Learning zones - part 1: From preparation to flow
The idea of 'Learning Zones' is not necessarily new. Simply do a google search and you will be presented with many images of these zones with the common depiction being of three zones called; comfort, stretch and panic! However, what I am presenting, in this blog, is a new conceptualisation of learning zones and how they relate to motor skill acquisition. Indeed, given my own personal background in teaching skiing I will use some examples from this environment but the 'zones' work equally well with learning any sport and can also be applied more widely across other life domains. This blog is also the first of two with the latter (to be published later this month) going into more detail on how the learning zones relate to the stages of skill acquisition and more specifically 'The Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition' (Tate, 2018).
So, in this new presentation of learning zones there are four distinct zones; Preparation, Comfort, Stretch and Flow. These are illustrated in the picture below.
Why are 'learning zones' important?
Before looking at each of these zones, in turn, it is crucial to understand why the concept of learning zones is so important both from the learner's perspective and the teachers. Each zone plays a vital role in the learner's journey and while the zones are presented in an upwards linear progression it should be understood that the learner will move from one zone to the other in any given training session. While the ultimate goal is to move into the flow zone, (much more on the reasons for this in part 2!), there will be times within a training session where being in one of the other zones is both appropriate and useful.
From the learners perspective understanding that these zones exist, and actually experiencing them, allows the individual to trust the learning process. I use the word trust here, rather than comfortable, because learning can be fraught with a whole range of emotions and can hence be a frustrating process. It is suggested that real and robust learning takes time and that many of the so called hacks to faster learning are unsupported by research. This is covered really well in the book Range by David Epstein in chapter 4 - Learning Fast and Slow (2019). So, as a learner, knowing that the process of learning is not always going to be smooth and easy helps with being more open and mindful to new experiences, feelings and movements.
For the teacher, understanding the concept of learning zones provides structure to the sessions that they are delivering. However, this is not a rigid structure but rather an awareness of when it is appropriate to facilitate the conditions that allows the learner develop their performance within a particular zone. These 'conditions' will include the environment, the learner's available skills, their mental state and the appropriate level of challenge to match the aforementioned. Good teachers 'know' when each zone is appropriate for the learner and this undoubtedly comes through experience and a desire to understand each learner as an individual.
In the preparation zone the learner is 'getting ready' for the session ahead. As I mentioned at the outset of this blog using some skiing examples will help to illustrate what each zone is all about. So, on a typical day in Chamonix during the winter season I will meet my guests, at the bottom of the ski area and quite often in the cafe, prior to the start of the lesson. This is the ideal time to chat, get to know the guest(s) or catch up on news with returning guests. This helps to create a relaxed climate prior to the session starting. It is also an opportunity to 'goal set' clarifying exactly what the learner(s) hope to achieve both short term; during the session ahead and longer term; further sessions or indeed over the whole winter season. This is very much a learner and teacher partnership or learning contract and something that can be discussed further as we ride the first lift of the day. In this zone the learner is quite often taking on board new information and getting an understanding of what they are going to do and what is achievable in the session ahead.
In every training session it is important that the learner experiences periods of 'comfort' e.g. using the skills that they already have in an environment that is friendly. So, in the context of skiing, this means performing tasks that they have done before on terrain that is relatively easy. In an ideal world this would also mean that the snow conditions and weather are also favourable but it is not always possible to manage all of these variables. What this highlights, however, is the need for 'good decision making' by the teacher, a skill that is vital in any sports coaching session. The beginning of a session should always be in the comfort zone as this is part of the warm-up and revision of what they can already do/know. The comfort zone is essential for building confidence but in 'open skilled' sports such as skiing, where there are a large number of environmental variables, moving beyond the comfort zone is crucial for performance development. It should also be noted that too much time spent in the comfort zone can lead to boredom and reduced motivation due to the lack of appropriate challenge/skills balance.
The stretch zone could equally be called the challenge zone as this is where the performer challenges their available skills. This could be done by increasing the difficulty of the task (or drill) e.g. in athletics this might mean higher, faster or further depending on the event. In skiing it could be something like narrowing the corridor when performing linked turns or balancing against the outside ski for the whole turn having previously only done it through the last third of the turn. It could also relate to changing the 'speed' at which the task is executed; faster or slower, remembering one of my favourite sayings, "speed masks accuracy" (Tate, 2007).
Another way to stretch a learners' performance would be through an environmental change, which for skiing could be anything from steeper terrain, to more variable snow conditions or skiing in poor visibility. And in sports like climbing it could relate to a more difficult route.
However, from the teacher's perspective and again relating to the 'decision making' process it is advisable not to change too many variables when challenging your learners e.g., don't increase the difficulty of the task and make the environment more difficult at the same time!
Learners can also have their performance stretched by adding complexity to the execution of the skill. This is particularly important for open skilled sports like skiing where the environment is constantly changing (terrain, snow etc.) Varying the corridor, hourglasses, funnels, mixed radius turns etc. are all good skiing examples of tasks that create more variation and promote a more mindful learning approach (Langer, 1988). This also leads to the learners' attention being focused in such a way that it is not 'fixed' on one stimulus, but rather a more varied target of attention, so that every detail is noticed in the ever changing environment.
As touched upon earlier, in this post, the flow zone is a desirable goal for the learner not least because being in flow (mental state) is both enjoyable at the time and after the event. Experiencing flow is intrinsically rewarding and gives the performer a buzz. It can therefore be addictive meaning it is something that the athlete wants to experience again and again. However, unlike the previous three zones (preparation, comfort and stretch) flow is more elusive and there is no guarantee that the learner will enter the flow zone. The teacher's role here is to try and create the conditions that promote flow experiences through ensuring that the flow foundations are all in place e.g., Clear goals, Challenge-skills balance, Unambiguous feedback and Focused Attention (taken from the author's Masters Dissertation, The 10 dimensions of the proposed new Fluctuating Attention model of Flow). Indeed, this whole subject of facilitating flow has prompted the development of a new product for the coming winter called 'Find your Flow' which is available through BASS Chamonix & Megeve. This will allow participants to better understand all the elements of flow so that they can increase the likelihood of experiencing it themselves and (for teachers) being able to help others do the same.
For snowsport instructors, from any nation/organisation (BASI, APSI, CSIA, PSIA, NZSIA etc.), who are interested in reading more about 'learning' in the snow sports environment chapters 14 - 17 of the IASI Manual (Part 5 - How we Learn) are available to download for free from our Documents & Tools section of the Parallel Dreams Coaching web site. Please note that site registration is required.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow : The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: BasicBooks
Epstein, D. (2019). Range : How generalists triumph in a specialized world. Macmillan.
Langer, E. J. (1998). The power of mindful learning. Perseus Books.
Tate, D. (2018, June). Developing your skill with mindfulness and flow: The new diamond model of skill acquisition. Flowing with Mindfulness, 1–5. Retrieved from https://www.flowingwithmindfulness.com/articles
Tate, D. (2019). Dissertation for Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP): The 10 dimensions of the proposed new Fluctuating Attention model of Flow.
Tate, D. (2007). Parallel dreams alpine skiing: Taking your performance to new levels. Parallel Dreams Publishing.