but can also instil the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future, a key marker for age grade coaches in all levels of development.

These studied theories could be supported by Entwistle and Smith’s research (2002); this allows an athlete to explore personal understanding of subject or sport in question, assisted with relevant, timely and challenging feedback from coach or mentor. These theories promote the ideas of both learner/athlete and educator/coach to act, reflect, evaluate, plan and experiment prior to acting and starting the cycle over again. These processes offer both players and coaches security to adopt and test skills in preparation for competitive environment, understanding that all involved parties can reflect and plan new strategies if required. As opposed to a coach led or directive approach, it offers players autonomy to internally understand sport expectations and how they may offer new solutions or scenarios to develop mastery approach or elite status.

Therefore, coaches recognised as the MKO should structure practice environments and offer timely feedback to allow players to identify and build knowledge. Another aspect worth considering or thinking about is adopted knowledge, where players can work independently to analyse developed ideas and skills with last stage being evaluating learning. Through this adopted approach, they could identify applicable monitoring, review and learning processes such as self or peer review or socio-constructivist theory, where learning occurs in social groups through ongoing interactions between relevant people. This method positions coaches as mentors where they shift from knowledge expert for athlete as in early stages of development to learning manager or facilitator (Carnell and Lodge, 2002), offering constructive feedback for the player to investigate further.

An interesting example from the weekend would be Pep Guardiola’s “lecture” to Raheem Sterling during the post-match celebrations after their 6-0 FA Cup win . Afterwards, Sterling made light of the conversation, as he jokingly wrote on Twitter; “He just said I shouldn’t have tried to steal that first goal.” Personally, I perceived it as an elite coach offering his young player relevant, timely and challenging feedback (reported as for both technical matters and team values), viewed as such by the listening intent by Sterling, while accompanied by a coach’s embrace and seemingly sharing a joke towards the end of exchange. This interaction for me ticks all of Jowett’s research, looking at 3+1 C’s (closeness, commitment, complementary and coordination) identified as critical for successful coach-athlete relationships.

Like suggested, Vygotsky’s theories can also assist collaborative learning, a theory which supports ideas that group members can have different levels of ability and more advanced peers can help less advanced members operate within their zone of proximal development. Like previously mentioned, I believe breaking the drill based, linear forms of coaching methodologies while allowing for and embracing collaborative exploration of talents and interests within sports or practice designs has become critical for coaching the age grade athletes of today. The development & growth of compassionate and democratic environments through autonomy supportive behaviours, athlete centred practices plus a more organic view towards development and methods of skill acquisition shall allow athletes to maintain engagement and collectively develop diverse talents, according to their interests and current skill levels.

The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them.

Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sport setting”. Coaching should be recognised as a dynamic educational relationship, where the coach can satisfy player’s goals and development but both sides have an investment of will capital, where human initiative and intentionality are both dedicated to show commitment towards goals and relationships.

I believe that introducing ideas such as Vygotsky’s ZPD and Wood, Bruner and Ross’ scaffolding techniques can motivate modern day athletes by offering autonomy supportive practices and offering engagement and drive through understanding and supporting individual’s intrinsic motivations.

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