Learning zones - part 2: Mapping learning zones onto the Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition

I recently presented the idea of a new conceptualisation of 'Learning Zones' in part 1 and this subsequent blog post takes the ideas further by discussing more deeply how these learning zones map across to the Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition (DMSA).


The Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition was introduced in my June, 2018 article and has been endorsed by the Irish Association of Snowsports Instructors (IASI) as an integral part of their teaching and learning methodology. Chapter 14 of the Association's manual explains the model and it was also a key part of the Irish Interski Team's presentation at the recent congress in Pamporovo, Bulgaria last March. As a reminder the DMSA is shown below in Figure 1:

Figure 1

Learning Zones and Skill Acquisition

As I mentioned in part 1 the concept of 'Learning Zones' provides a structure (albeit a flexible one) for training sessions and is a particularly useful tool for the teacher to use. And it is this teaching tool that can be integrated with the DMSA. Figure 2 below illustrates this:

Figure 2

What follows is an explanation of how these stages/zones work together in terms of skill development and learning. While the model above (Figure 2) provides a neat interpretation of how skill development and learning zones integrate it would be wrong to think that these stages/zones are completely separate from each other, or that they are linear in the sense that the learner automatically moves in one direction from knowledge/preparation towards flow. In reality, the learner will constantly move between one stage/zone and the other, particularly around the movements stage/comfort zone and the performance stage/stretch zone. And, it is perhaps the interplay between these crucial 'middle' stages/zones that is most interesting, not least because they are completely within the learners and teachers control to manipulate. For this reason the explanation that ensues is not broken down into each stage/zone but rather discusses some of the key aspects and implications for both the learner and teacher.


Perceived conflict

To an extent there might appear to be a 'conflict' between the idea that being in the comfort zone means practising what can already be done in an environment that is friendly, yet in order to develop performance and learn new movement patterns (motor learning) the learner needs to be challenged? Perhaps the answer lies in the degree and type of challenge. For example, in more open skilled sports this means that initial learning of movements (challenge) happens in an environment that is controlled (comfort) so that repetition is relatively easy, allowing for accuracy to be developed. And because the environment is controlled/friendly the challenge comes, not only from learning something new, but also by varying how the movements are executed. This 'variation' will include the speed of the movement, the range (amount) of movement and the timing. In skiing, this could mean experimenting with how the steering elements (edge/pressure/rotation) are applied and blended in a parallel turn while remaining on the same terrain for several runs.



Practice, practice, practice

Practice is a key element across both comfort and stretch zones in order to develop sound movement patterns that can then be tested in the performance stage. However, the structure of practice will vary depending on the specific goal(s) of the session. In my blog about the Snowsport Scotland Summit (September 2019) I highlighted how, in Dr. Tony Westbury's keynote on 'Decision Making Under Pressure', he talked about the need to set up practices that stress people to the point where things break down. This very much fits with the idea that 'practice' in the stretch zone is all about testing and stressing the learner's performance so that there is a certain amount of learning by trial and error, which will ultimately result in more robust learning through expansion of how the movements are applied in different situations (thus creating more variation), while in the comfort zone it is all about developing accuracy of movements through repetition.


Statements like 'practice makes perfect' are very misleading because they say nothing about the quality of that practice. Simply doing hours and hours of practice without clear goals, intrinsic and extrinsic feedback etc. will not be very productive. My article on purposeful practice (Tate, 2017b) covers both purposeful and deliberate practice in some detail including the elements required to move towards mastery. Figure 3, below, is the 'model' that I developed to illustrate effective practice and is based on Ericsson and Pool's (2016) descriptions from their book Peak: Secrets of the New Science of Expertise.


It is also worth touching on the talent vs. practice debate at this point (with a certain amount of trepidation given how it could open up a can of worms!). But, if you take a look at the video below of the Swiss Snow Demo Team performing at Interski 2019, in Pamporovo (who, in my view, were the best team in terms of combining synchronicity with high end performance) you could easily be sucked into the idea that they are just so talented that their skill is beyond the reach of mere mortals.



However, lets back up a little and examine this a little more carefully. Every year Swiss Snowsports hold an event called "The Swiss Snow Happening" which brings together snowsport instructors from ski schools all over Switzerland to take part in a variety of snowsports events, with one of the major ones being synchro skiing competitions. In effect, they have regular inter snowsport school synchro competitions. Therefore, they have the key ingredients of success: opportunity combined with quality practice, a sentiment echoed by Matthew Syed in his bestselling book Bounce. So, practice is essential for successful skill development, but more importantly, it is the quality and structure of that practice that determine success. And included within the structure of practice is where the learner places their attention, or indeed how the teacher sets up the practice with the phrases and descriptions that they use for each task.


BEE Focused

There is a growing body of research evidence that suggests using an external focus (EF) of attention not only enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency, but that it can even speed up the learning process itself (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2010). Furthermore, the suggestion is that by using an EF rather than an internal focus (IF) of attention, that the attention itself will be more effortless helping to create flow zone conditions and potentially flow state for the learner/performer. To learn more about effortful and effortless attention see my June, 2017 article, Focus Your Attention.


But, how exactly are EF and IF of attention defined? From my background in skiing and ski teaching I have always associated technical aspects like edge/pressure/rotation, body management etc. as being inputs (or internal focuses), while tactical aspects like corridor widths for turn shape and line being outputs (or external focuses). But my thinking has changed or rather evolved...


So, let me introduce the idea of BEE Focused with the BEE acronym being Body, Equipment, Environment. The body and its movements represent the learner's internal focus of attention. Both the effect of those movements on the equipment being used, and the equipments interaction or impact on the environment are external focuses. So keeping with the skiing example, just now, and looking at a component of 'steering a turn': leg/foot turning would be an IF; the skis tips being deflected across the path of travel would be the movements effect on the equipment (skis - an EF); and the resultant skidding through the turns the interaction of the equipment with the environment (snow - an EF). In golf the IF could be the swing of the arms (body), with the EF focuses being the swing of the club (equipment) and the path or flight of the ball (environment).



While such a distinction may seem unimportant, (particularly between the bodies movements and the equipment), Wulf and Lewthwaite's research results, across a range of sports/activities, indicated that this distinction was very important in terms of measuring accuracy, speed, amplitude, frequency and velocity (depending on the specific activity).


Linking back to the DMSA and Learning Zones what this research suggests is that during the movements (motor learning) stage of skill acquisition, the learners focus of attention will be predominantly a mixture of IF (Body) and EF (Equipment), while during the performance stage that focus should be more on equipment and environment (both external focuses of attention). While the suggestion is that an EF is better that an IF my own view is that during motor learning there is nothing wrong with having an IF of attention as long as there is a clear link to the movements effect on both the equipment and environment. There is no doubt that learners will use more of their available attentional resources on the body and equipment when learning new motor patterns and will have less attention left over for the wider environment. This reinforces why, as teachers, it is better to keep learners in their comfort zone (easier environment) when learning new skills. As the skills become 'learned' attention can increasingly move to the external focuses with the environment focus leading to more effortless attention and the potential for entering a flow state. The teachers role, therefore, is not only to challenge the learned skills (performance/stretch zone), but to set up tasks that lend themselves to an external (environment) focus, and that are so engaging there is a loss of self-consciousness and action & awareness merge (flow zone).


The importance of the DMSA shape

An important characteristic of the Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition is its diamond shape. Why? Because during the knowledge and movements stages, and 'most of' the performance stage, there is an expansion of knowledge and skills and their application. This means that both 'range' and 'breadth' are being developed before narrowing both attentional focus and the selection of appropriate skills/movements in order to 'specialise' on the specific task. Hence, there are parallels here to be drawn with David Epstein's 2019 book: Range, where he talks about generalising first and then specialising! And while he may be talking about the wider world of work domains nonetheless, the diamond model through its concept and shape fits with the idea of first developing a range and breadth of skills from which the performer can then select in order to specialise. And using the concept of Learning Zones can assist the teacher with ensuring that the learner does develop an appropriate range of skills. Furthermore, this idea can work both within a specific sport or be applied to the idea of participating in a number of complimentary sports in order to develop a breadth of skills before specialising in one particular sport.


Why strive for Flow?

One of the most interesting aspects of 'flow' is that it has after affects - in a good way! So, not only is flow something that is quite often pleasurable at the time (during the activity), but even more often people, who have been interviewed, report feeling a buzz and sense of achievement after the event (Csiksgentmihalyi, 1997). In fact, it is suggested that those who experience flow, as part of the skill acquisition process, will enhance their learning and develop a stronger self-concept.


However, being in flow 'all the time' when participating in sports (or any other walk of life) is neither realistic or desirable. After all, it is possible to perform at your best and not be in flow, but it will be a more mentally effortful experience. And due to the narrowing of attention and 'zoning in' associated with flow, being in that state 'all the time' would potentially rob the learner of being mindful during the learning process and noticing all the detail and nuances along the way (Langer, 1998). So, like many things in life, it is about balance. Being in the Flow Zone is definitely something to strive for, but being in the other zones is equally important.


To Find Your Flow this winter visit the BASS Chamonix website.


References

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.

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. London: The Bodley Head.

Langer, E. J. (1998). The power of mindful learning. Perseus Books.

Syed, M. (2011). Bounce : The myth of talent and the power of practice. London: Fourth Estate.

Tate, D. (2017a, June). Lesson 1 - Focus your attention. Flowing with Mindfulness, 1–4. Retrieved from https://www.flowingwithmindfulness.com/articles

Tate, D. (2017b, July). Lesson 2: Purposeful practice. Flowing with Mindfulness, 1–5. Retrieved from https://www.flowingwithmindfulness.com/articles

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

Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2010). Effortless motor learning?: An external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency. In B. Bruya (Ed.), Effortless attention : A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action (pp. 75–101). Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

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