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Even Without A Talent Infusion, The Dallas Cowboys Defense Should Continue To Improve

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A look at "The Zone of Proximal Development" and how that affects player acquisition and coaching.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the first articles I wrote as a front-page writer was a look at the educational theories of Jean Piaget, and what those ideas meant in regards to learning a new defensive scheme. I think that's an underrated part of football. We get so caught up in the idea of coaches as masters of x's and o's that we forget the primary aspect of coaching is teaching. So with that in mind I want to look at another basic teaching concept and see how it relates to the Dallas Cowboys. Today we're going to look at the ideas of Semyonovich Vygotsky and why coaches want to bring in "their guys".

Internalization: While not a central idea of Vygotsky's, internalization is extremely relevant to coaching football. It refers to the "inner monologue" a learner uses when completing a task. Think of a child learning his ABC's. If you ask a child just learning his alphabet to put something in alphabetical order, he might sing the ABC's out loud each time he is sorting an item. Over time the child can stop singing the alphabet out loud, and just sing it in his head. Eventually the child will be able to stop "singing" the alphabet completely and "just know" that M comes after G. At this point the knowledge has become fossilized or second nature.

What does that have to do with football? Well, everything really. Take a linebacker reading his keys. If he is just learning the keys he might actually be muttering them to himself before the snap. As he begins to memorize them, he can start reciting them internally to himself. Eventually the keys are fossilized and he doesn't have to verbalize them externally or internally. Now who is going to react faster? The player who has internalized his keys, or the player who has to think about them? In a game where you might only have seconds to process information before the snap, internalization is extremely important.

Learning Is A Social Skill

In "Human Development in Education" the authors refer to Vygotsky's ideas as a "theory of socio-cultural" development.  That is because one of the central tenants of Vygotsky's work is the idea that most learning takes place at a social level, and that what we learn is is largely derived from the culture around us. This is actually something we see in football all the time. For years Virginia Tech was one of the best "special teams" teams in the nation. Was that a fluke? No, it was because the culture at Virginia Tech put an emphasis on learning special teams. Is it really a coincidence that Dallas wide receivers are so good when Tony Romo starts to scramble? It is to the national media, but I can promise you it's not to the coaches. That is a developed skill, because for years it has been part of the culture of Dallas football.

But these cultural skills can't just be introduced from the top down and expected to take hold. They have to be constantly reinforced through daily social interactions and communication. That's one reason coaches want to bring in "their guys". When Bill Parcells was remaking the Cowboys players like Jason Ferguson and Dan Campbell weren't brought in as a talent upgrade. They were brought in to help change the team towards the new culture Parcells wanted to install. That's why the RKG mantra is so important. It's not just about bringing in the talent. It's about creating a culture that will enable that talent to learn and grow.

The Importance of Language

Language is one of the most powerful educational tools we have according to Vygotsky. There are two primary reasons for this. First, language is the tool that a culture uses to pass down what is important, (we'll talk about that in a bit). Secondly, language is how we actually interact and describe the world around us.

Here at Blogging The Boys we've talked about the importance of language at length, especially as it relates to calling plays, (recall all the talk about moving to the Erhardt-Perkins system). We constantly hear young quarterbacks talk about how the hardest thing they have to learn is calling plays in the huddle. It's a coaching conundrum; how do you efficiently communicate a lengthy multi-variable piece of information in a clear and concise manner?

That's not the only place language can have an effect on the football field. Think of a rookie safety for the Cowboys. For years that player has been trained that a free safety has certain responsibilities, strong safety has another set of responsibilities. When x happens a free safety responds in one way, a strong safety responds in another. That player has internalized that information, it is now second nature. Until he gets to Dallas, where we use different terminology and have effectively flipped what it means to be a free and strong safety. All that information has to be unlearned and replaced. Or take a defensive system where a mid-drop is five yards. A player has internalized that information, then moves to another system, where a mid-drop is 10 yards. Same words, different language. How many mistakes is that player going to make, dropping to the wrong depth?

As stated earlier the language used on the football field isn't just for technical information, it also helps establish a culture. Successful coaches will constantly use the same word or phrases over and over again. In politics it's called staying on message. We saw it this year with the word "Fight". Even today we still talk about Parcellisms. Effective language use is a powerful coaching tool.

Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky's biggest contribution to educational psychology is the idea of the zone of proximal development, or ZPD, which is the difference between a learners actual level of development, and the learners potential development level. To advance from the actual level to the potential level the learner is assisted by more capable peers. A learner travels through different phases as he advances from one stage to the next. He begins at his actual development level. He begins to travel through the next level with support from more capable peers. As his development increases he moves to self-assistance, until he has finally reached his next higher level.

An example is in order. I am learning to tie my shoes and start at the lowest level. I don't know how. So my father comes and helps me, showing me the steps through song. For a while whenever I want to tie my shoes I go to my dad for help. Eventually I can do it on my own, but only by singing the song. Eventually I have mastered the skill, and no longer need any assistance, (goes back to the idea of internalization earlier!). I have reached the next level. Now my dad wants to teach me a sailors knot; the whole process starts over.

This is the heart of coaching. A more capable other, (the coach), guides a player through a process until the player has it mastered. But it also showed why our defense suffered so much in the switchover between Rob Ryan and Monte Kiffin.

Whenever Rabble posted his thoughts from camp one thing that stood out was the fact that Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack were out on the field, getting down into stances, actually demonstrating what they wanted done. Football is both a physical and mental activity, and as such it has to be both physically and mentally taught. Using the ZPD, Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack were the more capable other helping the offensive line from one zone to the next. That didn't happen on the defensive side. Monte Kiffin is a great coach, but he was also in his early 70's. He could instill his culture, he could teach the language he used, he could teach the keys. But Monte Kiffin could not teach the physical aspects of his defense. He couldn't demonstrate to linebackers how to turn their hips during drops. He couldn't physically demonstrate stunts for the defensive linemen. I'm sure there were younger coaches on staff who could demonstrate those things, but did they mentally know Kiffin's scheme? That was a huge problem for our defense in 2013, we had no fully qualified more capable other. Kiffin could teach the mental part, younger coaches could teach the physical part, but there was no single person who could do both.

Earlier I mentioned that instilling culture was one reason why players like Jason Ferguson and Dan Campbell were on those early 2000's teams. But this is the other reason. Coaches need players on the team who know the system, who can help teach those younger players. Putting all of Vygotsky's ideas together, we see that learning is a social endeavor. Learners need a culture in place that enables them to learn. They need people who "speak their language" to be able to impart ideas. And they need people who are physically able to demonstrate and put those ideas into practice.

What's It All Mean: I always chuckle when I see pundits write that the only way team x or y will get better is with an immediate talent infusion, especially if team x or y has just seen a massive coaching change. We saw that this year with the Cowboys. Pundits were talking about "worst defense in history" so much it just kind of became accepted knowledge. But the truth was, the talent in 2013 wasn't at bad as it appeared. Most of the players were to assimilate and accommodate new vocabulary and defensive ideas. And not just the players, the assistant coaches were in the same boat, which slowed the learning curve even further.

Going into 2015 the team is going to be much more stable. Not only do I expect younger players like Tyrone Crawford and Barry Church to continue to improve, we will also be able to see quicker improvement from new players. Both coaches and veterans should now be comfortable enough in the system to fully create that societal learning environment for new players. We saw that some this year with Anthony Hitchens. Yes, the defense needs some new talent. But expect at least one more small leap forward in defense regardless, as the team as a whole moves from one zone of proximal development to the next in 2015.