There’s 20 minutes left on the clock, things are going well for your team. Everyone on the field looks like they know what they’re doing. Players are moving flawlessly between locations on the field at just the right time. Something seems off though and you can’t quite put your finger on it. So, you turn to your assistant and ask “Are they in the zone?”

How can you identify if they’re in the zone? What are the key indicators of it? What kind of zone is this post even talking about? Is it a 3-3, a backer, or some strange hybrid you’ve never seen before?

The answer is……none of the above. We’re talking about practice. Practice, yes practice. The zone I’m talking about is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

The ZPD is the most important zone in the development of ALL lacrosse athletes. It doesn’t matter if they’re at their first ever lacrosse practice or multi-time All-American players. If we don’t get them into the zone we are failing as coaches. When, and only when players are in the ZPD are they truly learning and developing into better players.

Image adapted from -

Lev Vygotsky, the renowned Soviet psychologist is the original pioneer of this learning concept. During the mid to latter part of last century it resurfaced under other terms such as scaffolding, wherein children are given a problem, then are provided support at varying points to help them solve the problem. This is much like what sports and physical education call Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFU). In TGFU, we give the athletes a problem, set them off to solve it, and provide guidance as they try and solve it, but never explicitly give the solution. As we know, in sports there is almost never a single solution to a problem.

So, let’s get away from the geek talk for a minute and give a real-life application for getting our players into the ZPD:

Problem: Defending the goal in transition with 1 less player than the attacking team.

Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFU): 4v3 Bucket Ball

Coaching Cues/Questions: 

  • Pre-game:
    • Get with your teammates and discuss a strategy for keeping the attacking team from scoring.
  • In-Game:
    • How are they scoring?
    • What adjustment can you make?
    • Have you tried (insert a strategy)?
    • Rotate into the pass.
    • Sticks up in passing lanes.
  • Post-Game:
    • What worked well for your team?
    • Why did it work?
    • How can you apply this strategy to other situations?
    • Did you try (insert strategy)?
  • Overtime (if needed)
    • Let’s try it again and I want you to try (insert strategy).

The key to the ZPD is in knowing who your athletes are, what level of skill they possess, what they are capable of, and guiding them to reach greater skill levels. If they are pushed too far to the right, no amount of guidance, not even explicit instructions will help them be successful. Frustration for athletes and parents will be readily apparent. Likewise, if they are too far to the left of the ZPD they will not be challenged, they will disengage from practice and before too long others will begin to surpass them.

If you want to develop performers, sometimes you just have to go with the zone!

T.J. Buchanan is technical director for athlete development at US Lacrosse.