The Spiraling Learning Process: Practicing on the Edge

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2012.

Learning spirals. We tend to view learning as a linear process: An athlete practices and gets incrementally better at performing the skill. The view is captured by coachisms like “perfect practice makes perfect.” The goal of practice, however, is improvement, not perfection, and these differ.

Author Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code) described three practice zones on his blog: The comfort zone, thrash zone, and sweet spot. The comfort zone is perfect practice: The athlete operates firmly within his or her current abilities. When we perform, we strive to perform within our comfort zone to maximize performance. However, practicing in our comfort zone is self-limiting.

In the thrash zone, according to Coyle, the athlete fails more than half of the time. Coyle attributes success in the trash zone to luck; however, more accurately or more broadly, the thrash zone is the initial learning period when one tries something new. This is the spiral. When learning a skill, we move from the comfort zone to the thrash zone to the sweet spot as we improve the performance of a skill. If learning were linear, and practice was perfect, we would avoid these periods of failure, but our improvement would be minimal.

Using ball handling as an example, if I practice a crossover dribble, I start at speed 1 with the ball around waist-high. However, to be an excellent ball handler, I need to be able to make the move at a much faster speed with the ball just over my shoelaces. I practice and practice and reduce errors as I make the move.

By reducing errors, I improve my performance, and I move from the trash zone, to the sweet spot to the comfort zone. However, my performance is not optimal: The move remains too high and too slow for optimal performance. In a sense, I have improved a sub-optimal skill by reducing errors, not improving my speed or posture.

If I remain in my comfort zone, and engage in perfect practice, I will make slight improvements to this sub-optimal skill, but I will never perform optimally. Perfect practice with a sub-optimal skill performance – a dribble that is too slow and too high – will never lead to optimal skill performance – a low, quick dribble.

To move toward an optimal skill performance, I have to leave my comfort zone. I practice at the edge of my abilities. Depending on how far I push myself, I may move to the trash zone (big jump in speed and posture), where mistakes are frequent, or I may practice in the sweet spot (smaller jump in speed or posture), where my effort is maximal, I succeed 60% to 80% of the time, and I learn from my mistakes.

To practice at the edge of my ability, I practice at a faster speed (Speed 2), which causes more mistakes. I practice and practice with frequent mistakes, and eventually I adapt to Speed 2 and make fewer mistakes. Soon, Speed 2 becomes my comfort zone and performing at Speed 2 with the same technique fails to lead to additional improvement.

Now that Speed 2 is my comfort zone, to practice on the edge of my abilities, I lower my dribble to knee-high. The lowered dribble causes more mistakes. I practice and practice, and eventually I adapt to the lowered dribble at Speed 2. This becomes my new comfort zone. Therefore, to improve, I have to practice on the edge, either by lowering the dribble further or increasing the speed of the move. I continue this spiral, ending each progression faster, lower, and more precise than before, but going through an error-filled stage each time that I attempt to move toward a more optimal performance. This learning spiral is the old adage: take one step backward to move two steps forward. The backward step is the increased error rate due to the increased speed or precision (lowered stance).

The majority of my practice time should occur in the sweet spot. However, if I develop a mindset that fears mistakes or if I feel external pressure to perform, I may remain in the comfort zone and limit my improvement. When I play a game, my goal is to play within my comfort zone. Of course, my opponent’s goal is to move me beyond my comfort zone to induce mistakes and/or a lack of confidence. If my comfort zone is Speed 1, and defensive pressure forces me to move at Speed 2, I am likely to make more errors. If the focus is performance, these errors will be viewed negatively; if the focus is learning, these mistakes provide a learning experience and show me the path to a more optimal performance level.

When youth sports grow too competitive, too early, young children get stuck in their comfort zones. Rather than experimenting and trying new things, they attempt to limit their errors. While limiting errors may improve short-term performance, this approach stifles learning: Children master sub-optimal skills.

In the video below, soccer coach Larry Paul differentiates between an educative environment and a training environment. An educative environment builds and expands options, while a training environment reduces options. A performance environment is often a training environment, as the coach limits a player’s options to reduce mistakes and improve the opportunity to win.

For example, a soccer coach instructs his fullback to boot the ball down field and away from danger rather than encouraging the player to find a teammate and pass out of the back. A learning environment is a training environment, as a coach encourages the fullback to explore different options rather than blindly kicking the ball as far as possible from goal.

By trying different options, the potential for a mistake is greater: A pass could be intercepted or unanticipated by a teammate, and the opponent could be gifted a goal. In the short term – the immediate game – the mistake could be catastrophic to the team’s opportunity to win. However, in the long term, the mistake provides a learning opportunity.

Because performance and learning are not identical, the environment has a great effect on the players’ development. To grow as a player, a player must risk mistakes and practice in the sweet spot. However, the environment created by a coach or parents may consciously or subconsciously encourage the player to play and practice in his comfort zone, limiting his learning. A fullback instructed to boot the ball down field may improve the power of his kicks marginally, but he will never improve his passing out of tight spaces by booting the ball. His long-term growth is stunted for the short-term result.

Allowing players to make and learn from mistakes is a gift that parents and coaches can give to young players. Rather than focusing on performance, the coach and parents can focus on learning and encourage the spiral growth by keeping players in the sweet spot and not allowing them to persist in the comfort zone. Some time in the comfort zone is important, as success helps to breed confidence. However, reaching the comfort zone – perfection – is not the ultimate goal. Instead, players need to continue the learning spiral and move toward a more optimal performance of the skill.

 By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
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