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  • Brian Pendergast

Learning Zone vs. Performance Zone

As part of the B Sports programming, our athletes read short articles and watch clips that aim to develop their mental and emotional skillsets. As athletes, this is an important, yet often overlooked aspect of athletic development. One clip our athletes watch is a TED Talk from Eduardo Briceño entitled “How to Get Better at the Things You Care About.” In this video, Mr. Briceño aims to explain why we don’t always get much better at the things we are working towards, even though we are trying our best and spending a lot of time on them. To understand why time spent on a task doesn’t always equate to increased performance, we need to take a closer look at what he explains is the Learning Zone and the Performance Zone, and how spending time in each zone is crucial if we want to improve.

The Learning Zone and the Performance Zone

Briceño states that the most efficient people and teams understand that there is a Learning Zone and a Performance Zone. There are marked differences between the two zones.

In the Learning Zone, the goal is to learn and concentrate on the skills that have not yet been mastered. Mistakes are to be expected in this zone. Learning is all about focusing on growth to improve future performance. The Learning Zone also needs to consist of low-stake situations as mistakes in these types of environments are no big deal.

Briceño believes that three things need to happen in order for someone to be in the Learning Zone. They are:

1. Belief (I can improve)

2. Time and effort (I want to improve)

3. Deliberate practice (I know how to improve)

Time spent on a task is one thing, while focused, deliberate practice spent on a task is entirely something else. Deliberate practice leads to improvement. This sort of practice requires a series of different elements which include:

· Breaking down abilities into skills or subskills

· Pushing just beyond your comfort zone

· Actively seeking frequent feedback and reflection

· Having someone coach/progress your practice

Conversely, in the Performance Zone, the goal is on execution with a concentration on the skills already mastered. Mistakes are minimized in this zone. This is the place where we get things done as our practiced skills are applied. We also gain information or feedback on what needs to be worked on in the Performance Zone. By thoroughly reflecting upon what occurs in the Performance Zone, we have feedback on how well we’ve mastered our skills so we know what needs to be practiced more.

It’s important that both zones be used, but the key is about knowing when. If we spend too much or all of the time in the Performance Zone, we hinder our growth and therefore, our performance. We don’t spend time to work on the skills that we lack in order to increase or improve our performance. On the other hand, too much time in the Learning Zone is also detrimental. We have no way to test, and therefore gain feedback, of how our practicing is going. It’s quite possible that our Learning Zone becomes a place where we stay in our comfort zone, only doing what we know and practicing the skills we’ve already mastered, thus restricting our ability to move forward.

Unfortunately, many of the environments we are in today, especially social environments, are high-stakes. In school, homework, which is supposed to be part of the Learning Zone, is graded. This turns these assignments into Performance Zone “tests.” Rather, teachers should take all the skills students worked on or learned during the Learning Zone portion of the unit and apply them to a quiz or test; representing a grade or time in the Performance Zone. The same situation can arise at work, where we are more comfortable staying within our comfort zone to avoid making any mistakes and getting reprimanded. We will never try something new or different this way.

Why is this important for today’s athlete?

It’s no secret that athletes need to grow. Their physical and sport-specific skillsets need to improve along with their mental tenacity and emotional resilience. The athlete’s that plateau, no matter how physically talented, inevitably get passed. Athletes grow in the Learning Zone.

As mentioned previously, most of the environments we spend time in are too high-staked, Performance Zone oriented. Athletics are no different. There is certainly a time for high-stakes competition in athletics. But it’s the time spent outside of direct competition that needs to be a place that fosters learning, mistakes, and growth.

Many young athletes today, and even many of the older ones, have become too accustomed to this instant-gratification culture in which we live. The mindset of being able to gain everything immediately has consequences when it comes to athletic development. There is no time for mistakes with this mindset. There is no time to develop novice skills, just the fixed mindset that we either have the ability or we don’t. Learning has taken a back seat. The expectation is to be perfect or to have mastered a skillset in a very short amount of time. Even lower-stake, practice environments are confused for competitive, execution-based sessions. With all of our skills and practices quantitatively measured today, it is easy to forget the importance of making mistakes and pushing oneself outside of our comfort zone in order to learn.

Much of this mindset can be attributed towards watching and emulating what professional athletes do on the playing field. Most young athletes forget that the tv stations only broadcast competitions and games which are exclusively examples of athletes in the Performance Zone. The flawless execution displayed by these athletes came from countless hours of deliberate practice and the overcoming of trials and tribulations. None of this behind-the-scenes, Learning Zone work is shown though, easily creating a myth that athletics is all about the Performance Zone when in reality, the best athletes spend much more time in the Learning Zone than the Performance Zone.

Athletes who don’t understand the differences between these two zones usually don’t spend enough time in one zone over the other. When this happens, they fail to become successful competitive athletes. There needs to be a balance and a shift between the two zones to obtain consistent, long-term growth. Consider how you prepare for work, athletics, or school. Do you allow yourself time in the Learning Zone to make mistakes and try new things? If not, consider how this might help you improve your skills. Do you spend all of your time in the Learning Zone, never testing the skills you have been working on? If so, think about how much feedback you aren’t getting from testing your skillset in a high-stake situation. Find this balance, and when it’s time to be in the Performance Zone, you’ll be ready to execute with minimal mistakes in high pressure situations with confidence.

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