Zone of Proximal Development by Ian French

A key challenge when teaching your team is how do you gauge the level of your sessions in order to see the most improvement in the shortest time. The Zone of Proximal Development is a coaching concept you can use to analyse and improve your sessions when you are teaching new things.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

A theory that players learn quickest when the difficulty of the task is gauged so that it is something more difficult than they can already do, but not so difficult that they can only fail at it. Players need to be stretched with challenges that are just beyond their current level, but not too far beyond it. With guidance and support, they can break past the bonds of their current ability level.

Learning Zone Level of Task Results
Comfort Zone Task Too Easy Not only will this not improve your players, but it could also bore them
Flow Zone Task is at current ability level This will be a satisfying experience but if not stretching your players then they won’t progress past this level.
However, during a performance phase of the season, this is where you want to be
Zone of Proximal Development Task is difficult but achievable with support Optimal use of training time, most effective way to learn
Improbable Zone Task is too difficult to achieve at any level of consistency. Success is mostly luck. Not only will this not improve your players, but it can discourage them

How to recognise the different zones

These are some common signs that players are NOT in the Zone of Proximal Development:

  • Players looking bored/getting distracted; an indication that there isn’t enough challenge
  • Lots of turnovers; an indication that there is too much challenge
  • Lots of sloppy or uncharacteristic mistakes; this can be a sign there isn’t enough challenge, players are bored and not focused. On the opposite end it can be because there is too much for them to process in what you are doing.
  • Everything goes perfectly; a lack of mistakes might indicate there is not enough challenge

These are signs that you are working in the Zone of Proximal Development:

  • Players are focused
  • Mistakes are happening but not on every rep
  • Level of mistakes reduces as players become more comfortable with the challenge
  • Level of mistakes reduces as you offer support and guidance

How to coach using the Zone of Proximal Development

Your role in the Zone of Proximal Development is that of the “more knowledgeable other”. You want to assist your players to rise to the level of the extra challenge and be able to overcome it. Your major tools to achieve this are:

Progressions and Regressions

When you’re implementing this approach, it is very hard to gauge perfectly the first time what will be the right level of extra challenge.
Your first step is often to adjust what you’re doing to tweak the level of challenge and allow your players a chance to figure it out for themselves.

Questioning

Guiding a player or the group towards solving the problem by asking open questions that will help them think about the issues they are facing.

Direct Instruction

Giving a player or the group a concrete step or technique they should attempt to implement.

Example

For example, imagine your team has worked on 1v1 cutting and they’re now pretty good at it. You now want them to be able to chain these cuts which is naturally more difficult because the spacing and timing are different.

Option 1: Drill

You set up a drill with a handler and a pair of cutters and defenders downfield. The goal is for one cutter to get the disc and then throw a completion to the next. It doesn’t start well. The second cutters just sprint in one direction after the first cutter catches the disc, and nobody is adjusting their position in anticipation of where the first catch might happen.

Regressions

You might consider making the first cut uncontested, so that there is more certainly about where the catch will happen and therefore make it easier for the second cutter to start figuring out where and when they should initiate the next cut from

Questioning

Ask the cutters (individually or collectively) how they can adjust their position based on different disc positions

Direct Instruction

Give the cutters (individually or collectively) an instruction to help them make a better cut e.g. ask them to move across the pitch to set up their cut before the first cutter catches the disc

Option 2: Constrained Game

You set up a 5v5 game on a relatively large pitch for 5v5. The constraint here is that the offence gets a bonus point for each cutter-cutter completion.

It doesn’t start well. Knowing there is a bonus point on offer for a completion, all the players not on the disc sprint straight at it each time there’s a throw downfield!

Regressions

Create a pairing system for the offence where if Cutter A throws it to Cutter B then you get the bonus point – but not if they throw it to Cutter C or Handler D. This will reduce the panic and chaos of the cutters as there will be certainty as to who should make the next cut.

Questioning

Ask the cutters (individually or collectively) how they can organise downfield to ensure there is only one option at a time.

Direct Instruction

Give the cutters (individually or collectively) an instruction to help them understand who is next e.g. it should be the nearest cutter on the breakside that cuts

Conclusion

Finding the best level of training to stretch your players is a key component of session design. It’s difficult to get right so having a consistent framework to help you write and review sessions is important. The Zone of Proximal Development is a method I have used for over a decade to run good practices in many different environments. The tips above should give you a good start, but it takes practice to get right.

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