Simply playing a sport is not always a great way to develop as an athlete. In order to improve, we need to not only play the game, but also engage in activities designed for improvement. This could include practicing drills that target specific skills and playing modified games to advance our understanding of different aspects of the game. Also critical are soliciting and receiving feedback and reflecting. These are examples of time spent in the Learning Zone.

Learning vs Performance RGB small

In the Learning Zone, the athlete must focus on a level of competence beyond that already mastered, which means there will be a higher level of challenge and more mistakes, feedback and analysis than during the game or when preparing to perform.  Of course, after the game, feedback and analysis of the performance are also very valuable, which again is a Learning Zone.  This may all sound logical, but upon reflection, coaches and players are often stuck in the Performance Zone –focused on what they know and trying to minimize mistakes– even during practice, when they need to be in the Learning Zone. Although practice should obviously be a time when improvement is the aim, the focus is too often performance, which limits improvement.

Here are some factors that drive athletes towards the Performance Zone when they would gain greater results by being in the Learning Zone.

The Purpose of Practice – “performed well in practice”

Doing an internet search for the phrase “performed well in practice” generates an astounding number of quotes with these exact words spoken by coaches. When considering the learning and performance zones, what message is actually being conveyed by this phrase?

If players sense that practice is a situation where they are being judged for flawlessness and, for example, can earn selection by avoiding mistakes, are they going to be drawn into a Learning Zone?  Instead, they are more likely to see practice as a place to prove their abilities rather than improve them.  It is helpful to be explicit with players about practice, trials and matches and openly differentiate the expectations for each. Otherwise, players may feel that if we get upset at their taking an unnecessary risk during a game, we’ll also get upset if they do the same in practice, for example.  Of course, there will be times when matches are about practice, such as when trying out new tactics. There will also be practices where we are testing and training performance skills, thus adding a consequence to performance-type success and failure. The key point is that the players must clearly understand the expectations of each situation, and there must be congruence between coaches’ expectations, language, and behavior.

After athletes complete a practice session, the question at the end should not be “How did you do?” but rather “What did you learn or what could you improve upon?” A coaches’ goal should be to report that their athletes “progressed well in practice” rather than “performed well in practice.”

The Physical Space

cricket training mindset works briceno firth

This picture is of the indoor cricket centre in Guernsey. This is where the cricketers practice, from 7-year-olds up to the national team. At the back you’ll note the viewing gallery, which is next to the bar and café, enabling everyone to watch and get a good view of the hall and nets.

Take the example of an 11-year-old in a practice session at this cricket centre. Would the presence of a crowd be conducive to creating learning behaviors such as focusing on what is challenging, expecting mistakes? Is this environment enabling players to stay in the Learning Zone or is it pushing them into a performance frame of mind?

If developing the mental skills necessary to perform under pressure, practicing in front of a crowd of people could be great.  However, being explicit with the players beforehand about the reason for people watching, that is to practice performing in front of an audience, is vital. Coaches can then support players/athletes to learn and develop the coping strategies required to perform in front of a crowd. This is creating an environment in which athletes are explicitly learning to cope with being in a Performance Zone.  But the space, and the framing of the space, must also be conducive to practicing other new skills as well.

A stage is for a performance. It is necessary to ensure learning environments are not a stage where people are driven to perform, either for spectators or their coaches.

Culture – The Fixed or Growth Mindset

Understanding the culture of an organization and the mindsets of its leaders is also important when considering learning and performance. We know that people can have different mindsets about different things and in different settings. In sports, athletes and coaches tend to have more of a growth mindset about technical skills and the components of fitness (strength, speed, flexibility) than they do about aspects like leadership, decision-making and mental toughness.

When a coach holds a fixed mindset about a certain attribute, his or her behavior can reflect the identification of that attribute in others rather than the development of it.  After all, if one believes that a particular ability is fixed, why spend time trying to improve it? The focus becomes demonstrating one’s competence rather than developing it.

We must also consider the mindset of the athlete. A coach may have a growth mindset about the ability of soccer players to use both feet equally well, but if the player has a fixed mindset about her ability with the weaker foot, then she is unlikely to spend time in the Learning Zone with respect to that ability.  Of course, an essential role of the coach should be to help players foster growth mindsets about their abilities, so that they spend time developing those abilities.

Questions for coaches to consider:

  • Do you believe what you value can be developed? Are you trying to only identify those attributes or also cultivate them?
  • Are you being clear about when players should focus on improvement, working on skills they haven’t yet mastered yet, versus when they should focus on performance, focused on doing what they know best?
  • How do your players feel at practice? Do they feel the need to perform or do they know that practice is about learning and improvement?  Are they clear with one another such that their language promotes the different desired behaviors in each other?
  • As a coach do you spend any time in the Learning Zone?  How do you go about it?  Do you make that visible to athletes to encourage them to emulate you in this respect?

Things to do to create healthy Learning Zones:

  • Through everything we say and do, build growth mindset beliefs that abilities can be developed and goals can be achieved.
  • Help athletes understand the difference between the Learning Zone and the Performance Zone, so that they understand the different behaviors required in each and can support one another differently in these zones.  Use information from performances to inform Learning Zone activities.
  • Share regular forward-focused, non-judgemental feedback.  Ensure players understand where they are, where they are aiming and the incremental steps to achieve the learning goals.
  • Track learning to demonstrate improvement over time and focus on achieving personal bests.
  • Teach players how to engage in effective deliberate practice.
  • Build shared understanding between the coach and the individual players around appropriate challenge. Try using a challenge-o-meter to facilitate this discussion and get players to share feedback on how challenged they are by different things.
  • Model learning behaviors yourself to communicate that everyone in the team is a learner.

Performance and learning are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary.  Spending high quality time in the Learning Zone enables athletes and teams to achieve higher performances.  Arie de Gues said, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”  Our challenge as coaches is to facilitate the climate and clarity necessary to realize this ability.

To share the Learning and Performance Zones framework with your team, share this article or watch Eduardo’s recent TED talk on the topic: How to get better at the things you care about, and start a conversation.

Jeremy Frith is an Education Development Officer for Growth Mindset with the States of Guernsey Education Services, Performance Director for Guernsey Sports Commission and author of The Growth Mindset Coaching Kit.

Eduardo Briceño is the Co-Founder & CEO of Mindset Works.  He writes and speaks regularly about growth mindset and improvement.